It's tough enough winning golf tournaments without guys trying to take away the titles you've already won. That's the message Lee Trevino carried from last week's Statute of Limitations Classic—better known on the Senior PGA Tour as the Tradition—in Scottsdale, Ariz. It's hard to say which was more exciting: Trevino's one-shot triumph over Jack Nicklaus on the Cochise Course at Desert Mountain or his spirited defense of his 1965 Texas State Open victory in the press tent.
After Homero Blancas's second-round 66 assured him a Saturday-morning "Three Amigos" pairing with Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez, everybody in the tent wanted to know how far back Blancas, a former University of Houston golf star, went with old Tex-Mex. "Lee was a professional when I won the Texas State Open in 1965, and he finished second," Blancas said. "I beat him in a playoff."
About a half hour later Trevino grinned in disbelief and said, "He claimed he won? No, I won that tournament. I won the Texas State Open in 1965 and in 1966, and I'd be willing to bet a hundred thousand dollars on that. Beat me in the Texas State Open. Is he crazy?"
No, but Blancas is 54. At that age, you start losing things—keys, the scissors you had in your hand when you answered the phone, even your recollection of which tournaments you won. As it turns out, Blancas was low amateur at the '65 Texas State Open.
Maybe a bunch of senior golfers shouldn't be sent out in the desert to play. The Cochise Course is a surreal landscape of boulders and cacti, where a simple round of golf can sometimes seem like a trip on magic mushrooms. Rodriguez's mind wandered for just an instant on the 8th hole on Sunday, and before he knew it, his chances of winning had all but dried up. Nicklaus seemed a soaring eagle one moment, a wounded bird the next. Even Trevino had his moments of disorientation—as on the 13th hole on Sunday, when his golf ball moved on him.
If you want mirages, how about the rest of the field? Nicklaus took the lead with a first-round 65, and the effect was to pull a curtain across 78 of the 80 other golfers. Nicklaus hadn't entered a PGA Senior event since defeating Rodriguez in an 18-hole playoff at the U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills last July, but the Golden Bear putted superbly on Thursday and was on target for a tournament-record 64 until his tee shot on the 7th hole (his 16th because he started at the 10th hole) hit a boulder and ricocheted into the pond.
A second-round 72 left Nicklaus in a third-place tie with Blancas and J.C. Snead, but he still seemed a good bet to become the first player to "threepeat" a tournament on both the regular PGA and Senior PGA tours. (Nicklaus won three consecutive Walt Disney World Opens, beginning in 1971.) After all, he designed Cochise, and it suits his game. And who could forget last year's Tradition, which Nicklaus won despite trailing Phil Rodgers by 12 strokes after two rounds?
O.K., Blancas could. But who else?
Some of us were paying attention, though, and we noticed that more than half the field shot par or better on Thursday, and after play on Friday, 41 players were within 10 shots of Rodriguez, the second-round leader. Rain had soaked the course earlier in the week, and Thursday's round was played under the clean-and-place rule. Players like Trevino and Blancas, who play low-trajectory shots, could stop the ball on the terraced greens.
Nicklaus, meanwhile, complained that his golf ball was behaving erratically, "exploding" off the club face when hit upwind. "It just goes right through the wind and goes forever," he said on Friday, after flying a six-iron over the 17th green and into the desert for bogey. Seems he changed from one type of Maxfli ball to another three weeks ago at the regular tour's Honda Classic, and while the old Maxfli tended to dive when struck downwind—not good—the new one bore upwind to a fault. Said Nicklaus, "I've just got to learn more about that golf ball."
Whatever the cause, Nicklaus was streaky at Cochise. His 72 on Friday, he insisted, was better from tee to green than his first-round 65 had been, but he "ran the table" with his putter on Thursday. On Friday he missed six birdie putts from inside 10 feet, and on the weekend he missed a couple of putts shorter than a rattlesnake. His round on Saturday, in particular, was bewildering: A front-side 31 was followed by a double bogey, bogey, par, bogey start on the back nine. "I had three rounds where I was like a yo-yo," said the only player ever to lose 18 major championships to Homero Blancas. "I played like a guy who hasn't been playing a lot of golf in contention."
As for Saturday's vaunted Three Amigos pairing: It suffered in translation. Blancas, who was born and raised in Texas, doesn't speak Spanish, so he couldn't decipher Trevino's and Rodriguez's challenges to his claim that he has won four regular PGA Tour events and one Senior tournament in his career. A search of the PGA record book, though, supported Blancas's assertion and even turned up an event the former Tour rookie of the year did win in 1965—the Mexican Open.
Trevino could be excused for forgetting his two previous performances at the Tradition, a tie for 24th and a tie for 33rd. Last year he flew back from the Fuji Electric Grandslam in Japan and hit the desert yawning and blinking, throwing a pair of 75s on the scoreboard before his body could adjust. "Never again," he vowed hen, apparently forgetting the six-figure guarantees he gets for playing Fuji.
This year, though, Trevino again flew in late from Japan and missed his Wednesday practice round. "I didn't know if I could handle the golf course as tired as I was," Trevino said. "I just went out and limp-ragged it around."
But rounds of 67-69-68 got Trevino to Sunday with a two-shot margin over Nicklaus and Rodriguez, and his streak of 11 straight tournament rounds in the 60's gave him reason for optimism. "I saw Jack making a lot of mistakes," Trevino said. Then he added, "Don't be surprised if Chi Chi doesn't leave us both in the dust."
There was no dust on Sunday, however, despite sunshine and breezes—just soft, receptive turf. Nicklaus grabbed the lead with a couple of birdies on the front side, but he hit into the rocks for bogey on the par-3 7th hole and fell a stroke behind when Trevino birdied the 8th. The 8th, a par-5, was also where Rodriguez suffered his brain fog, taking three putts to get down from the edge after reaching the green in two. "That was the turning point for me," said Rodriguez.
For Trevino, the end seemed to come at the 13th, a short par-3 that plummets 50 feet from a cliff to a canyon green. Tied with Nicklaus at 13 under, Trevino caught a nine-iron fat and wound up short of the green in long grass. Addressing the downhill chip, he placed his club behind the ball—not grounding it—and looked toward the pin. When he looked back, the ball was not where it had been; it was an inch or two closer to the hole. "Obviously, I had moved it, so I called Jack over and told him," he said.
Penalized a stroke, Trevino chipped 10 feet past the hole and then sank the putt for bogey—a critical stroke, as it turned out. "It's funny, but I think the penalty relaxed me," Trevino said. "I was probably going to make bogey anyway, and when I made the long putt, it really gave me a lift."
Birdies at the 15th and 17th boosted Trevino back in front by a shot, and when Nicklaus pulled a two-iron into the sand left of the green on the par-5 18th, the tournament looked to be over. Not so. Nicklaus hit a wedge to within 12 feet, a good shot under the circumstances. And then Trevino chipped a good 12 feet past the pin and came up 18 inches short with his come-backer for birdie. Nicklaus needed his 12-footer to force a playoff, but the smooth-rolling putt slid around the cup from left to right, like a tongue licking a lip, and stopped on the edge.
Tapping in for a tournament-record 274, Trevino registered his 12th Senior tour title in three seasons and his second of 1992. "Jack let us in," he said. "He made too many big numbers."
Nicklaus probably would agree, but he played well enough at Scottsdale to prove that his mind will be in the game this week at the Masters. Trevino will be home in Florida, practicing. As for Blancas, well, he shot 76 on Sunday and wound up tied for 20th. But no matter. The memory will sweeten as the years go by.
Trevino blasted to a two-shot lead on Saturday but needed a par at 18 on Sunday to win.
When Nicklaus's birdie putt at 18 lipped out, his bid for a playoff was also left hanging.