Golf's touring professionals, thriving in their golden age, have become a comparatively sane and urbane lot. They tend to dress and behave like the president of anybody's First National Bank—while frequently stacking up more money. Although they like to talk about the bad old days when Walter Hagen caroused all night with Al Jolson and then won the National Open hours later despite a staggering hangover, they know good businessmen don't live that way. The pro of the '60s wants to be, above all, a good businessman. There is, however, a youthful exception to the trend, one who does things with indisputable distinction. He is, surely, the only pro golfer ever to open a 12th-floor St. Paul hotel window at a late evening party and drive golf balls down Market Street. Nor have many people bubbled so much at winning their first PGA tournament that they ordered champagne for the entire press corps. Limited, too, are those who have won a sudden-death playoff after three quick highballs at the clubhouse bar. Finally, how many other pros have found a way to spend $28,000 a year doing something that most of their fellow tourists can do for $12,000?
But that's Tony Lema: tall, handsome, 29, a bachelor—for the next few months at least—and a long way from the Oakland canneries, shipyards, juvenile gangs and nimble golf hustles that marked his hardly serene youth. When not playing golf today, Anthony David Lema can be found at La Seala in Beverly Hills or Brennan's in New Orleans or the Little Club in New York. His haunts were the same a year ago, though until last September he had one annoying problem—he was spending money twice as fast as he was making it. But in only six months Tony has solved that difficulty and, if he still enjoys a first-class living, he can now afford it. Suddenly, his golf is first-class, too.
Prior to last fall, Tony Lema seemed more likely to become the National Twist Champion than to ruffle the calm of the world's best golfers. In five years as a touring professional he had shown occasional flashes of brilliance, but he had never won an important tournament. When the 1962 fall season opened, Lema stood 33rd in the ranks of the year's prize-money winners with a total of only $15,294. His debt to the financial backer who had sent him out on the tour amounted to three quarters of that sum, and his prospects were as gloomy as a Sunday morning downpour. But by Christmas, Lema was in a position to dispense frankincense and myrrh from Upstairs at the Downstairs to the Top of the Mark. He had won three tournaments in the U.S. and the Mexican Open as well, had earned his first invitation to compete in the Masters, had brought his overall 1962 winnings to $48,000 and had practically clinched a spot on the 10-man Ryder Cup team that will face Great Britain next October. Then, as if to prove that his spectacular play was something more lasting than bright autumn foliage, he finished in the top 10 at six of the first eight tournaments this year and currently ranks fifth on the prize money list with a total of $11,831.
Part of his success was, perhaps, due to the fact that the playboy in Lema is maturing. But a close look at the past-performance chart also reveals the explosively effective nature of his golf game. Even before he came out on the tour as a regular in 1958, Lema had won one worthwhile event, the 1957 Imperial Valley Open. It was there that he had assumed he was out of contention and cheered himself up at the bar—three times—only to be summoned out for a sudden-death playoff against long-hitting Paul Harney. The surprised Lema, feeling the pressure but apparently no pain, won on the second hole.
In his early days on the tour, Lema's long, accurate driving brought him some great rounds of golf. Several times he led tournaments during early stages, on y to lose control of his nerves or his temper and fade out of contention.
"He was a wonderful guy and a great player when he first came out," claims Johnny Pott, one of the best of the young pros and a longtime Lema companion. "We all wondered why he didn't start winning sooner. But he liked to do things first-class all the way, even then. You know, wine with his meals, late hours—the whole deal. He didn't want to make the sacrifices that have to be made if you want to win. Now he does."
"I don't think that's entirely it," says Lema. "I think that everything just fell into place at once. I have always known my game was very good, and I have always known how to get the most out of myself physically. I know I have to get away after a tournament, visit friends, lie on the beach. I fly, instead of driving like a lot of the other guys, because I figure it saves me 60 days a year. No, my difficulty has been that I couldn't control my temper. That, plus the fact that winning my first tournament became a big obsession with me. If I got a bad break or missed a short putt, I blew my top and began to expect bad breaks. It was a form of self-persecution that made it very hard to play consistently. Now I've learned that missing a short putt doesn't mean I have to hit my next drive out of bounds."
Ordinarily Lema is the most gregarious and generous of people. But if he had—or still has—sudden spasms of depression, there are probably ample reasons why. In its early years the Lema family, now comfortably off, had very little cause for merriment, even if it could have afforded it. Lema's father, a laborer of Portuguese descent, died of pneumonia when Tony was 3. His death left Lema's mother penniless as well as widowed, with the task of raising four children hard by the railroad in an industrial section of Oakland. It was not easy, of course. His two older brothers and sister seem to have been well behaved enough, but Tony's boyhood was more of a walk on the wild side. He began cutting classes at school, getting into fights and looking for small change and high excitement with a gang of young rowdies that avoided the clutches of the law largely because it moved fast.
"We would booze it up quite a bit, and that is the worst thing kids can do," recalls Lema. "It gave us a lot of false courage, and we always wound up in a batch of trouble. I was fortunate never to get caught. It was part of my life I'd like to do all over again."
But if he was difficult, he was also willing to work and help out at home. He started caddying at the nearby Lake Chabot municipal golf course when he was 12 and took a variety of other jobs as he got older. "It was tough on my mother with four kids to raise," says Tony, "but we hung together. I've worked in shipyards, drugstores, car factories, canneries, gas stations and grocery stores; any possible way I could make a buck. I took the swing shift at the shipyard just so I could play golf during the day."