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The Ballad of Lee Buck Trevino, Golf Legend

Trevino won his final of six major tournaments 35 years ago Monday. His legacy is long on the course, but it’s especially long off of it, and his friends and former competitors all have tall tales to share about the man they call “Super Mex.”

Jaya Nicely

Once there was a small man of Mexican heritage with a strange, self-taught swing who emerged from abject poverty to electrify the golf world. He grew up caddying on the windswept courses of Dallas’s déclassé side, learning the sport from a rogues’ gallery of reprobates and hustlers. Unlike most professional golfers, he had no formal training, just swagger, self-belief, and innate ability. It wasn’t much. But as it transpires, it was more than enough.

Lee Trevino, who’s approaching his 80th birthday, has lived a life straight out of the country and western ballads he used to sing along to with his old friend Charley Pride. The six-time major champion’s swashbuckling style and magnanimous temperament has engendered more good will across a broader spectrum of people than perhaps any other player in the history of the game. He won his first major championship at the U.S. Open at Oak Hill in 1968, in just his second season on Tour, and his last at the 1984 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek, 35 years ago today. To celebrate that anniversary, we—with an assist from Trevino’s longtime friends, past competitors, and current touring pros—give you this collection of tributes and tall tales, all concerning the most entertaining and unlikely legend the sport has ever known.

“A Hell of a Penalty for Slow Play”

Tom Watson wasn’t on the course when bad weather hit the 1975 Western Open in Oak Brook, Illinois, but he remembers the storm vividly. “I’ve been around a lot of thunderstorms, and I have never witnessed a more violent one in my life,” Watson said during a phone conversation last week. “There was a lightning bolt every five seconds. It was just as violent as you could ever see. And I remember thinking, ‘Are these guys gonna be OK out on the golf course?’”

Trevino recollects that fateful afternoon a little differently in his 1982 memoir, They Call Me Super Mex: “The rain didn’t look like it would last that long, so [my playing partner] Jerry Heard and I decided we’d relax on the 13th green and have a little picnic. I sent my caddy for soft drinks and hot dogs and we sat on the edge of the green by the lake, me leaning up against my bag and Jerry beside me with his umbrella between his legs.”

Trevino was 36 years old at the time, already a five-time major champion, and he’d never had much use for caution. In this instance, however, he could have used some. A lightning strike skipped off the lake, carried through his metal clubs and directly up his spine. He was knocked out immediately, and when he came to, Trevino had no feeling in his left side. He was gasping for air and his back was covered with burns. By the time he reached the emergency room, the situation seemed dire enough that he requested to speak to his wife, Claudia, over the phone, just in case goodbyes were in order. She asked him in a shaky voice: “How do you feel?” Struggling to draw a breath, the 5-foot-7 Trevino responded: “Sensational. For the first time in my life I was 6-foot-2.”

That’s one of the many harrowing stories Trevino tells about his life, and just about every individual who has played on the PGA Tour at any time over the past five decades has a memorable story about him, too. All you have to do is ask.

Bernhard Langer, the two-time Masters champion, recalls a yarn he heard about Trevino’s early, pre-tour days in the 1960s when he made his living as a sharpie working the Texas gambling circuit. “In the old days the guys didn’t make a lot of money,” Langer said. “There wasn’t much money in tournaments, and there weren’t many tournaments. Raymond Floyd was one of the best players around at the time and he would travel around when there was no tournament and look for money games at some of the clubs.”

Lee Trevino and Gary Player pose for a selfie
Photo courtesy Gary Player

One day, Floyd, who would go on to win four major championships and have a Hall of Fame career, received an odd overture to play for significant cash down in El Paso.

“Raymond Floyd drove up with his Cadillac or his limousine, or whatever,” Langer said. “So Raymond gets out of the car and Lee Trevino was the bag boy, and he says, ‘Welcome, Mr. Floyd, let me get your bag for you, and what else can I do for you?’ And Raymond Floyd says, ‘Well, young man, who am I playing against today? Do you know anything about him?’ And [Trevino] says, ‘Well, that would be me, sir.’ And so Floyd looks and says, ‘What? I’m playing against a bag boy?’ And Lee says, ‘Yes, sir, and I’ll see you on the first tee in a little bit.’”

The obvious postscript to the story—the one in which an irate Floyd leaves the premises with his wallet considerably lighter and his mood commensurately darkened—is less crucial than the irrepressible levity with which Langer, the typically stoic and reserved German, relays it. Trevino was put on this earth to stand up for the little man—and make you laugh in the process.

“I Represent the Public Golf Courses, the Working Man, the Blue Collar Worker”

The paradox with Trevino is that, for a figure as universally celebrated and handsomely embroidered into the fabric of golf history, it is impossible to discuss his career without recognizing his status as a consummate outsider.

Golf, with its oversimplified but very real associations to privilege and power, possesses a shadow history as illicit and perverse as high-stakes poker. Before it was the province of manicured private hideaways and nine-figure TV deals, golf was a workingman’s game that often exerted pressures on its practitioners far beyond just winning. In his pre-tour days, Trevino would frequently compete against well-known gamblers with underworld connections. He assumed they were armed, and indeed robberies were not uncommon to see on the courses he played. At an El Paso track called Tenison, gamblers in money games would often jump ahead of recreational golfers on the course. The weekend hackers were in no position to stop them. “No telling how much artillery they had under their jackets or in their socks and golf bags,” Trevino wrote in his memoir.

Tom Watson said, “He always told me, ‘You learn how to play under pressure when you’ve got five dollars in your pocket and you’re playing for 10.’ And he played a lot of betting games, and he loved to bet. He loved to play for money, and that steeled him.” In modern days, Phil Mickelson has taken over the mantle as the tour’s most entertaining problem gambler, but there still isn’t a trick he couldn’t have learned from a young Trevino.

Ratifying Watson’s opinion is 2010 U.S. Open Champion Graeme McDowell: “Twenty-dollar bets with two bucks in the pocket. He was the smiling assassin. The snake on the first tee at Merion with Nicklaus. There’s really just not a lot of people like him.”

Lee Trevino and Gary Player
Gallo Images

Trevino essentially became the connective tissue between the sport’s endlessly lucrative, buttoned-up, tech-forward present and its not-so-distant noirish past. But there were also moments when the golfer’s working-class roots caused him to bristle against the establishment.

In the early years of his career, Trevino engaged in a long and contentious feud with the Masters, Augusta National, and the club’s cofounder and chairman, Clifford Roberts. Trevino routinely refused invitations to arguably the most prestigious event in golf because Augusta National’s rules at the time blocked his friend, Charlie Sifford, the finest African American golfer of his generation, from competing. Trevino played there eventually but never seemed comfortable being on or around the course. Short rough and a layout that didn’t reward his patented fade were not a good fit for his game, and neither was Augusta’s haughty air of pretension. He once joked that if he hadn’t qualified as a player, the only way they would have let him onto the grounds was through the kitchen. It was the one major he never won.

According to longtime friend Gary Player, whose South African heritage marked him as a fellow interloper, being an outsider had its advantages: “We saw things differently. We were fighting to feed our families. Certainly no private jets. Just playing in America we would finish a tournament, rent a car, and drive a long, long way to be at the next course for our practice round. It was a challenge. But I am grateful for our struggles and delighted at what the young pros have today.”

It’s fair to assume that Trevino is also delighted at what the young pros have today. But he never fully lost the feral feeling of those heady pioneer times.

“All You Gotta Do Is Listen”

“Trevino was and is a chatterbox,” Player said. “Some players like Ben Hogan would not say a word to you during a round. Sam Snead wouldn’t look at you swing. You do what helps to focus, to relax, and in Lee’s case it’s talking—a lot.”

A refugee from the public links, Trevino never cared to bend the knee to golf’s rarefied air and rules of comportment. He talked constantly on the course. He kissed his putter when it acceded to his wishes. After a great shot he would waggle his club like a magic wand. It wasn’t done out of disrespect. It was just so exciting to be great.

Not everyone took it that way, though. Langer remembers an incident in the 1972 World Match Play tournament when Trevino’s playing partner prevailed upon him to button his lip: “It was one of the richest events at the time. Tony Jacklin, the best British golfer, had just won the British Open and the U.S. Open within a year or so. And it was at Wentworth, his home golf course, in his home country. He and Trevino were playing head-to-head for the championship on Sunday. Tony was walking to the first tee and Lee was waiting for him and they shook hands and said good luck, and Tony said to Lee, ‘Listen, Lee, this is an important day for me. I’m playing in front of my home fans in my home country. This is a big tournament, so I’m not gonna be talking a lot, not saying a lot, I’m gonna just focus on my game.’ And Lee looked at Tony and said, ‘That’s quite all right, Tony. All you gotta do is listen.’”

Trevino’s irreverence on the course and off made him a natural fit for a cameo in the deeply silly but oddly reverential 1996 Adam Sandler golf vehicle Happy Gilmore. Sandler’s larger-than-life renegade who throws the tour into chaos by virtue of his unorthodox methods is something like an exaggerated version of Trevino’s own trajectory.

Trevino was known for poking as much fun at others as he did at himself, which is part of why he became so beloved. “You don’t see that today,” Watson said. “There just aren’t that many players that do it.” But while that attitude endeared him to many of his former competitors, they also agree that much of Trevino’s comportment, both on and off the course—where his penchant for partying was conspicuous—wouldn’t fly in the context of the modern PGA Tour.

“He probably would have been reprimanded by someone,” Player chuckled. “A lot of players in my prime may have gotten themselves in all kinds of trouble. Definitely Arnold Palmer. We at least were fortunate to have some sense of privacy before all of this technology took over people’s lives.”

In the next breath, though, Player pointed out the obvious irony: “He would have been one of the best follows on social media! A fiery, opinionated Mexican dominating golf—the world was enthralled with him. I can only imagine how popular he’d be today.”

“I Learned Courage From My Grandfather Digging Graves at Night”

You know how a lot of celebrity memoirs dwell on the subject’s pre-fame days and childhood reminiscences to the point of tedium? Trevino’s autobiography is not like that. And not because he doesn’t discuss his childhood—he does at length. But because his childhood is fascinating. If Trevino were to pick up his golf bag and walk directly into the pages of a Mark Twain novel, it would make perfect sense.

Trevino was born in 1939. In his early years he was raised by his mother and grandfather in a four-room shack in North Dallas. They lacked indoor plumbing and running water. Trevino never knew his father, but he doesn’t sweat it overly much: “It’s not a sensitive subject,” he wrote. “Everybody knows. Reality is reality.”

He was rambunctious but sweet. Close to his grandfather, a ditch digger whom he idolized and eventually assisted on late-night assignments in the cemetery. That was scary to a 6-year-old at first, but the experience helped make him fearless. The original Dallas Athletic Club was located right in his backyard, and he spent afternoons watching the golfers amble by, alternatively ebullient or cursing the heavens, and wondering what the soap opera was all about. Eventually he’d find lost balls and sell them back for 10 cents a pop.

School didn’t hold his attention—he dropped out at 14—but golf did. He happily dedicated his days to working as a caddy and a course attendant at DAC. His fellow caddies provided an alternative sort of education. They were older city kids who shot dice and carried knives and fought frequently. He fit in just fine. Mostly he grinded on his golf. By acclamation, no player of renown has ever practiced harder.

Current PGA star Rickie Fowler says, “You look at his swing and how he went about things. Pretty, pretty old school. His legacy is that he basically came from nothing and learned how to actually dig it out of the dirt and just find his way around the golf course.”

Many years later, the hard-raised son of an illiterate mother and a father he never knew would swing his way from society’s lowest rungs to the heights of the PGA Tour—although Trevino himself has always been reluctant to lend too much significance to his journey. “Whatever happens is meant to happen,” he wrote in his memoir. “Unless you walk down the middle of the freeway and wait to get hit by a truck.”

“We Had Lots of Fun and Lots of Friends in El Paso”

Trevino’s story is about a lot of things: the collision of pre-modern technology and postmodern brand management; the growth of a sport that began as a backwater amusement and evolved into a signifier of upper-tier status. But inevitably one of the crucial themes of his story is social mobility. His default setting has always been to diffuse the pain of the discrimination and poverty he faced early in his life with humor and hard work, but that doesn’t mean the pain wasn’t there. Trevino’s capacity to integrate the self-made ethos of his early struggles with a notoriety that would cause him to rub shoulders with superstar celebrities and influential politicians is nearly as remarkable as his accomplishments on the course. The psychological whiplash must have been nearly as powerful as that lightning strike in 1975. Even as his fame grew, rejection was common. Even after achieving fame, Trevino preferred to stay in motels on the seedy side of town. That’s where he felt most welcome.

Although his Mexican heritage is inextricable from his brand identity—the “Super Mex” coinage was the inspiration of a friend, but he took to it with relish—his sense of American patriotism has always run deep. Trevino volunteered for the Marines and credits his experience in the service with forging his mettle as both a man and a golfer—representing the corps in competitions overseas was his first exposure to competitive tournament golf. Harry Truman was his hero, and he’s formed friendships with past presidents. “I remember one time we were playing together down in Palm Springs,” Watson said, “and it came to my attention that he had played with President Reagan. I said, ‘God, I’d love to have a chance to play with the president!’ Not two days later, I got a call: ‘Watson, we’ve got a game!’ I said: ‘What do you mean we’ve got a game?’ He said: ‘We’re going to play with the president!’ And I said: ‘How did you get this done?’ And Lee said: ‘I called up my friend Bob Hope and he arranged for it.’”

Toward the end of his autobiography, Trevino tells one more story about being an individual literally and figuratively from more than one place. It’s the summer of 1971, and the city of El Paso has declared it Lee Trevino Day in honor of the city’s most decorated transplant resident. “It was a wonderful time, actually a celebration of two cities,” Trevino wrote. “It started with a morning parade through El Paso, which moved across to Juarez. We stopped at the Palacio Municipal, the City Hall, and drank champagne with the mayor, who said some nice things in Spanish. That night they gave me my own street. Yeah, they named one of El Paso’s major thoroughfares in my honor. ‘I really appreciate Lee Trevino Drive,’ I said. ‘It’s the only street in El Paso I can spell!’”

So goes the ballad of Lee Trevino, an American hero of Mexican descent with a four-lane highway connecting disparate, symbiotic cultures and the poorest of the poor to the corridors of power. All it took was a surprising skill set, a boundless determination, and most importantly, an opportunity. That’s a story worth hearing now more than ever. All you gotta do is listen.

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.

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