Bruce Lietzke makes his way around golf courses as if there were a gun stuck in the small of his back. His gait seems uncomfortably upright, his visor uncomfortably low on his forehead and his gaze uncomfortably fixed just above the eye level of the gallery. All the while, his arms and hands stay close to his sides, even on those rare occasions when he can get a 20-footer to drop. In fact, in his 21st year on the PGA Tour, Lietzke still finds himself embarrassed by the cheering that ensues when he makes a long putt.
He appears to be a man utterly without flash who yearns not to be noticed. Yet mention Lietzke in golf circles and he becomes a flash point. It's as if anyone who professes to be into the game must have an opinion about Bruce Lietzke.
The most prevalent view is that Lietzke symbolizes what's wrong with professional golf. He's seen as a player who tries to make a bundle early in the season so he can take the rest of the year off, a squanderer of talent who plays a minimum of events and never practices during his long sojourns at home with his family. Purists revile him for his refusal to play in either the U.S. or the British Open, not to mention his use of the unsightly long putter. The fact that Lietzke has never tried to alter his swing, which is for all practical purposes incapable of producing a right-to-left flight, is offered as proof that he has no ambition. The easy take on Lietzke is that few have ever done less with more.
But there are others who consider Lietzke a kind of cult hero. While he plays to make a living, he has never chased opportunities for the easy buck that would have diluted his energy. Well-worn but far from complacent after more than two decades on the Tour, he sticks with a schedule that allows him to avoid burnout and to play with enthusiasm.
Lietzke is blessed with an all-talent, no-maintenance game that is the envy of every practice-ball-beating, angst-ridden pro he has ever played with. And his respect for the game and its traditions is reflected in his impeccable comportment. In this view, Lietzke's scope might be that of a minimalist, but nobody maximizes like him.
He has no agent, no swing guru, no sports psychologist, no secretary. When it comes to his career, he has only himself.
Which, when you are talking about Lietzke, is really the whole point. Ben Crenshaw, who has played with and against Lietzke since both were in junior high, believes Lietzke's self-reliance is his friend's biggest strength. "When I look at Bruce, I think of one of Harvey's favorite sayings," says Crenshaw, citing his late teacher, Harvey Penick. "He said the players that play the best are the ones who know themselves the best. Bruce knows himself."
Since joining the Tour in 1975, Lietzke has won 13 times. The only active players under the age of 50 with more victories are Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins, Hale Irwin, Hubert Green, Tom Kite, Crenshaw, Curtis Strange and Nick Price, and only the last three are younger than Lietzke, who is 43. Lietzke is 15th in alltime earnings with more than $5.6 million. Since he began playing an abbreviated schedule in 1983, he has averaged $342,299 a year, while rarely playing more than 20 events a year. Lietzke has a way of piling up the cash without being noticed, as he did to open the 1995 season by losing a playoff to Steve Elkington at the Mercedes Championships at La Costa. Last week's GTE Byron Nelson Classic near his home in Dallas was only his eighth tournament this year and his first since the Masters, yet he ranks a respectable 44th on the money list.
Lietzke also has one of the healthiest golf swings in history, in that it has never really been sick. His 6'2", 185-pound frame produces a fluid but somewhat oddly shaped action—Lietzke calls it an "over-the-top loop." But like a machine it has continued to stamp out the kind of purely-struck high fades that none other than Jack Nicklaus made the foundation of his game. "As far as consistency goes, he might be our best ball hitter," says Crenshaw.
Lietzke appreciates the compliments and enjoys his mystique, but what he is proudest of is how healthy his life has been away from golf. "When Bruce is home, he is 100 percent here," says his wife, Rose, the mother of the couple's two children, Stephen, 11, and Christine, 9. She compares his style of parenting to his favorite television program, The Andy Griffith Show. "Bruce talks to the kids the same way Andy would talk to Opie," says Rose. "He'll explain things, but he has this real gentle way of making them his equal. Children love Bruce, because he includes them." Last summer he was the dugout coach for his son's Little League team, and in April he skipped the Houston Open to go on a camping trip with Christine. On school days Lietzke usually spends his mornings working on his vintage 1960s and 1970s muscle cars or fishing, but he makes a point of being in the house when his children return in the afternoon.