Lee Trevino: A joke-telling champion golfer
By Joe Olvera ©, 2011
One of the greatest thrills of my life was watching Hall of Fame golfer Lee Trevino win the 1971 British Open, also known as The Open Championship. I was a student at Columbia University in New York City, learning to be a t.v. reporter, when the great event happened. A bunch of us were in the t.v. room at Plimpton Hall, but, at the end, I was the only one standing. I had to follow Lee no matter what. The others, not being from El Paso, had left me to my musings, but my cheers reverberated through the hallowed halls when Lee sewed it up. Not only did Lee win The Open, but, he also won the U.S. Open and the Canadian Open to become the first player to win all three majors the same year. Later that year, he was named the PGA Player of the Year.
It was a kick watching Lee win championship after championship. His three major wins in 1971 were matched only by Tiger Woods albeit much later. Although Trevino was not born in El Paso, he adopted the city as his own, while El Paso greatly embraced the pudgy golfer as a favorite son. He was so popular that a major thoroughfare was named after him on August 4, 1971 – namely, Lee Trevino Drive. The naming of the avenue was coupled with the city proclaiming Lee Trevino Day, a celebration viewed by thousands of El Pasoans.
Trevino, who will be 72 years old on Dec. 1, 2011, was born in Dallas, Texas into a family so poor that he said about his family’s poverty: “We were so poor, when somebody threw our dog a bone, he had to call for a fair catch.” His mother, Juanita Trevino, his grave-digging grandfather, Joseph Trevino, and two sisters lived in a house in North Dallas that had no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Ever the loquacious golfer, Trevino never stopped talking once he got on a golf course. He joked so much that pundits and sports writers dubbed him The Merry Mex. His joke-telling was legendary, and served to make him self-confident about his abilities.
He once said about his humorous vein: “I played the tour in 1967 and told jokes and nobody laughed. Then I won the U.S. Open the next year, told the same jokes, and everybody laughed like hell.” He also said about his married life: “I’ve been hit by lightning (in 1975) and been in the Marine Corps for four years. I’ve traveled the world and been about everywhere you can imagine. There’s not anything I’m scared of except my wife.”
Trevino was introduced to golf when an uncle gave him a few golf balls and a battered club. With the magnificent gift, Trevino felt like he had found his life’s calling. He spent his free time sneaking into country clubs to practice, and began to caddy at the Dallas Athletic Club. No stranger to hard work – Trevino had picked cotton at the age of 5 – his constant practice made him a man to reckon with. He earned $30 a week as a caddy, but, he became so proficient that he could beat men much older than he. One of Lee’s fabled stories is that he could out-distance even professional golfers by using a taped-up big bottle of Dr. Pepper. As a golf pro at Horizon Country Club, Trevino once beat the legendary Ray Floyd over a period of three gigantic games – coming out ahead two out of three. That’s when Lee and his supporters knew he was ready for the PGA Tour.
In his first U.S. Open, Trevino went up against fabled golfer Jack Nicklaus, but came up short in fifth place. In his second turn at the United States Championship, Lee won it all. The golfing world sat up and took notice that here was a man who didn’t look as if he exercised at all, but, his drives were so accurate that he managed 29 wins on the tour, including his six major championships: The U.S. Open twice (1968-1971); The Open Championship twice (1971-1972, and the PGA Championship twice (1974-1984). Some of his many honors include the Vardon Trop[hy, the Byron Nelson Award, the Jack Nicklaus Trophy, the Arnold Palmer Award, the Byron Nelson Award, Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1971, and the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 1971.He also won 29 times on the Senior Tour when he became eligible at age 50. He was named Rookie of the Year twice, on the regular tour in 1967 and again in 1990 on the Senior Tour.
Ever the jokester, Trevino got off some zingers”
*If you are caught on a golf course during a storm and are afraid of lightning, hold up a 1-iron. Not even god can hit a 1-iron.
*You can talk to a fade, but, a hook won’t listen.
*My wife doesn’t care what I do when I’m away, as long as I don’t have a good time.
*The older I get the better I used to be.
*I’m in the woods so much I can tell you which plants are edible.
Trevino never forgot his roots, having established numerous scholarships and other financial aid to Mexican Americans. An inspiration to young Mexican Americans, Lee said about his success: “I showed that a guy from across the tracks, a minority kid with no education, from a very poor background can make it.”