My Shot: Lee Trevino
How Trevino Tamed Merion, Jack, And A (Fake) Snake
What happens when a kid falls out of a tree as you're standing over a putt to win the Open? You get lost looking for your hotel room, have a laugh or two...and beat the best player who ever lived
In 1971, Merion was just over 6,500 yards, par 70. It was short by U.S. Open standards even then, but not super short compared to a lot of courses we played. The average tour player in those days hit his driver about 250 yards. Nicklaus was a monster, hitting it over 270. I was on the short side, but length wasn't the biggest factor. If your game was off by only a little, you suffered. Good players struggled there. Tom Weiskopf, Billy Casper and Tony Jacklin missed the cut.
AFTER MY FIRST practice round at Merion, a writer asked me what I thought of the course. I told him, "It's 16 birdies and 18 bogeys." What I meant was, if your game was good and you could hit the fairways, you could shoot some good scores. But if you were just a little off, you could shoot a million. [There were 39 scores in the 80s.] After two rounds I was two over par and four shots back. I was pretty happy about that.
MERION HAS wicker baskets on top of the flagsticks instead of flags. I thought they were the most amazing thing. They actually affect the way you play, because you always rely on the flag to tell you which way the wind is blowing. The wicker baskets tell you nothing.
FORTY-TWO YEARS later, and I can still remember the clubs I used that week. I had a Hogan Special sand wedge, the kind with green paintfill in the Hogan signature. It was the best sand wedge anyone ever made. I used a Wilson 8802 putter, one of many I had during my career. My driver was a gorgeous PowerBilt persimmon model; I didn't miss fairways with it. I carried a 2-wood that week, a MacGregor Eye-O-Matic with a metallic-looking insert about the size of a dime. And I had a Tommy Armour 4-wood.
THE SET OF IRONS I used at Merion, best I ever had. When I went to Australia in 1969, David Graham, who won the Open at Merion 10 years after I did, told me about a great clubmaker, a man named Sandy. I found Sandy sitting in his workshop, smoking a cigarette, surrounded by barrels of iron clubheads and discouraged beyond words. "My work has been reduced to rubbish!" he said, gesturing toward the barrels. "I'm a craftsman. I've spent my life making these clubheads by hand, and nobody sees value in them. They're forging clubheads by the hundreds now, and these fine clubheads I've made--they're seen as rubbish."
I wasn't so sure about that. I took a bare shaft and went into the barrels looking for the best clubheads. I'd stick the shaft into one, set it on the ground, and choose or reject it based on the grind. Eventually I had a whole set. This was on a Monday. I asked Sandy if he could install the shafts I liked and leather grips by Wednesday, which he did. I proceeded to shoot 16 under in a tournament there, lost in a playoff. These irons were unbelievable. I won the U.S. Open at Merion, my British Opens and my PGAs with them. One day, during a streak when I wasn't playing well, I drilled holes in them to take some weight out--and ruined them. I still have them, and when I look at them I could cry. If I hadn't tried to fix them, they might be in my bag to this day.
MERION IN 1971 was so penal. The setup was so hard. The rough was Merion bluegrass, a strain I hear was discovered by a superintendent there. It was thick, and because it rained early in the week, wet. It held the moisture and never did dry out completely. Then there were the bunkers, known as "the white faces of Merion." I didn't think the sand itself was that difficult to play from, but the bunkers were surrounded by long, unmanicured grass that was wild and scary looking. They triple-cut the greens twice a day, and the looks on players' faces when they hit their first few putts was something to see. The course was very intimidating. Even though it was a big field, most players had no chance. Between the visual end and the fact it played as hard as it looked, I knew I didn't have to beat as many players as usual.
MY CADDIE was a young man named Tom Tadeo. A college student. You weren't allowed to bring your own caddie in those days; you took a local guy who was assigned to you. Tom basically drew my name out of a hat. The day of the playoff, I told him if I won he'd get three big ones. When I did win and paid him $3,000 [from a first prize of $30,000], his eyes about came out of his head. It turned out that when I said, "three big ones," he thought I meant $300.