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John Lovesey
July 20, 1964
Champagne Tony Lema overcomes some famous foes, gale winds and all of the evilly named hazards on an irritable old golf course to make a runaway of the British Open and win his first major title
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July 20, 1964

Victorious Crusade In The Valley Of Sin

Champagne Tony Lema overcomes some famous foes, gale winds and all of the evilly named hazards on an irritable old golf course to make a runaway of the British Open and win his first major title

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For the Scots, golf is a national pastime. They are silent watchers, often signifying their approval with only the barest ripple of handclapping. Every stance, every movement of a competitor like Lema is filed away for future reference and long discussion in the years to come. They have taken to only two Americans in the last 15 years—Ben Hogan, whose coolness they understood, and Arnold Palmer, whose boldness they reveled in. "You don't have to get in really close to the hole to win their approval with a shot," noticed Lema. "They know a difficult shot and appreciate it. And they know golfers." The first indication of the undercurrent of emotion that Lema was evoking in the crowd came at the 12th hole during his second round, when he drove the green and knocked in a 30-foot putt for an eagle 2. "They seemed to loosen up then," said Tony, "and it made me feel good." By the time he was in with his 68, he had captured the gallery.

That night Lema was relaxing, stretched out on a sofa, with a whisky in front of him and a host of the world's best golfers well behind him. He was two strokes in front of England's Harry Weetman, three ahead of Australia's Bruce Devlin, seven ahead of Argentina's Roberto de Vicenzo, eight ahead of South Africa's Gary Player and nine ahead of New Zealand's Bob Charles and that initial favorite of the odds-makers, Jack Nicklaus.

"Look," said Lema, "do you want to know what I really feel about St. Andrews? I feel like I am back visiting an old grandmother. She's crotchety and eccentric but also elegant, and anyone who doesn't fall in love with her has no imagination. The 68 I shot today was one of the finest rounds of golf I've ever shot, but I still don't feel confident. This is the most challenging golf course I've ever been on. You don't dare go to sleep one moment. And to finish second won't mean a thing. In the year 2064, when people pick up that record book, this is the kind of championship they will look up. You'll be remembered only if you win." Then he sat down to a supper of corn on the cob, salmon with mayonnaise, curried chicken and pears with chocolate sauce.

The last 36 holes of the tournament were played on a lovely fresh day, with the worst of the wind gone and the sun shining. Tony had said the night before that it is easier to get some steam up if you're behind, and he started steamless, going four over par on the first five holes. As he was walking up to the 6th hole he passed Nicklaus, who had teed off earlier and was coming down the 13th. What he saw was enough to steam up—or panic—anybody. Nicklaus was an awesome four under par. He had picked up eight strokes on Lema, and was within one stroke of the lead. The two players stopped momentarily to stare at each other across the joint fairway and take stock of the situation. Nicklaus looked fiercely confident. Lema admitted later, "I didn't feel so good."

If the Scots had any remaining question as to Lema's quality as a golfer it hung on that incident in the morning and was settled for them at once. Tony got a 4, and then shot five straight 3s, three of them birdies. When Nicklaus, who had come in with a 66 that equaled the course record, heard that Lema was himself now heading home with a score under 70, he could hardly credit it. When Tony holed a 20-foot putt at the 18th for a birdie 3 and a third-round score of 68, a Scot was heard saying to a friend, "That slams the door, eh." His companion replied, "It locks it, mon."

More than locked, the door was barred. The seven-stroke lead that Lema now held was too much even for Nicklaus, who went around in another remarkable 68, though he knew the battle had been finished when his morning attack was successfully met. Lema coasted around the course in the late afternoon in 70 to win with a 279, five strokes ahead of Nicklaus and six in front of De Vicenzo. Lema and the French champion, Jean Garaialde, were the last pair in, and as they stood on the 18th tee, the crowd of 13,000 massed behind them. Lema's drive put him about 50 yards from the pin and facing the deep "Valley of Sin" that lies in front of the last green of the Old Course. He took a seven-iron—the wedge was still unused—to run the ball up within inches of the hole. He had barely swung at the shot before he was engulfed by the gallery. "I got hit four times before I had finished my follow-through," he said.

For a long time he did not appear. Finally he extricated himself from the gallery, arriving on stage like an actor late for a cue. He was wiping sweat from his brow with one hand and clasping his putter in the other. He ran in the birdie putt and then, with a swift movement, picked the ball out of the cup and threw it high over the crowd.

"I've won tournaments and I've won money," Champagne Tony had said the day he flew off to the British Open. "Now I want to win a major championship. It is on my schedule of things to do, and I am going to do it." He didn't even wait a week.

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