The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and "Champagne" Tony Lema from the streets of Oakland made for a most improbable pairing at the British Open in 1964. The very name Champagne Tony—suggesting, as it rather accurately did, a playboy mentality—was in itself wholly antithetical to the dour Scottish nature. And Lema, who until only a short time before had enjoyed greater success in the boudoir than in the bunkers, had certainly earned his sybaritic sobriquet, for as he himself once put it, "I have never denied myself a drink or a good dinner or a party while I am out on Tour." He had once even questioned his choice of sport. "I'm not sure I'm really cut out for pro golf," he said. "I should be playing something like football or basketball, where I have a chance to run and shout."
Running and shouting would never do at the Royal & Ancient. Only a very few Americans, most notably the aristocratic Bobby Jones and, in more recent years, the charismatic Arnold Palmer, had broken through the famous Scottish reserve there. A hedonist of the Champagne Tony stripe didn't seem to have a chance. In fact, after a brilliant start in 1964—he won the Bing Crosby pro-am in February, then within the space of four weeks, the Thunderbird Classic and the Buick and Cleveland Opens—Lema was not at all certain he wanted to play at St. Andrews. Only after his friend and idol, Palmer, convinced him that if he skipped the British he would be "missing one of the greatest thrills of your life" did Lema acquiesce. Palmer even loaned him one of his black Tommy Armour putters and the caddie, Tip Anderson, who had seen Arnie through his 1961 and '62 British Open victories.
After playing 10 practice holes at the Royal & Ancient on Monday and a full 18 on Tuesday, Lema pronounced himself ready for the Wednesday start. This somewhat cavalier approach was misinterpreted by the Scottish press as a forecast of victory, and when a local newspaper headlined that sentiment the next day, a horrified Lema complained to his business agent (and PGA Tour pioneer), Fred Corcoran, "I never said I'd win." Replied Corcoran, "Well, you have now." And win he did, both the Open Championship and, as fellow pro Dave Marr recalls, "the hearts and minds of the Scottish people." Stepping up to the very first tee, Lema paused to pick up a coin he spotted in the grass. "Look at this," he addressed the gallery, holding the coin aloft. "I'm already the leading money winner in the British Open." Thereafter Champagne Tony became for the Scots "the Jolly Yank."
Playing in a stiff wind, Lema shot a one-over-par 73 in the first round. A masterly second-round 68 gave him a two-stroke lead over the field and a nine-stroke margin over the Open favorite, Jack Nicklaus. He served champagne in the press tent that afternoon, a treat he ordinarily reserved for winning a tournament. And the gesture did seem premature, for he faltered early in the next round and was two over par after five holes when he passed Nicklaus, playing the 13th. There he learned to his terror that Nicklaus, four under for the round, was closing in on him in a hurry. Pressured, Lema parred the sixth and then shot five straight 3s, three of them birdies, on his way to finishing with a 68 to Nicklaus's 66. He coasted to victory with a final-round 70 and 279 for the tournament, five strokes ahead of Nicklaus. After his own cork-popping party he was approached by another avid golfer, the Duke of Windsor, who, proffering him a glass, said, "I understand you enjoy a spot of champagne."
The legend of Champagne Tony could just as easily have been the sad tale of "Beer and Pretzels" Tony had it not been for golf. He grew up in a largely industrial neighborhood on the border between east Oakland and the town of San Leandro. His Bermuda-born Portuguese father—Anthony Harry Lema, a factory worker—died in 1937 when his youngest child, Anthony David, was just three. Tony's mother, Clotilda (Geo), worked variously as a department store clerk, a shoe salesperson and a drugstore cashier to support her four children.
Tony, always the charmer, had a wild streak that expressed itself more in mischief than in genuine delinquency, although as brother Harry says, "It was not unusual to find the police at our front door"—once when Tony and a friend heedlessly siphoned gas from a patrol car and again when they lifted a case of beer from a truck in plain view of a passing officer.
Lema began caddying as a 12-year-old at the Lake Chabot municipal course in the Oakland hills. By 13 he was playing regularly there under the tutelage of the head pro, Dick Fry. At 18 he won the Oakland City amateur championship. A caddying and golfing buddy in those formative years was another Oakland youngster, John Brodie, a future quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers and briefly, in 1959, Lema's roommate on the pro golf tour. "Tony was a tough kid," says Brodie, who now plays on the Senior tour. "You had to be, growing up in Oakland. We didn't exactly lead a country club life. In fact, we were hustlers. But Tony was always a romantic. He loved good people and couldn't stand jerks."
Lema was kicked out of one East Bay Catholic high school for smoking and narrowly graduated from another, then joined the Marine Corps in 1952. He was sent to Korea as an artilleryman just as the war there ended and spent much of his 11 months overseas playing golf in Japan. On his release in the fall of 1955 he was speeding home to his mother's house in San Leandro when he was stopped by an Alameda County sheriff's deputy who, fortunately, was a golfing pal named Jerry Kroeckel. Kroeckel told him of a job opening for an assistant pro at the posh San Francisco Golf Club. As it happened, Lema had also played junior golf with head pro John Geersten's son, John Jr., so he got the job. It was the break of a lifetime. By observing at close hand what former USGA president Sandy Tatum has called "the unforced gentility" of the membership, the future Champagne Tony developed much of the savoir faire that would make him such an enchanting rogue in the years to come.
The Bay Area was alive with talented young golfers in the late 1950s. Harvie Ward won back-to-back National Amateur championships in 1955 and '56, Ken Venturi nearly won the 1956 Masters as an amateur, and Bob Rosburg would win the PGA Championship in 1959. Between rounds at the San Francisco Golf Club with the likes of Bing Crosby, Lema watched and learned from these emerging stars.
He won his first professional tournament, the Imperial Valley Open at the Barbara Worth Country Club in El Centro, Calif., in January 1957 in a most unusual fashion. Convinced that he was out of the running, and with the leader, Paul Harney, still on the course, Lema repaired to the clubhouse bar for a few postmortem scotches. He had downed his third when he was told that he and Harney had tied and that a sudden-death playoff was about to begin. In a semi-inebriated state, he nevertheless disposed of Harney on the second extra hole.