The life and times of Lee Trevino

A biography of Lee Trevino, one of golf's greatest ever players

Lee Trevino had a long and storied career that included six major victories as well as 29 wins on each of the PGA and Champions Tours. Awarded for his dynamic career with an induction to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1981, Trevino is known in the golf community for his quick wit and exceptional play on the biggest of golf’s stages.

Childhood

A native of Dallas, Texas, Trevino was raised by his grandfather and mother. Trevino’s father left the family shortly after Lee was born leaving the golfer to be pressed into helping his family early in life, working the local cotton fields at the age of 5.

Several years later, Lee discovered golf after his uncle gave him an old club and a few golf balls. After falling in love with the game, Trevino began to caddie at the historic Dallas Athletic Club that was near his home. Earning $30 a week at the club, Trevino didn’t see much use for school, so he dropped out to pursue golf.

Utilizing the three small holes that ran behind the caddy shack at Dallas Athletic, Trevino hit hundreds of balls daily off the hard dirt that surrounded the shack. Practicing with these conditions, Trevino developed his signature uniquely compact swing.

Despite excelling at golf, Trevino enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 17. Even though Trevino served four years as a machine gunner, the game of golf was never far away. Lee played in several Armed Forces events throughout Asia.

Professional Career

After Trevino left the Marines, he took a job as a club professional in El Paso, Texas. Trevino became known locally as a high-stakes player gambling with golfers to boost his salary.

Encouraged by other golfers, Lee entered in a local qualifier for the 1966 U.S. Open and made the playing field for the tournament at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Trevino made the cut and tied for 54th place making $600.

The following year, Trevino returned to the U.S. Open and finished in 5th place earning his Tour card for the rest of the season. Trevino went on to win over $26,000 and was named Rookie of the Year by Golf Digest.

In the 1970s, Trevino won 21 of his 29 PGA Tour tournaments including four majors. He was one of Jack Nicklaus’ biggest rivals and responded by leading the money list for the PGA in 1970. In 1971, Trevino won six tournaments, including two majors, which would stand as his career high in a season. The following year, Lee won four more tournaments, including the 1972 Open Tournament.

One of the more incredible achievements of Trevino’s career was winning at least one PGA Tour event each year from 1968 through 1981. He also won more than 20 additional tournaments held across the world.

Another incredible aspect of Trevino’s career is how dominant he was in Ryder Cup competitions. He was a part of the U.S. team that won five of six Ryder Cups from 1971 through 1981. His 17 career victories in Ryder Cup matches place him among the very best to ever don the red, white and blue for team USA.

Six Majors

Trevino’s first win on Tour also happened to be his first major victory. At the Oak Hill Country Club, Trevino kept Jack Nicklaus at bay, winning the 1968 U.S. Open by four strokes. Trevino was trailing by one stroke heading into the final day, but a fourth straight round in the 60s gave Lee the title.

The 1971 U.S. Open at the Merion Golf Club brought Trevino his second, and most dramatic, major title. Four rounds were not enough to determine a winner between Nicklaus and Trevino, so the duo played a Monday 18-hole playoff for the title. A double bogey on the 3rd hole by Nicklaus put the Golden Bear in an early hole which he never recovered from. Trevino did not relinquish the lead as he finished with a three-stroke victory over Nicklaus.

Trevino’s third major would come the following month at the Open Championship. The golfer from Texas tamed the historic Royal Birkdale Golf Club taking the lead into the weekend and holding on for a one-stroke victory.

Trevino’s 1971 season with six wins and two majors made the golfer a household name in America. Sports Illustrated recognized Trevino’s dominant year by giving the golfer the prestigious title of Sportsman of the Year.

The following year, Trevino returned to the Open Championship and defended his title at the Muirfield Golf Links in Scotland. With a slim lead heading into the final round, Trevino held off a fierce challenge from Nicklaus, who started the day six strokes behind the leader. Lee holed a chip from off the green on the 17th hole to save par and secure the title.

Trevino would return to the States to win his fifth major. Heading into the 1974 PGA Championship, Trevino was struggling with his putter. So looking for an answer to help his problem, Trevino discovered a putter in the attic of a friend. He took the putter to Tanglewood Park Golf Course and proceeded to only have one three-putt over the four-round tournament. Trevino once again defeated Nicklaus by one stroke to claim the title.

Trevino’s sixth and final major came ten years later at the 1984 PGA Championship. The ten years between PGA titles had come at a hefty price for Trevino. In 1975, he was struck by lightning and suffered traumatic injuries to his spine. After several surgeries, Trevino had lost the magic that had carried him to his previous five major titles.

When Trevino arrived at Shoal Creek, the location of the 1984 PGA, in Birmingham, Alabama he was 44 years old, and many believed that his best days were behind him.

Trevino responded by posting a first round 69 then followed with a second round 68 to share the tournament lead heading into the weekend with Gary Player and Lanny Wadkins. A third round 67 gave Lee a one-shot advantage over Wadkins.

For the final round, Trevino wouldn’t have to keep Jack Nicklaus off his tail as his Sunday 69 clinched the PGA title with a four-shot win. The final major of Trevino’s career would also be his last PGA Tour victory.

Despite six major wins, one of Trevino’s great regrets is that he never won the Masters to complete the career Grand Slam.

Senior Tour

When Trevino moved on to the Champions Tour in the Spring of 1990, he regained the magic that the lightning had robbed him of 15 years prior. Over the next ten years, Lee would win 29 Champions Tour tournaments including four majors. He led the money list in multiple years and was widely given credit for being one of the main reasons that the Champions Tour survived through its difficult early stages.

Quotable Trevino

One of the reasons that Lee Trevino became such a fan favorite both on and off the golf course was due to his magnetic personality and loving relationship with the press.

After being struck by lightning, Trevino was asked by a reporter what he will do differently in the future when facing severe weather. Lee famously told the reporter that he would reach into his bag, grab his 1-iron and hold it into the air “because not even God can hit the 1-iron.”

Toward the end of his career, Trevino summed up his golfing journey with another quote that encompasses the humor of the golfer: “I’ve been hit by lightning 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.”

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