I'm going to buy the Alamo and give it back to Mexico.—Lee Trevino, after winning the 1968 U.S. Open.
When I turn 40, I'm going home and count my money. I'm going to have it stacked in bales. I'll just sit there and grin.—Trevino, circa 1972.
Things didn't work out the way Lee Buck Trevino thought they would. Texas kept the Alamo and the money went south, and so, at 41, Trevino keeps writing new chapters to his improbable story, a largely triumphant saga speckled with calamity. He has been hit by lightning and has made and lost a fortune. His back all but gave out on him. And yet he keeps going, finishing No. 2 on the money list last year, winning the Tournament of Champions this year, heading for the U.S. Open at Merion next week, swaggering and strutting, touching everyone as he goes, and leaving in his wake a string of birdies and one-liners and the feeling that he's special.
Trevino's life contains not a whit of predictability. There has never been any 9-to-5 in him, not from the ragamuffin days when he was a kid playing in a Texas cemetery, not when he was a ruffian Leatherneck stationed in the Pacific, or a small-time hustler in Big D who went to sleep with the morning sun in his eyes. He joined the pro tour on a shoestring and a prayer, with a set of battered clubs and a couple of shirts, and immediately went about challenging Jack Nicklaus and the Establishment. He was full of audacity and irreverence. He was long on joviality and occasionally short of temper. He won tournaments, entertained orphans and sassed the Masters, in which he refused to compete in the early '70s. Golf, a sport meant to be emotionless, is lucky to have him.
The Trevino of the record books was born on June 16, 1968 at the Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., when he won the U.S. Open, whipping Nicklaus and everybody else by four strokes; the Taco Kid had block-busted golf's staid and WASPy leader board. Since then he has given us most of what we wanted—what a character, we say with delight—while jealously guarding all of himself. There may never have been a major sports figure the public seems to know so well and yet really understands so poorly.
Unlike some stars who rise from nothing and make it big, Trevino hasn't run away from what he was. He never forgets a favor—or a grudge—and eventually the books balance. What keeps Super Mex turning the key in all those motel-room doors week after week is his memory. Trevino never forgets that he is a fatherless Mexican-American with a seventh-grade education who was raised on bare floors with too little food and even less money. He believes that life is just waiting to kick people like him in the teeth.
The Trevino of the television screen is a chirpy, happy-go-lucky Mex, with not much more on his mind than whether the beer is cold. Actually, Trevino is a perspicacious man who can read people the way he can read a green. Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn't like. Well, Trevino never met a man he didn't know.
Outsiders tend to think of him as something of a gambler, too, dating from his hustling days, but that's not true. Trevino never made a bet that he wasn't pretty sure he could win. No gamble there. Even today he plays safe on the course and away from it. He fades his tee shots, and he's always on the high side with people, too, paying his own way, staying close to a small circle of friends. "No one knows me," he once said in a rare moment of candor. "I don't want anybody to know me."
There's one thing you have to understand about Trevino, about how a born scuffler looks at life: A Wall Street broker might consider a pool player, a hustler who lives by his wits, to be a particularly low form of life, but the pool player, the hustler, might just as well see the 9-to-5er as a truly contemptible sort.
That's called "the reverse." Trevino, who as a kid never ate lunch on a country club veranda or even had a summer vacation, knows what the reverse is like. You take someone's prejudice and you turn it against them. You take their criticism and laugh back. You make lemonade out of lemons. In fact, if you knew what to look for, you could've seen the way Trevino reverses things when he was playing in a pro-am at the Bel-Air Country Club earlier this year.