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Lee Trevino, Fleas and all

A succession of high finishes, including two tour victories this year, has thrust the 1968 U.S. Open champion into the game's top rank

It was about two years ago that America discovered Lee Trevino, or perhaps it was the other way around. In either case, it was all for the good of professional golf. He popped up in 1968 with an almost adolescent relish for the game and swept across the horizon of the sport like the good smell of a whole kitchen simmering with chili and refritos. Trevino had lifted himself out of the ghetto of the municipal course gangsomes and became a U.S. Open champion, but a question remained as to whether he would last.

As do most things in golf, the answer came slowly. But it came. And the fact now is that the leader of Lee's Fleas not only has proved he has staying power, he has become a star of real magnitude, a man capable at times of rescuing the PGA tour from, shall we say, its occasional vapors of tedium.

Trevino's personality, his gabby, sometimes irreverent nature have partly obscured his accomplishments as a competitor. When he says, for example, "Black is beautiful but brown is cute," there are those who accept it as his major contribution of the week, dismissing the fine shots he may have played. The Fleas may be aware of what he has done in the 2½ years that he has been on the tour full time, but the chances are most golf enthusiasts have not taken the time to add it up.

Well, it is quite something. And there is strong evidence that Trevino has brashly played his way into the elite society of tournament golf, that he stands very securely these days up there with the Billy Caspers, Jack Nicklauses, Arnold Palmers and Gary Players.

It just so happens that only one player, Casper, has won more tournaments and more money than Trevino in the 30 or so months that Lee has been out there. Granted, Casper chose this period to become our dominant player by the length of a straightaway par 5, winning 11 tournaments and more than $430,000. But Trevino has captured six tournaments, starting with the '68 U.S. Open, and he has banked $370,000 in prize money. Considering where he started from in life, that is several equivalents of the Grand Slam. Nicklaus is the only other golfer who has come close to Lee. Jack, too, has won six tournaments, but he trails Trevino in money over this span, and everyone else is behind in both categories.

Since winning the U.S. Open at Rochester in what was then regarded as a catastrophe on the order of Jack Fleck or Sam Parks, Trevino has added victories in the Hawaiian Open, the Tucson Open (twice), the World Cup and the National Airlines in Miami. And overall he has come awfully close to some others, having finished second five times and third seven times. Twice he practically had to invent ways to lose. On one occasion, the Alcan last year, Trevino blew a seven-stroke lead and $40,000 to Casper over the final three holes. And then a couple of weeks ago at Colonial in Fort Worth he held a two-stroke lead on the field with five holes to play and looked as if he might break the 72-hole record of one of the tour's oldest and best events. But he came home in two-over in a blur of missed putts while Homero Blancas was chipping in for a birdie and winning.

"I never thought I'd get beat by a Mexican," Lee laughed.

Trevino's wisecracks with the press and his constant chatter with his galleries ("Have another beer, man, if you can hold it") might alone have kept him prominent since his U.S. Open win. One always knows that Lee is in town. But he has obviously displayed a rugged consistency as a competitor or he would not have won so much money. Proof of this consistency is found in another statistic. This one: since the start of 1968 Trevino has managed to finish among the top 10 in no fewer than 34 tournaments, which is more times than anyone except that noted author, Frank Beard.

What is embodied in a record like this is a man's mental toughness as well as his technical ability to hit golf shots. Trevino, with his fiat, slap-at-the-ball kind of swing and his gift for monologue, may look and sound casual, loose, out only for the fresh air, but the record insists he is trying very hard on every shot—working, sweating, competing—and that he knows how to play the shots he stands up to. This simply has to be true. And what this means in turn is that week in and week out, as the tour drones endlessly on, Trevino is more often a serious contender for first money than any other player because he's more often in the neighborhood.

For all that Trevino already has done for both himself and golf, and it is no small thing that he has pumped some life into a sport that is often resplendent in its melancholy, he seems to be at his best yet right now. Only he and Casper have been double winners on the 1970 tour, and Trevino is by himself on top of the $100,000 mark. He has, incidentally, reached that level earlier in the year than any golfer ever. And with the big, big money of the summer yet to come, the lead Flea has a good, happy run at the single-season money record of $205,000 that Casper set two years ago.

Trevino's achievements are even more impressive when one considers the furious pace at which he travels—without his own jet. Between tournament rounds he will sometimes fly to Chicago or back home to El Paso to discuss a business deal. He will complete a round and speed across town for a clinic, finish that and speed somewhere else for a dinner. He'll do a speech, a meeting or an exhibition in the morning and then show up at the tournament in time for only three fast warmup shots before teeing off in the afternoon.

But he never complains. Which is another part of Lee's charm. "A lot of guys gripe about the travel and the food and losing their laundry," says Trevino. "Well, no matter how bad the food may be, I've eaten worse. And I couldn't care less about the laundry because I can remember when I only had one shirt."

This quality of appreciation for what he has, without being treacly about it, is what sets Trevino apart from most of the temperaments that haunt the tour these days. After all, there is nothing in the Constitution that says there has to be a golf tour. Only a few organizations—for instance, the USGA, the PGA, the Western—have a reason for staging an annual championship. All of the other tournaments exist because of charitable individuals or groups, ad or promotion money from industry, and a few profit-seekers. As an entity it is a $6 million godsend for a couple of hundred guys who can do something well. Trevino's attitude—because it is so rare—remains the kind that warms the heart of a tournament sponsor.

"I don't complain about anything because I love golf, I love to travel and I love to make people laugh," he says. "And what would I be without the tour?"

A few other touring pros might pause to ask themselves the same question on their way to the bank—or when they're telling one of the oldest events in golf, the Texas Open, either to accept a new date in the fall or get off the circuit. If by asking themselves that question they somehow find the right answer, they might discover one day that the crowds are rooting as hard for them as they are for Lee Trevino.

They might also discover that the tour hasn't suddenly disappeared.