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Luck was residue of design in the summer of ’68 when Lee Trevino launched golf legend at Oak Hill

Luck was residue of design in the summer of ’68 when Lee Trevino launched golf legend at Oak Hill

In roughly 12 hours, Lee Trevino would be teeing off in the most important golf tournament of his life, so you might have expected the tension surrounding him to be so thick you could cut it with a pitching wedge.

But truth be told, the man who would become known as the Merry Mex could not have been more relaxed prior to the first round of the U.S. Open on June 13, 1968. In fact, Trevino was so loose the evening before that he was crawling on hands and knees next to a playful toddler in the backyard of the home where he was staying, not far from Oak Hill Country Club. While other pros were getting in some last-minute work at the driving range and putting green before the sun set, the fun-loving Trevino and Susan Kircher were in hot pursuit of a four-leaf clover.

“Susan and I still reminisce about that whenever we chat,’’ Trevino was saying recently by phone from his Dallas, Texas home. “She was just an itty-bitty thing at the time, but I convinced her to join me on that scavenger hunt. My host family, the Kirchers, had a lot of clover in that backyard of theirs. We finally found what we were looking for, and I put it in my back pocket.”

Now, as the 83-year-young Trevino is quick to point out 55 years later, “that four-leaf clover didn’t hit any drives or bunker shots or putts.” But its discovery may have been a harbinger because over the next four days the grandson of a Mexican American gravedigger would become the first golfer in U.S. Open history to shoot four consecutive sub-par rounds on his way to his first professional victory.

Trevino came to Rochester as a household name perhaps only in his own household and the household of the Kircher family. He left town as a national celebrity in demand. After his Open victory, his smiling visage was splashed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and he was entertaining an invitation to appear on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

“Even though I’d been named the tour’s rookie-of-the-year [by Golf Digest] the year before, nobody knew who I was until Oak Hill,’’ he said. “I was such an unknown that the first day, after I shot a 69, I was sitting on a cart near the practice green, and it was like I was a guy running the information booth. People kept coming up and asking me things like, “How, do I get to the 16th hole?” and “What time does Arnold Palmer tee off?” It was the same way after I shot a 68 in the second round. But after I shot a 69 on day three, people started showing up with pictures and golf balls for me to sign. It wasn’t something I was familiar with, and it obviously exploded after I wound up winning the tournament that Sunday.”

Trevino’s longshot victory caught the world by surprise, but fellow pro Doug Sanders saw it coming. Until that week, he didn’t really know Trevino. Just by chance, the two happened to play four practice rounds together before the Open, and Sanders couldn’t stop raving about Trevino. “I’ve never seen anyone hit the ball as well as you are,’’ he marveled. “I’m betting on you.”

Trevino was betting on himself, too. “I really was at the top of my game back then,’’ he said. “I wasn’t cocky, but I was confident heading into that tournament. I was calm and collected.” And he remained that way all week, in large part because of his host family. “Paul and Barbara Kircher had five young kids, and that would have scared most golfers off,’’ Trevino said. “But I loved it. They were a great bunch of kids, and I think they all helped keep me relaxed. When I would get back to their house after finishing my round, they helped get my mind off things.”

Trevino vividly remembers the first time he set foot in their home on Arlington Drive in Pittsford. Paul picked him up from the airport, and when they walked into the kitchen, Trevino noticed Barbara taking cans of tamales out of a grocery bag. “She had gone out and got her hands on all the Mexican food she could find,’’ he said, chuckling. “Now, I like Mexican food, but I grew up in Texas, so I was used to eating American food. But I really appreciated the gesture.”

The way the tournament began it appeared that Bert Yancey was going to cruise to a wire-to-wire victory. As hot as Trevino was those first three days, Yancey was even hotter, and held a one-stroke advantage going into Sunday’s finale. But he self-destructed halfway through the round and shot a miserable 76 to plummet to a third-place finish.

Yancey was playing in the final twosome that day with Trevino, so Lee had a bird’s-eye view of his collapse. Trevino’s biggest concern was the guy in the twosome in front of him. “I was worried about the G.O.A.T., the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus,’’ he recalled. “Jack played one of the best rounds ever, tee-to-green. I think he hit like 17 of 18 greens. But fortunately for me, he couldn’t buy a putt. Instead of the roars one might hear after a touchdown at a football game, I heard a lot groans from the gallery because Jack’s putts were coming up short.”

Nicklaus finished with a 67 for a four-day total of 279, good for second place. Trevino, meanwhile, continued playing intrepid golf, and took command with decisive birdies on the 11th and 12th holes. He saved par on the final hole of the tournament with a magnificent wedge shot to within three feet of the cup and finished at 275, tying the Open record Nicklaus set the year before.

In the joyous press conference following the trophy and check presentation, Trevino was at his quipster best. Asked what he planned to do with his $30,000 top prize money, he joked: “I’m gonna buy the Alamo and give it back to Mexico.” The reporters ate it up. They couldn’t get enough of the new face of golf. Trevino made sure that his caddie, Kevin Quinn, sat next to him at the presser and lavished praise on the 18-year-old who had just completed his freshman year at Cornell.

Following a party overflowing with Margaritas in the Oak Hill clubhouse, Trevino returned to the Kircher home and was touched to see the yards on Arlington Drive dotted with hand-made signs congratulating him in both English and Spanish.

He couldn’t help but reflect on how far he had come since his humble, impoverished beginnings in Dallas, in which he and his two sisters were raised by their mother and grandfather in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing. Trevino wound up quitting school in the eighth grade so he could begin work shining shoes and carrying bags at a nearby golf course to help ends meet. It was there he taught himself how to play the game — at first by hitting crab apples with broom sticks. He obviously was a great teacher and student.

At age 17, Trevino joined the U.S. Marine Corps, spending four years as a machine gunner before receiving an honorable discharge and landing a job as an assistant golf pro for $30 per week. At age 22, he finally began practicing his craft in earnest. In 1965, he won the first tournament he ever played — the Texas State Open. Three years later, he introduced himself to the sports world with his victory at Oak Hill. He would go on to win five more majors. His sparkling resume includes 29 PGA Tour victories, 29 more on the PGA Senior Tour, and the prestigious Rochester-based Hickok Belt Award as the best athlete in professional sports in 1971.

But the numbers that earned him induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame tell only part of the story. Trevino was not only one of the game’s finest ball-strikers, but also one of its most beloved and caring personalities. His philanthropy is legendary. There are stories of him paying for a former caddie’s hefty medical bills. After capturing his first British Open, Trevino donated a huge chunk of his winnings to an English orphanage. For years, he’s worked hard to create more golfing opportunities for minorities, including the establishment of a college scholarship program for Mexican Americans.

Few golfers enjoy conversing with fans and fellow players more than Trevino. There’s a funny tale about him being paired with taciturn Tony Jacklin. “Lee, I don’t want to talk today,” Jacklin told him before teeing off. Trevino smiled. “I don’t want you to talk, Tony,’’ he joked. “I just want you to listen.”

Trevino’s sense of humor helped him get through his impoverished youth, as well as the discrimination he encountered on the PGA Tour, and the lightning strike during the 1974 Western Open in Chicago that forced him to undergo back surgery. “I think a good laugh can solve a lot of ills,’’ Trevino said. “And I think it’s a wonderful way to melt the ice between people and loosen them up. I think the world would be a better place if we learned to laugh a little more, particularly at ourselves.”

Five-and-a-half decades ago, Trevino found himself laughing all the way to the bank, thanks, in large part, to a family he’s grown to love. And it wouldn’t shock him if a similar story unfolded during this week’s PGA Championship at Oak Hill. “The pressure’s on the big boys, the favorites,’’ he said. “They’re the ones who are going to be heavily scrutinized by the media and the fans. So, yeah, I think someone who hasn’t won before or hasn’t won in a long time can get their hands on that Wanamaker Trophy. You got to keep an eye on guys who fly under the radar.”

He speaks from experience.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.