ST. ANDREWS — A small group of golf fans and autograph collectors sat on one side of a flimsy chain-link metal fence and Lee Trevino was on the other. It was near the driving range, at the Old Course on Monday afternoon. The fence started to crumble, in the direction of Trevino. The short, sudden roar that heralds the ongoing chaos arose. A security guard came running.
“Mr. Trevino, Mr. Trevino, are you okay?
Mr. Trevino was busy at the time. The 82-year-old golf icon, activating his big buttocks, short arms and bare hands – the tools of his profession, as well as his mind – held the fence while telling people on the other side to shoot while he was pushing. Order was restored in no time. Trevino took over the signing.
Trevino was struck by lightning. He was broke and rich and broke and rich. He went through periods when he was at odds with certain trading partners, behind his back, with the lords of Augusta. He could handle a falling fence and a group of polite, exuberant fans without batting an eyelid. He took care of everything.
“I’m looking at you,” Trevino told American golfer Brian Harman. “I see everything you do.”
It wasn’t meant to be a literal truth. It was about transmitting: I’m current in this game, and the things I know will last forever. That was Harman’s point of view.
The left-handed golfer chatted with Trevino for a few minutes at the driving range. Harman was asking how close you could get with your front foot without being too closed off. Trevino talked about the relationship between the front foot and the back foot. Trevino holds a doctorate in the yin and yang of golf. It was Harman’s first time spending time with him.
“Here’s a legend, on the lineup,” Harman said later. “To have a chance to talk to Lee Trevino and not do it would just be wrong. He has a knack for making the golf swing simple. Sometimes you get so stuck in TrackMan numbers, and all numbers, that you lose that the golf swing is more art than science. For Trevino, Harman said, golf was more art than science. He hopes it’s for him, too.
What Trevino did in his life as a one-of-a-kind golfer, he did on his own. (He’s won two US Opens, two Open Championships, two PGA Championships and dozens of other events.) What he knows about golf, he figured out for himself. Whatever doors he opened in this world, through his golf skill and scholarly understanding, he opened himself. Some of us are still drawn to golfers like that. Lee Elder. Moe Norman. Carlos Franco. Larry Nelson. Earl Woods, in his own way, possessed these qualities. He didn’t become an elite golfer, but his youngest son did.
Pretty much the only thing Trevino seems to need in his life as a golfer in general is an audience to validate him. Jack Nicklaus never needed an audience. Neither Ben Hogan, nor Mickey Wright, nor Woods. Arnold Palmer did. Sap Ballesteros did. Phil Mickelson does, even though he declined to play in Monday’s outing. Lee Trevino did it and Lee Trevino did it.
He doesn’t have many opportunities to show what he knows to the small population of the world who will understand what he is talking about. Monday was one of those opportunities. He was on the course for about four hours, warming up, playing, hanging out, and he seemed completely, uniquely alive.
Regarding the validation thing: It’s OK. If we were all the same, the world would be a dull place. It’s the very thing that keeps Trevino young. He was playing in the four-hole exhibition for the former champions on Monday afternoon. Nicklaus, his contemporary and foil, was not. “Come join us on the 17th and 18th and I’ll ride with you,” Trevino told Nicklaus as they gathered on the 1st tee. Yes, fill in as 1st start. Trevino’s foursome included Woods, Rory McIlroy and Georgia Hall, the English golfer who won the 2018 Women’s British Open. They played the 1st and 2nd holes and when they got to the 17th tee Nicklaus was there. There was a lot of talking and a lot of laughter. Trevino did a killer imitation of Nicklaus on a putt and Nicklaus laying turf on a pitch shot a long time ago. Nicklaus was laughing. Woods was cracking up. Hall was trying to understand.
But most telling was this: Trevino boasted his sand wedge, with 17 degrees of bounce! (Half is more typical.) “For soft sand,” Trevino said. Like, in case he enters the Road Hole bunker. All his life, Trevino collected golf clubs as if they were friends, and he put into play the clubs he needed for every round. Her youngest son, Daniel, carried them in a small, plain black bag on Monday.
A crowd had gathered outside the Jigger Inn, there to see Tiger and Rory – and Trevino. Adam Scott came out of the Old Course Hotel to watch. He sees everything Tiger and Rory he needs to see. He was there to watch Trevino, walk, move, swing. Pontificate. Trevino’s gait remains nearly perfect. When he steps into a golf ball and positions his feet, he looks completely at home. Nicklaus’ mind is still incredibly sharp, but playing even four short, flat holes for public consumption is of no interest to him and walking can be a struggle. Whatever Trevino does, it works.
On the range and near the practice green, an international parade of golfers and golfers – Harman, Jon Rahm from Spain, Sungjae Im from South Korea, including international golf instructors Dave Phillips and Pete Cowan – was hanging on Trevino’s every word. Blow after blow after blow was on the face. He hooked the putts. He sliced putts. His putt looks like a golf swing, not something produced by a machine. It’s hard to think of a golfer who putts like that today. Tiger took out the clubhead, but Trevino took out the body.
Trevino, forever, was able to turn his showman switch on and off like turning off your phone. When he feels the need, Trevino can be a storyteller, a comedian, a golf historian, a charmer. He concluded his day, the public part, by telling a film crew about the charms of the R&A museum here, the scores of early Open winners, the number of holes they played, his love of history . It was extraordinary. The day gave him what he needed. But here is the most important thing. He gave us what we needed: pure golf, where it all started. It started again this week. He gave us what golf, the current game, desperately needs.