It's muggy this August afternoon on Long Island as Lee Trevino swaggers flatfooted up to the 14th tee of the Meadow Brook Golf Club, where after bogeying the first hole, then scrambling for a few pars, he has picked up five birdies over nine holes to get to 4-under this first day of the Northville Classic.
Trevino still holds the honor, but with players in the fairway ahead, has to wait. He is quiet for a change -- too quiet to suit his gallery (still smaller than Nicklaus's) who are trailing him with the bewildered, awestruck spell he casts over golf fans, writers, and fellow players when he's winning. Which he is doing this summer as much as anyone on the Senior Tour ever has, already having won five of the sixteen tournaments he entered.
And so while fiftysomething golf fans should know better, one old duffer in the gallery bursts out with: "Hey Lee, where's your red pants?" -- referring to Trevino's good-luck outfit of yore (and getting it wrong: for a time he wore red shirt and black pants).
"In your wife's closet," snaps back Trevino, probably not much quicker than the first time he said it, and the laughs ripple for five minutes while it gets retold to the hearing-impaired.
It's always been a sort of unrequited love on his fans' part, yet for him still a little too close for comfort. Something about SuperMex's everyman appeal and blinding exhuberance brings out equal amounts of affection and envy. Galleries admire Nicklaus, but though they love Trevino, they sense the forbidding edge, and the distance -- even the bitterness -- that go along with his rough charm and ready humor.
You can tell he understands when he talks about Arnold Palmer: "You'll notice every time they interview Arnold Palmer, he's never negative, always positive, and he says, 'Well, it's comin'.' You've got to admire a person like that. It's something that I'd like to be like but I can't, you understand -- because I talk too damned fast, and when you talk as fast as I do, you can't choose your words."
He talks fast all the time -- on the golf course, everywhere. Jim Albus compares him to Muhammed Ali. "He's a likeable guy. He's a character, a real loveable sort of a character. And he's also super talented, which helps. Look at Muhammed Ali, the most adored guy probably in all of sports. But a lot of it is because he's so talented, he wouldn't be very funny or very popular if he wasn't good. Imagine Trevino or Mohammed if they stunk?"
And there is something almost disturbing about watching him win. Gary Player, smiling and squinting, looked like he was trying to con the golf course into submission; Fred Couples looks so relaxed, he may as well be collecting butterflies; and of course Palmer was the dashing lead in an adventure story. Watching Trevino stalk down a fairway, you start to get the feeling something illegal or at least obscene might be going on.
Partly it's because he has hit so many practice-range balls that his singleminded dedication carries over. As he says, "Golf is like running a marathon, and if you want to run it in less than three hours, you've got to run a lot. You wanna play golf, you've got to hit balls every day. And I'm not talking about going to a driving range and hitting a driver, I'm talking about hitting bunkers and chipping and putting.
"Don't bother with mats, either. Look at the Japanese. The Japanese amateurs practice on mats, 'cause the country's so small. They look like Ben Hogan on those mats, 'cause they can hit a foot behind it and the ball jumps up onto the face of the club and goes. They go out on the golf course, and they chili dip every shot. That's why they hit it fat all the time in a round. If you could give'em a board to take with'em, they'd shoot par!"
There's a little bit of rooster in everything he does on the golf course. Stabbing the ground with his teed ball, pleased with the honor, he appears so cocky you'd think he wouldn't care if he hooks it into the woods (not that he ever does) especially since he is so quick on the trigger, setting his weight against his left leg and then in a flash bringing up the club and cocking it back, flat, in that unprecedented rhythm before flinging his hip forward and casting the shaft out at the poor, innocent ball, cutting through it with a slow dexterity like a punk with a switchblade. Next to his determined, forceful rip, the average senior pro's move looks like an anxious, pious gesture informed by clean living, a 30-year-old swing thought or two, and some old love letters.
The fact that he does a lot of talking means very little (he doesn't even seem to be aware that he's chattering, and most of it's nonsense anyway) but when he's in the hunt, his jaw sets and a kind of murky, sullen aspect sets in, broken only occasionally by his banter and an occasional, not-very-humorous smile. Because he wears his ball-cap low -- football-coach style, with the brim hooding his eyes -- it's hard to see how his eyes seem to blacken: up close, you get the feeling that everything but the green up there looks pale and sickly to him. You might even think he needs to see the fans as his enemy no less than the trees lining the fairways.
The lockerroom Trevino is a different guy: personable, charming, attentive to his old comrades -- the most popular guy on the Senior Tour. Twenty-five years ago, his ebullience mortified some: paired with Davis Love, Jr. one time, Trevino started his banter before they got to the first tee, and continued all the way to the first green. Finally Love turned to Trevino and said, "If it's all the same to you, Lee, I'd just as soon not talk during the round."
"That's alright," said Trevino, "I'll do enough talking for both of us."
These days there are not enough of his words to go around. He is easily the most popular guy in a Senior Tour lockerroom -- the same players whose brains he beats out week in and out gather around him, touch him, slap him on the back, as though he were handing out checks instead of stealing their lunch money. (You might say he's doing both, since it was largely in anticipation of his arrival that Cadillac joined up as a Senior Tour sponsor before the 1990 season.) As he says, "These are my family, I miss'em when I leave. There's not one guy out here I don't get along with."
It's hard to get a word in edgewise what with all the interruptions, but let's start by asking him about Nicklaus.
"The one thing that [Nicklaus] had probably better than anyone is that he could map out a golf course, and stick to his game plan. He never varied from it, whether he was five strokes ahead or five strokes behind. He could manage a golf course better than anyone I ever saw."
He downplays the one-on-one nature of their battles -- "People are always talking about like there was only two guys playin'. There was never only two guys playing, -- see, the thing that you have to understand is you gotta be very careful about getting into a golf tournament and playing the other guy with you. Because all of a sudden you look up on the board and there's three or four guys going right by you."
Still, Lee, you've beaten him in two U.S. Opens and a Senior Open. "I've always played Jack with no pressure. If anybody had any smoke on him, it would be him. Because I am not supposed to beat him. And I've always felt that way, I don't care how long people have tried to tell me how good I am, or how well I hit it, I have never considered myself even being' one side of him. He's the best.
"I think that's the reason I fared better with him than most people. Because the headlines have already been written: you know, 'Nicklaus Beats Trevino in a Playoff for the Open.' Shoot, I'd think, 'Wait a minute man, I got no pressure on me.' I'd say to myself, 'Even if he wins, he loses.' I said, 'Even if I lose, I win!' I have never, ever had any pressure playing against him. 'Cause he's supposed to beat me, no question."
"When I'm in the heat of battle, and I'm coming down the stretch with an individual and he's playing well and I'm playing well, I just want to make sure that I don't make a mistake somewhere down the line. I don't mind gettin' beat, but I want a guy to beat me that makes birdies. I don't want to give him a golf tournament by making bogies and double bogies.
"There are players out here that you know won't back up. And there are players that will back up.
"And by the way, I think pressure at the beginning of the year is more evident than later in the year. Once you get a guy that's won a lot, and you get him late in the year, and all of a sudden you catch him right on your tail -- you're going to have hell to pay with this guy, because he's playing with no pressure at all. He's feeling good about himself, he's already won so much, and nobody expects him to keep winning. That's the hardest guy to beat.
"Now, if you catch a guy that hasn't won, and you catch him in the heat of battle, then all you're waiting for is for him to have a flat tire and hopefully he'll make a mistake somewhere down the line. It doesn't work all the time, but you'll be surprised how many times it does."
"Well I pride myself in being a good putter -- I don't think I'm a great putter, but I'm a damned good putter when I have to make it.
"People get a fear on the greens, instead of just hitting it. There's only two things can happen in a putt, you know -- you can either go in, or stay out. And until you get that attitude, you're going to have trouble making short putts."
"Every day I'm trying something new. I think you're not going to be a very good player if you aren't constantly learning new things -- positioning the ball in your stance, playing your hands forward, changing equipment -- putting a different shaft in it, making it flatter -- making it more upright -- these give you the little things that you're looking for.
"And at the age of 54 the body chemistry changes, and your body doesn't move like it did ten years ago. So in order to keep from hitting bad shots, you compensate by using a different golf club.
"But swing changes -- they are not going to come that easy. The way you swing is almost like the way you walk, you talk, you eat, -- it's a very difficult thing to change. Golf clubs are what you have change to try and compensate for a different move, or the ball doing something crazy."
"Most of the tournament I enter, I have no idea what the prize money is. I know they've got some crystal. And if I can get that crystal they're gonna put a white piece of paper inside of it. And I'll check it out if I win. But -- I just enjoy doing it. Whether this tournament is 600,000 dollars, 800,000, a million 2 hundred -- I don't care, doesn't make any difference to me -- it's the competition, I want to get out there and play, and that's what motivates me.
"My deal is to be the last guy in the locker room on Sunday, that's the loneliest place in the world, ain't a damned soul in there. Only the lockerroom guy, waitin' to get paid, and trash everywhere. And after the trash cans are put away, they drop everything on the floor, damnedest thing you've ever seen."
"At the age of 55 -- I love my wife more, to tell you the truth, and my kids. But I have a wife that's given me the chance. She didn't want to take me out of my element. When I married her ten years ago, she knew how I was in love with this game, and she didn't want to compete with it. And she said it many times -- 'I live for what he likes, and he likes to play golf, and so I've devoted my life around what he does.' And I've got the best of both worlds here."
It wasn't always this comfortable for Trevino, who was divorced twice. "Hell, anybody'll tell you if you've got problems at home, it always hurts your game a little bit. Fortunately it didn't hurt mine too much, because I took it as a positive. When they got teed off and told me they wanted divorces and threatened to leave, it made me practice hard, and work harder -- just to prove to them that I wasn't finished, that I could still play. I was basically saying, whatever you're going to put on me isn't going to bother me. Somehow, I used it as a positive.
". . . I remember before a tournament in Tucson many years ago, when my wife told me she was leavin', and she went back to Dallas with the kids, and got a van and moved everything out of the house. And I finished second in the tournament, and I flew to Dallas and I didn't know where I lived. Marriage lasted another year or so."
Still, regrets linger from his first marriages. "I have spent more time with my five year old and my 22-month old, already, than I did with all my other four kids. It's sad to say that, but it happened," says Trevino ruefully. "I think they're old enough now that they understand -- to a degree. I could have spent more time with them, I could have made the time. But I was very selfish in playing golf and doing what I was doing. . . . It was my loss. My loss.
"You can always find an hour or two to spend with your kid, no reason why you can't. I find time with these. I'm playin' more now, than I ever did. Doing more things than I did. My wife has a lot to do with this, that's the other reason. Her father was a golf professional who left home at dark in the morning, and got home when it was dark at night. If she wanted to see her dad, she had to go to the pro shop.
"When we had these two children, Claudia says to me, 'this is not going to happen with these two, wherever you're going, we're going with you.' And that's what she's done. She packs those kids up, puts'em on a plane, brings'em to Dad on a Friday night. They spend Friday night, Saturday, Sunday with Dad, Sunday night we fly home together. I spend home Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Wednesday night I leave again. So I'm actually don't see'em but two days a week. But she brings'em.
"She's made me realize that there is a better life than what I was doing. And it was pretty damned hard to understand, but I finally understood it. And she was right. I'm happy, I've got a great family, I'm doing what I'm doing. Yeah, there's no question."