Ten years ago this month when he threw a rubber snake at Jack Nicklaus on the practice tee, then beat him in a playoff at Merion to win his second U.S. Open, Lee Trevino became famous.
Famous, yes; known, no.
Now, as he returns to Philadelphia and another Merion U.S. Open Thursday, many in golf, including Trevino himself, say that he barely became known at all.
In June 1971, there on the Main Line, Trevino became bona fide -- two Opens are considered proof of golf bloodiness. That thunderclap of success brought Trevino into the glare of publicity. Every corner of his Dickensian life was lit. His early sufferings were considered uplifting, amusing, heroic. Quickly, the myth of the funny man was profitably in place. Once Trevino was a public personality, anything at odds with that role was left in shadow.
Only with the years have the other parts of Trevino slowly come to light, giving balance and humanity to what we knew and appreciated all along.
Still, Trevino may be the least-fathomed superstar in golf.
As a melodramatic example, it's been a tour whisper for years that when Trevino began his comeback in '78 after being struck by lightening and undergoing major back surgery for a ruptured disc, the second-leading money winner in golf history was almost broke.
"I didn't want to make a comeback; I had to make one," says Trevino now. "It got to a point where I was scared that everything I'd worked for would be gone. I'd invested badly. . . I had almost everything tied up in one (failed) project and, until I got out of it, it was draining everything. I still had our $300,000 home, but it had $140,000 mortgage. I had eight (antique) cars, but that doesn't amount to too much. And I had one piece of commercial property all paid for that was worth maybe $250,000.
"Other than that, all I had was the rainbow."
"Sure, you know, the pot of gold that's buried under the end of the rainbow. I've always believed in that. But I had to get my old tools out and dig for it again."
It's hard to find any aspect of Trevino that is not either completely misunderstood, or, at best, half understood. Trevino needs to be read like some of the late works of Mark Twain -- with trepidation, lest we find that the joke is on ourselves.
"People think Trevino's loosey goosey," says Dale Antrum, the PGA tour's public relations director. "In fact, he's tight as a drum. They think he's relaxed. Really, he's so intense he has to talk and joke constantly to relieve the tension. The reason he plays so fast is because he has to. Trevino goes absolutely nuts if play is slow. It can destroy his game and other players know it."
Says Trevino, "There ain't nothin' relaxed about me on a golf course. I'm very tightly wound. All that jabbering is a pressure valve. I couldn't do without it. The competitor inside you knows what has to be done.
"If the game doesn't eat you up inside, you can't possibly be a great player," says Trevino. "I still get mad, but not nearly like I once did. In the last 10 years, that's probably the biggest improvement in my game."
Fans think Trevino is naturally gregarious. "Once he steps off the course, he's one of the least-sociable, least-outgoing guys on the tour," says Antrum. "He never, and I mean never, eats outside his room. He's the all-time loner when it comes to fraternizing with other players off the golf course."
Trevino, taking pleasure in being found out, says, "I can count on one finger the guys out here that I've had dinner with in 13 years. I never spend any time with golfers away from the course. I don't want to hear, 'At seven, I hit it over the green. . .' After 6 p.m., I charge caddy fees to listen. . .
"In a way, my personality is like (Muhammad) Ali's. In front of a camera or a group, he's loud. But if you catch him alone in a room, it's very difficult to hear a word he says. That's me . . . a completely different person off the course. Neither's an act. They're both real. . . People think I talk in my sleep. I get'em to think that. I like to give people what they want."
"The public has idolized and loved two players in recent times -- (Arnold) Palmer and Trevino," says Antrum. "While Palmer really needs the galleries and appreciates their affection, I've often wondered just how high an opinion Lee has of the public."
Even in the arcane technical debates of golf theory, Trevino is mysterious.
"People think Lee's got a bad swing," says Antrum. "The truth is he might have the best swing. Some players call him the best shotmaker since Hogan. He is the only guy out here who has every shot and will play'em under pressure."
"Yes, I think I have the best swing on (the) tour," Trevino says. "Why have scores come down in the last 10 years? Partly because they're imitating me . . . open position, fade, lots of power and control from the right side. In the evolution of the game, who says they invented the swing right back then? Maybe it's supposed to be flat like mine. The best swing is the one that repeats. And that's what I have. . . Years ago, I had a one-iron that I could hit 260 yards through a doorway. Now, I can hit it through the keyhole."
Perhaps it is time, 10 years after the fact, to take a brief synoptic look at Trevino as though we'd never met him before, never taken him at quip value.
The bare bones of his life having a chilling quality; like a magic lantern, they throw fascinating, sometimes frightening skeletal shadows. That Trevino is as biting as he is facile, as philosophical as he is funny, should be no surprise. This is a man, totally a creature of his past, who has forgotten nothing, forgiven little, learned from everything and always looked for a way to reconcile a good heart with a smart percentage play.
Trevino never has known his father or wanted to. His mother was a maid and his maternal grandfather, who was all the father he had, was a hard-drinking, itinerant gravedigger. Trevino grew up in a rural maintenance shack near Dallas with no electricity or plumbing. It wasn't degradation, but it was poverty.
He dropped out of school in the eighth grade to earn money for the family. He took the closest laboring job at hand -- doing maintenance at the golf course yards from home. That is, when he wasn't a shoeshine boy. A solitary child, given to hunting rabbits or fishing alone, he joined the Marines as soon as he was old enough.
"I was a messed-up kid. I'd fall in love with a fence post. . . I had the feeling Dallas was the whole damn world and I was going to die without ever seeing anything else except another fairway to cut. So I went."
The corps taught him responsibility, pride, hard-drinking and carousing. In his first tour of duty, he mastered the machine gun, setting a speed and accuracy record that still stands. In his re-up tour, he mastered golf, turning a childhood hobby (he was a caddy) into a vocation. He left the marines in 1960 with one fixed idea: to become a pro golfer. For years, Trevino denied this seriousness of purpose, telling tales about simply being a public course hustler who played all comers with a 26-ounce Dr. Pepper bottle. Now, he admits, "From '60 to '67, I did nothing but play golf 15 hours a day. You don't start playing at 5 a.m. every morning and hit a thousand practice balls a day for seven years just to win some $2 bet."
However, while he found order on the course, Trevino found chaos off it. His first marriage ended, he says, because of his immaturity and drinking. His wife and son moved to Ohio. Within months, he had married a 17-year-old girl who was a ticket taker at the local movie house.
At every turn, his golf dreams were stymied. For four years, he worked at a rinky-dink par-3 course on the theory that it was a back door to getting a PGA tour card. Then, after those four years, the range owner -- the man Trevino considered a surrogate father -- refused to sign papers validating his term of indentured servitude.
It took three more years, until he was 27, for Trevino to make the tour. Then, he played the rube, making fun of his unorthodox swing, claiming it was all luck. Even after he won the '68 Open at Oak Hill, veteran Bob Goalby said, not critically, just analytically, "In 10 years, we'll be playing benefits for that guy." Now, Trevino says, "When I came out here, my game was ready. From the first year, I did nothing but win tournaments and money."
And, from that first year, Trevino kept close tabs on the past and present, keeping the two separate in his mind, not letting one change his memory of the other. "When you're successful, everybody wants a piece of you," said Trevino after that first Open. "I hadn't seen my sister in several years. Now, I'm the sweetest guy she's ever seen."
Trevino has never forgotten several personal slights at his first Masters; he has never set foot inside the Agusta National clubhouse, although he says, "Oh, I think I might of been in there once," and, for a decade, he changed his spikes in the parking lot like a public-course hacker to avoid entering the locker room. Now, he changes shoes at home. "They say we've already played on major tournament this year," said Trevino after this year's Masters, "but for me, the first major tournament will be the Open at Merion. I don't count the Masters."
His refusal to pity himself may be the hole card that Trevino has forced to play more than any other. His ill fortune everywhere but on a golf course has never changed and remains brutal to this day. His luck with a buck is so rotten that he's now working on his third fortune; he's lost two.
"Everything's okay now," says Trevino, who is in the midst of a large golf course-and-condominium deal in Titusville, Fla.
Nonetheless, Trevino and business seem to be a tragic mix. Three days before this year's Masters, the largest invester in their Titusville project died of a heart attack. A few days later, so did the project's general manager.
Let it be noted that Titusville is, nonetheless, working out well, according to Trevino. "I've learned what to do and what not to do in business. The hard way."
In a lifetime of hardships, Trevino has always maintained that one precept -- hard work -- would see him through, and the loss of that one insight would undo him. Trevino's grandfather, Joe, the gravedigger who could drink "from 9 in the morning until dark and still drive away," and who lived just long enough to see him win the Open, was a man of one maxim: "You want a life, you work for it."
"A few years ago, I got to the point where I forgot that," says Trevino. "I got it all too fast. Stardom, recognition, whatever. It went to my head. I was neglecting practice, making excuses, turning into a give-up artist. When I got hit by lightning (in 1975) and then had the back surgery (in 1976), it gave me almost a whole year to take a good look at myself. I realized that for years I'd felt myself floating away from hard work. I was getting away from the one thing I believe in.Pride in what you do well is what makes a man."
This, of course, is self-hypnosis -- a man talking himself into the test of a lifetime. At the age of 38, after falling to 33rd place on the money list, with a back so precariopus that he says, "If somebody don't lift the bag out of the car for me, I don't play," Trevino started to climb back to the summit.
In the morning, he hung upside down on a trapeze apparatus, then exercised for an hour to limber his back. More of the same at night. Between dawn and dusk, he followed the law he had laid down to young pros for years: "If the sun is up, why aren't you playing golf?"
Last season, at 40, Trevino won three tournaments and $385,814 -- more than $150,000 more than ever before. Just as important, he won the Vardon Trophy for lowest stroke average on tour, his fifth Vardon but his first since his salad days ('70, '71, '72, '74).
Trevino's feat lacked only one thing -- a centerpeice, a major championship victory to call attention to all that happened to him since his last major, the 1974 PGA. "I know what you're talking about," says Trevino, when asked about this. "I could still do it.
"I can't honestly say that I have the same goals now that I did 10 or 12 years ago," says Trevino. "But the No. 1 goal is still the same -- to win the big one, the Open. What I like about this year is that it's moving along a lot like '71.
"I may have spent a lot of time trying to find my game, but I haven't had to try to find myself," said Trevino during his troubles a couple of years ago. "I've known who I was all along. If I forget, I look at my driver's license."
"I'm not one of those reaky cats sayin', 'Hey, man, where you coming from?' and 'Where's it at?'
"I've always been at the same place.''
And where is that?
"Right here," said Lee Buck Trevino, stomping his proud foot on the firm earth.