What happened here today may have been the second coming of Bruce Lietzke, the pro from Shangri-La.
As Lietzke stepped to the first tee of Doral's Blue Monster on this Friday the 13th, he was "full of foreboding . . . almost haunted."
Lietzke's sense of deja vu was overpowering. His career had been at this same juncture before. As Lietzke could hardly forget, it took four years to undo the damage of that trauma.
In the spring of 1977, Lietzke was golf's hottest property. The 6-foot-2, 185-pounder with the crunching upright swing, the towering iron shots and the weird crosshanded putting stroke, began his season with 21 consecutive rounds of par or better golf. Counting five rounds to end '76, the streak was 26.
The tour was agog. Lietzke, 25, had won the Tucson and Hawaiian Opens. "Everybody told me I was a superstar," recalls Lietzke. "That's all I heard . . . superstar . . . superstar. You start believin' it. Boy, is that a mistake."
The reality returned here in the first round of the Doral Open. Lietzke shot 73. The streak was dead, and so was Lietzke's reign. "The rest of the year, I ranged from mediocre to very poor. I was much too hard on myself.I thought I should be as good as people said I already was," recalls Leitzke, who rode his early success to $202,156 and fifth spot on the money list. "I didn't really know my swing very well then. I was just half in a trance. I never had to practice, 'cause I never had a flaw. I was beltin' the driver further than I knew how, hitting 17 greens a round and making every putt."
That wasn't golf; it was Shangri-La. Which made a catchy headline, since back home in Afton, Okla., Lietzke was the touring pro from Shangri-La Resort.
One day, Lietzke had everything -- Weiskopf's swing and Nicklaus' future; he was the handsome kid with the Panhandle accent who loved to fish and drag race. The next day, he was back among the dozen perrenial hopefuls with the near-miss, not-tough-enough mentality.
For three season, Lietzke labored at his game, finishing 18th, eighth and 16th in money, but winning just one PGA event per year. He never got a whiff of the lead in a major tournament. Where was the man who had scalded golf?
"I was beginning to have doubt," he says. "Could I win when I wasn't at my absolute peak? Could I be consistent? Could I struggle and still score?"
"The big thing to have on tour is one teacher you trust, because there are so many teachers out here. Some tell you to pull your right foot back or pick your left foot up or tilt your shoulder. Get on the tee and it looks like you're doing a square dance out there," Lietzke says. When in doubt, he always headed to Shangri-La and his older brother Duane, a club pro.
"Last year, I went sour for a month, hittin' it every way but straight. The night of the Leonard-Duran fight I was at the Canadian Open in Montreal, and I had tickets, but I gave 'em away. I flew home to Oklahoma. We went to the range, and I hit three shots with a wedge. Duane said, 'Stop.' He moved the ball a couple of inches in my stance, and walked away. That was it. I hit every ball in the bag dead straight. It took him two, maybe three minutes."
This spring, the Lietzke of legend reappeared. He won the Desert Classic, opening with a 65, at one point shooting eagle-birdie-eagle. He finished 25 under par. At San Diego, he came from three strokes behind on the last day to win his second event in four outings. At the Hawaiian Open, he had three eagles in a round. In Los Angeles, he had the lowest nine-hole of the year, 30.
When the calculators stopped buzzing, Lietzke had 22 consecutive rounds of par or better, won $121,157 and had the lowest Vardon Trophy rating (68.64). He'd returned to precisely the spot he'd reached four years before.
On Thursday at Doral on the 18th, facing a 40-foot putt, Lietzke thought, "If this somehow goes in, I'll shoot 73 again, the same score on the same day in the same tournament that broke my other streak."
The putt fell. "That's when I got hounted," said Lietzke. "It stayed with me all night. I believe I'm a better player now than in '77. The same thing won't happen to me. This year I haven't been in any trance. I've won without being at my peak. Each week, I've had some rusty bolts in my swing that had to be worked oiut. I'm much prouder of this year's streak." m
For Lietzke, today was a symbolic test. "I've taken two weeks off. My game isn't sharp," he said. "Can I fight my way around and shoot a good score?"
Today's round was hardly the barometer of a career. But it left Lietzke beaming. He tied the day's best score with a 66, and trailed coleaders Ray Floyd and Lanny Wadkins by five strokes going into the weekend's final two rounds.
Lietzke's 66 was a gutty, ugly 66. When he was in trouble, he cussed to himself, trying not to fall again into that pit of self-disgust, the give-up syndrome, which afflicts so many pros with picture swings.
So, Lietzke is on his way now, right?
By the way -- what'd you shoot in the second round at Doral in '77, Bruce?
Lietzke doesn't answer the first or second time. Finally, on the third go, he says, "Played real well . . . shot 68 . . . a lot like today."
He changes the subject. Perhaps a man who shoots 66 and beats a ghost on Friday the 13th is entitled not to face too much reality.