- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The pro tour, in the meantime, seemed but a faraway dream. Young golfers cannot obtain a place on the tour simply by showing up with a bagful of clubs. Lee learned to his dismay that in order to make the big time he first would have to attend the tournament players' school at Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. and show a minimum of $6,500 available to pay his way on the tour. He lacked the wherewithal to do either. But PGA rules offered him another, though slower, way. By putting in four years as a course pro and matriculating at the PGA's business school in Dallas, Lee could qualify for the precious Class A card that automatically admits a player to the tour. At last he fulfilled both of those requirements and asked his employer to sign a form verifying his four years of service on the par-3 course.
"I'm not going to sign it," the man replied. "I don't think you're ready for that Class A card." Lee supposes his boss simply did not want to lose his services, but he lost them anyhow. Enraged, Lee quit.
Tycoons and wealthy playboys across America were lining up to back hotshot college golfers, and now a Dallas man named Bill Gray came forward willing to sponsor Lee in scattered tournaments that did not require the Class A card. The only trouble was that Lee's sponsor needed a sponsor. Bill Gray held a modest government job that barely enabled him to foot Lee's expenses to the 1965 Texas State Open at Houston and the Mexico Open. Happily, Lee won the State Open and $1,000 and in Mexico City won second-place money, $2,280. "So we were in business," Lee says.
By now Bill Gray had become so enchanted with tournament golf that he quit his job. This turn of events dictated that certain expenditures—airplane tickets, for example—be eliminated, so to reach the Panama Open, the dauntless sponsor and his pro drove 7� days through Central America, sleeping in Gray's car and, at one stop in El Salvador, in a 50� hotel room that they shared with a large bat. The southern portion of Costa Rica, the last leg on their journey, proved particularly arduous.
"The reason was," Lee says, "there was no road. We drove on a riverbed. It was all boulders. The fastest we could go was 15 miles an hour. Then we went up through mountains on a horse trail, and finally, in the middle of the night, we find a little road. But now we see there's a truck parked sideways across the road, and there's four guys waiting for us. One of them is wearing a big straw hat and no shirt, and he's got a carbine. Bill Gray says, 'It's all over. They're fixin' to kill us.' Well, the guy with the carbine says to us in Spanish, 'Hey, you got a cigarette?' And in Spanish, I tell him, 'Here. Take the whole pack." So they moved the truck. Till we got to Panama, I like to suffocated. We had the doors locked and the windows rolled up tight all the way." In Panama City, Lee won fifth-place money, $716.67, and Gray sold his car, making it possible for them to fly back to Dallas and unemployment.
Enter Martin Lettunich, the millionaire cotton farmer. Lettunich had observed Lee's performance in the State Open, and now he was phoning from El Paso with a proposition. He wanted to pit Lee against a hot local golfer in El Paso. "Fly over here," Lettunich said to Lee, "and I'll pay your expenses and $300, win or lose."
"I shot a 65 and a 67," Lee says of the match, "and beat the guy like a tom-tom. I turned him every way but loose."
What's more, Lee persuaded Donny Whittington to make him the Horizon Hills pro. He worked furiously to improve his game. "I saw him break five clubs over his knee, one after the other, on the practice tee," says Claudia. Last year, still wondering how to get a Class A card, Lee had a brainstorm. "What would happen," he asked himself, "if a pro worked for a guy for four years and the guy dropped dead before signing the verification? Would the pro lose credit for those four years?" He put the analogy to Texas PGA officials. It was common knowledge that he had worked four years in Dallas and, that being the case, was it really necessary that his former boss verify it? Sympathetic, the PGA handed him a card. The next thing he knew, Claudia was hurling him into the U.S. Open. "I went up there and beat the big shots, and that's how it all started," says Lee.
On the fringe of Horizon Hills, a residential development known as Horizon City is springing up. The builders have just about completed a five-bedroom adobe villa with a walled courtyard and a private putting green. Lee and Claudia, their 3-year-old daughter Lesley, a dachshund named Bogey and a Doberman named Judy will move in any day now. Lee surely is getting to be a man of stature. In nightclubs, headline performers join his table, as did Singer Robert Cameron at the posh Camino Real in Ju�rez not long ago. Over coffee in the Horizon Hills breakfast room the next morning Claudia said to Lee, "Did you see how those two beautiful girls moved right in at the table when Robert Cameron sat down?"
"Whaddaya mean, Cameron!" Lee protested. "I was the star, the celebrity. Cameron ain't nothin'."