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Lee Trevino: The Rapid Rise of a Rare Talent


Chronicles Unseen

Lee Trevino poses with the Claret Jug after winning The Open in 1972

Of the 87 men who have enjoyed the thrill of winning The Open, Lee Trevino surely has one of the most unlikely and uplifting life stories to tell.

A two-time Champion Golfer of the Year, courtesy of back-to-back triumphs in 1971 and 1972, Trevino delighted British crowds with his magical shot-making and engaging personality.

To witness his successes at Royal Birkdale and Muirfield was to see a player totally at home on the links, blessed with the skills to thrive when taking on golf’s truest test.

Yet, remarkably, Trevino had no awareness of The Open only a decade prior to his first win. It is not an exaggeration to say lifting the Claret Jug was an achievement far beyond his own wildest dreams.


Born in Texas in December 1939, Trevino was raised by his grandfather - a gravedigger from Monterrey, Mexico - amid humble surroundings on a cotton farm, with limited awareness of anything beyond his immediate locality.

“You have to understand that this was in the beginning of the 40s,” Trevino explained. “When people grew up in the woods or they grew up wherever, they had no idea that there was another side. We had no idea there was an England or Great Britain or Africa. We just knew what was in our neighbourhood.

“Raleigh, Texas had one grocery store and that was it. But we didn’t have any idea that we were poor. I didn’t realise that until I was probably 19 or 20.”

Either side of a four-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps from the age of 17, golf became Trevino’s primary area of focus, with his natural aptitude for the sport clearly apparent.

Such was his talent, Trevino had to devise a unique handicap in order to continue attracting opponents.

“I was almost making a living playing golf, but when you get to the point where you’re beating everyone, no one wants to play with you,” he explained.

“I had a par-3 course here in Dallas and the longest hole was 120 yards and the shortest hole was 50 yards. And I came up with the idea of playing with a (Dr Pepper) bottle. So it was a 32-ounce bottle, smooth, and the reason it was Dr Pepper is because it was a smooth bottle, Coca-Cola bottles are hourglass-shaped.

“So I took adhesive tape and I taped the neck and then I took a left-handed glove and I turned it inside out so I could put it on my right hand and then I could hold it. Then I would throw the ball up like you’re hitting a baseball with a bat, and I would throw it up and I would hit it.

“I could hit it high, I could hit it low. Now sometimes they would break, but not all the time. And I could hit it 100 yards, I could roll this ball 100 yards. Then I would turn it longways with the bottom of it and I would putt croquet-style, between my legs.

“How they handicapped me with the bottle is that I would play anyone, they could use their whole set, whatever they wanted. All I did was take the ties, in other words I got half a stroke a hole, so if I tied you on the hole I would win it.

“And I’m proud to say that I’m sitting here telling you that I played with this bottle for probably three years and never lost a match!”

By 1965, a 25-year-old Trevino was earning money through more orthodox golfing methods as he recorded his first professional victory at the Texas State Open.

Although he was only three years away from becoming a major champion, courtesy of his stunning breakthrough victory at the 1968 U.S. Open, Trevino was still totally unaware of the bright future that lay ahead of him.

A first pro win – and a cheque for $1,000 – was enough of a big deal for a man who “never had more than $100 in my pocket at the time”.

“I was taught the thirds,” said Trevino. “In other words, you take a third (of your earnings) and you pay your taxes, you pick a third and spend it, you know, for expenses, and then you take a third and you save it.

“I won $1,000 when I won the Texas State Open. And I’m sitting here and my wheels are turning and I’m saying: ‘If I can win $1,000 a week, I can save $333 a week. That’s a lot of money.’

“I never had any dream that I would be winning these big tournaments or whatever.”

In fact, Trevino had only become aware of golf’s majors a couple of years earlier. While many Champion Golfers are able to recount stories of watching The Open as a child and being inspired by the players they saw, Trevino was in his early twenties by the time he learned about his sport’s biggest events.

Lee Trevino at his first Open Championship in 1969

Lee Trevino during his first Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes

“I had no clue that there was an Open Championship or a U.S. Open or a Masters or anything like that until probably 1961, ’62 or ’63,” he added.

“I had no clue what the history was of The Open Championship. I had no clue who Old Tom Morris was, or Young Tom Morris, or (Allan) Robertson, none of those guys.

“I didn’t really get into it until after I had played two or three times, and then I got to the point where I started reading a little more about it. I learned a lot about the history of the game.”

Trevino may not have been familiar with The Open growing up, but it took him little time to make an impression on golf’s original Championship after he finally made his debut at the age of 29.

Having tied for 34th on his maiden appearance at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1969, Trevino finished third at St Andrews 12 months later. What is more, he left the Home of Golf feeling as though he “threw that tournament away”.

Trevino led by one at the halfway stage and was two clear with 18 to play, but he struggled badly with his putter on a gusty final day and carded a 77 that left him two behind Jack Nicklaus, the eventual Champion, and Doug Sanders, whose famous short missed putt on the 72nd green brought about a Monday play-off.

Lee Trevino and Doug Sanders at St Andrews in 1970

Trevino watches on as Doug Sanders tees off in The 99th Open at St Andrews

“My mistake at the Old Course was that I took too long over the putts and I usually don’t take a long time,” said Trevino.

“You see, when the wind’s blowing that hard, you want to speed up your putting, because if you stand there, the wind will start shifting you and moving you, and then you try to plan your stroke in other words with the rocking of the wind, instead of just going up, looking and hitting it regardless of which way the body is moving.

“And that was my mistake and I putted very poor, very poor, so that’s why I shot 77 on the last day. I was clear of those guys and if I’d have just shot a decent score (I would have won).”

Trevino may have fallen short of Open glory in 1970, but it was to be a different story in each of the next two years.

In the summer of 1971, ‘Super Mex’ was simply unstoppable and his victory at Royal Birkdale – where he edged out Lu Liang-Huan in a thrilling final-round battle - completed a stunning treble. In the space of four weeks, he had won the U.S. Open, Canadian Open and The 100th Open, becoming the first player to win the trio of famous old Championships in the same year.

Trevino would go on to be named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, an accolade that emphasised the rapid rise he had enjoyed since claiming his first PGA Tour win, at the U.S. Open, just three years earlier.

He then accomplished the rare feat of claiming back-to-back titles at The Open, retaining the Claret Jug in dramatic fashion at Muirfield in 1972.

Two chip-ins from off the green helped Trevino to string together a sensational run of five straight birdies at the end of round three, lifting him one clear of Tony Jacklin heading into the final day.

And it was yet another holed chip that would ultimately prove the decisive moment in a fascinating duel between the Champion Golfers of 1969 and 1971.

Jacklin and Trevino were tied at the top of the leaderboard with two holes to play and the latter’s race looked to be run when he made a mess of the 17th, still not yet on the green having hit four strokes on the par-5.

However, Trevino then chipped in once again to salvage a par, knocking the stuffing out of a stunned Jacklin, who promptly three-putted for bogey before dropping another shot at the last.

A closing par confirmed Trevino as the victor, with the 32-year-old finishing one clear of Nicklaus, who had been chasing the Grand Slam.

After just four appearances at The Open, the charismatic Texan was now a two-time Champion Golfer who had proven he could repeatedly get the better of the game’s biggest stars.

Asked to explain how he rose from obscurity to glory quite so quickly, Trevino references a film from the 1990s that made a young Matt Damon a household name.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie Good Will Hunting,” said Trevino. “That movie was all about mathematics and the professor could put any problem on the board and he (Damon) could solve it.

“And I remember, he and the professor sitting in a chair once, and the professor looked over at him and he said: ‘I don’t know how you do that.’ And do you remember what Damon said? Damon said: ‘It comes easy to me.’ And that’s what this game did with me. It came easy to me.

“I can do anything you want with a golf ball. I just have to think about it. All I have to do is stand over a golf ball and say: ‘OK, I’m gonna hit this ball high this way or low this way, I’m gonna bend it this way.’ And my body reacts to it. I don’t know why, but I can do tricks with a golf ball. I always could.”

Trevino’s extraordinary natural ability would ultimately help him to six major titles, a superb haul that could surely have been even greater had he not suffered serious injuries when being struck by lightning in 1975.

In addition, Trevino had no fear of the superstar competitors he faced in a golden era for golf, at least with one notable exception.

“The only guy that scared me a little bit was Gary (Player), because he would just absolutely grind,” said Trevino.

“I mean, if he had a six-inch putt, he’d line it up from three ways, you know, while we’d just backhand it or something. Gary took it serious, every shot.

“And I asked him once, I said: ‘Gary, you made eight, man. Why would you be lining up a one-foot putt for an eight?’ He said: ‘It sounds better than a nine, man.’ And that’s the kind of guy that you have to be scared of!”

Like Player, Trevino is now into his ninth decade and holds The Open in the highest regard. Having been unaware of the Championship growing up, he has since devoted countless hours to learning more about its rich history.

Speaking with the Claret Jug in his arms when he was interviewed for his Chronicles of a Champion Golfer film in 2015, Trevino said: “This means the world to me and fortunately I have two of them.

“I’m blind as a bat, but if you really look at this, I mean you look at it and look at it and look at it, it would take you half a day to read all these names.

“And I’ll tell you something, I could almost picture every one of these guys that’s won the trophy. I look at them, I can see them. I can go all the way back.”

Sixty years ago, Trevino would not have known what the Claret Jug was. But for a long time now, this richly talented and hugely popular player has occupied a place among the pantheon of Open greats.


Read more long-form Chronicles Unseen articles and view all 21 Chronicles of a Champion Golfer films at

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