Lee Buck Trevino couldn’t have been more different from the typical PGA Tour professional when he arrived at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., 50 years ago for the 68th U.S. Open.
Take his swing: The 28-year-old from Texas employed an unorthodox – though unerringly effective – move through the ball that produced his signature fade. His banter was also unlike anyone else’s in the field. When he knocked a shot onto the green midway through the final round, he freely admitted, “I’m trying to get a big enough lead where I can’t choke it.”
Trevino also plainly noted another thing besides his brilliant play that distinguished him from his peers: “Regardless of what you think and what you want, you’re fixing to have a Mexican as a U.S. Open champion.”
Actually a Mexican-American, the first and only such champion to date, one who quit school in Dallas in the seventh grade and honed his swing in the caddie yard. A later stint in the Marine Corps helped him dodge the pitfalls that ensnared many of his friends, and within a few years he had become a good enough player to qualify for the 1966 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club. He tied for 54th, and he qualified again in 1967, finishing fifth at Baltusrol to set the stage for his breakthrough one year later.
“The only thing I was worried about was how I was going to feed my family and pay the rent,” Trevino recalled. “Playing big-time golf or winning a U.S. Open, those things never even crossed my mind. I know it’s a sport, but for me it was a business, a living. I came from nothing.”
Trevino’s fifth-place finish in 1967 had given him the break he needed – entry into the following week’s PGA Tour event in Minneapolis. He made the cut there, and kept on making cuts: 13 straight, earning enough to place 47th on the season-ending money list, in an era when only the top 60 were exempt for the following season.
“Going into that Open at Rochester, I had finished second in Houston to Roberto De Vicenzo, then I finished second in Atlanta to Bob Lunn,” said Trevino. “I took a week off, then played four practice rounds [at Oak Hill] with Doug Sanders, and he said, ‘Man, you’re playing awfully good.’ It’s true when people say there are horses for courses. That course fit me pretty well.”
His statistics for the week bear this out. Trevino was second in both fairways hit and greens in regulation, and 12th in total putts (without a three-putt). Still, he trailed Bert Yancey for three days – by two strokes after Rounds 1 and 2, and by one stroke entering the final round, as Yancey broke the 54-hole championship scoring mark with rounds of 67-68-70. But Yancey faded on Sunday with a 6-over 76, and Trevino was suddenly the frontrunner.
“I drove the ball extremely well, and I hit my irons pretty good,” Trevino said. “My big difficulty was always putting. I was never a great putter, but when I did catch a week when I was on with the putter, I was a pretty difficult guy to beat.”
Trevino rolled in a 35-footer on No. 11 and a 22-footer on No. 12, both for birdies, to give himself the cushion he needed to avoid “choking it.” Though he was being pursued by Jack Nicklaus and trying to nail down not only his first major but his first professional victory, Trevino held the Golden Bear at bay. And he did it with a flourish.
“I tried to hit a big drive on the last hole,” Trevino recalled sheepishly, but he hooked it into deep rough. He gouged his second shot to within 105 yards of the hole, still in the rough. “I’m looking at double bogey, but I’ve got a four-shot lead. I hit a sand wedge onto the left edge of the green and ran it 3 feet past the pin. I made it for par. When I went into the scorer’s tent, they said, “You’re the first man that’s ever shot four rounds in the 60s in a U.S. Open.’”
It was the first of six majors for Trevino, and Nicklaus was the runner-up in four of them. But Oak Hill proved to be about much more than numbers. “If I did anything by winning this trophy in 1968, I brought the blue-collar guy into the game,” said Trevino. “That’s what I’m proud of. They’re looking at me and they’re saying, ‘I can do that.’”
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.