He doesn't play the tour much anymore. How many, six tournaments so far this year? He doesn't practice at all. No more standing on the range in the dark hitting balls out of a wire basket; his back's too bad for that. He's an old guy now, 46; accommodations to age and prosperity must be made. So there's 30 minutes of stretching in the morning, and then you point him to the first tee. In a game in which practice makes perfect, can Lee Trevino fall out of bed and win the U.S. Open? Well, let me ask you a question: If the band kicked into a fox trot, you think Fred Astaire could keep up?
Trevino, golf's second favorite 46-year-old, closed by birdieing Nos. 16 and 18 for 68 Friday to add to Thursday's 74, beaching him at 2 over par for the tournament, close enough to blow on the lead and watch it ripple. Shinnecock Hills is a fader's course, and Trevino is a fader. It's a links course, and he loves links courses, which is what two British Open titles will do for you. It rewards shotmaking talent all through the bag, and nobody in golf hits more shots than Trevino. And we're talking about a Major here, the kind that, as Trevino says in reverence and anticipation, "only come around once a year," the only kind Trevino cares to grind it out for. "Somebody has got to win it -- might as well be me," Trevino said, a full smile crinkling across his sunburned face. "If I play the next two rounds like I played this, yeah, I can win it." The only question is: Since Trevino works for NBC, will ABC show him on the air? Then again, if he does get on the air, will NBC want him to dress like a peacock?
Trevino has already won the U.S. Open twice, matching his number of PGAs and British Opens. For you history buffs, the last time Trevino won the U.S. Open was 1971, at Merion, and after two rounds he had the same 142, at 2 over. He finished 69-69 to tie and won a playoff the next day. You may remember the loser: fat, blond guy, Jack something or other.
That guy, golf's most beloved 46-year-old, is at 149, and by his reckoning at least, still very much in this hunt. "Somewhere under par on Saturday and a great round on Sunday, I'd still have a pretty good chance," Nicklaus was saying. We have seen something like this from him before, as recently as two months ago in Augusta. He finished 69-65 to win the Masters, and don't think he doesn't remember it. "You can shoot 65 here," he said. "All you have to make is five birdies, not like Augusta. That's par 72. You need seven there."
The spell Nicklaus casts on the galleries here is worthy of membership in the magicians' union. Thousands follow him around, worshipping at the movable shrine. He could wrap himself in the Soviet flag and walk down the fairway insulting kids and mothers, and still the people would cheer as if he were Charles Lindbergh. When Nicklaus misses a putt they moan as if they've just been told they need surgery.
Nor are golfers immune to the charisma. Trevino himself openly rooted for Nicklaus at Augusta -- the course that has forever been Trevino's nemesis. ("My car even goes off the road down there.") Trevino recalled being in the Atlanta airport as Nicklaus finished. "I left Augusta early, as usual," Trevino cracked. "I was in the lounge across from the gate. I'd just ordered a light beer when I heard people screaming. I looked at the TV and Jack had just eagled 15. I turned to the bartender and said, 'Make it a double Scotch.' By the time Jack 60-footed within two inches on 18, I couldn't see the set anymore." Much has been written about the Geezer Quinella -- the Nicklaus Masters and the Shoemaker Derby. Speaking as a golfer, Trevino warned his audience to "remember one thing -- Shoemaker wasn't carrying that horse. I haven't seen a jockey yet pull a horse across the finish line. That win of Jack Nicklaus' in Augusta was the most magnificent thing I've ever seen." Trevino was so moved, he sent Nicklaus the following telegram: "The old fellows can still win. Congratulations." If Trevino wins here, Nicklaus can do his part for the recycling effort.
As Nicklaus is like a god to his gallery, so is Trevino like an old friend to his. If Nicklaus has the most followers, Lee's Fleas -- or should it be Twevino's Twoops in honor of the first-round leader, Bob Tway, who had twouble in the second round -- are second in number, second to none in loyalty. They are comfortable and nondeferential with him. For example, on No. 13 Friday, people were yelling things out at him, presumably encouraging things. But Trevino kept shaking his head no as he walked. Why, no? The guess from the far side of the fairway was that some of the Fleas were asking Trevino for money.
Such is Trevino's popularity that if Nicklaus couldn't win here, most people would probably root for Trevino. It wasn't that long ago that Trevino -- like Nicklaus -- had been written off as too old, too sore and maybe too satisfied to ever win big again. His PGA victory two years ago tossed that script in the shredder. For most, anyway. Friday, someone prefaced a question to Trevino, "You haven't won in a long time . . ." Trevino stared at his questioner as if he were a newt, and said, "You must have been in prison in 1984 -- somewhere where they don't get newspapers."
But on recent form, it's tempting to dismiss Trevino's chances here. He has played in but six tournaments all year, finishing an average of 40th, placing 121st on the money list. He prepped for this by taking appearance money and playing in a tournament in London, of all places. "I don't know where I finished. I left before the newspapers came out," he joked. "They'll send the money, I hope. Course, I got mine before I went over." If the weather stays good here, what good will the London experience do him? Yet what we have learned about great players and Majors is that they often save a dance for each other. And the music is just starting here.