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Opinion & Analysis

Champagne Time: On the 50th anniversary of the death of Tony Lema

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One afternoon a lifetime ago, in a scraggly bit of park between a suburban New York commuter railroad station and the dire Bronx River, a skinny little young teen was working on his short game. With his trusty 9-iron, the kid hit pitches from target to target: tree, bare spot, piece of litter. And then Masters champion Doug Ford came along, asked the kid what he was aiming at — “That tree there?” — and with the kid’s club stiffed it.

I tell this story to explain, in sentimental part, why I recently tracked down a copy of Ford’s 1963 Wedge Book. (Let me also add that Doug Ford did have local connections, which makes his appearance there in a patch of southern Westchester train-station scrub less golfus ex machina than you might have thought it.) That hard-practicing kid’s once stellar short game has gotten maddeningly erratic, this near-half-century later, and in looking around for guidance I discovered Ford’s little volume, previously unknown to me. It contains advice that is still very helpful — and it also contains, in Julius Boros’s Preface, a sentence that left me nearly as open-mouthed with wonderment as Ford’s no-practice-swing bullseye left my younger self. Boros, himself a three-time major champion, mentions having worked his way up with Ford on the post-war pro circuit “amid some pretty fine company — Jackie Burke, Ted Kroll, Tommy Bolt and Jerry Barber, to name a few.” And then Boros, writing in September 1963, adds this:

“Doug Ford and I both feel that the current crop of young golfers, including Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tony Lema, is the best to come up since that group a decade ago.”

The King, the Black Knight, the Golden Bear — of course the Big Three, all still happily with us, did go on to be “the best” of that golfing generation (and then some). But that there might have been a Big Fourth? What about the last-named member of Boros’s then-young foursome?

Smooth swing

Well, I knew that Tony Lema had a nickname, too — although “Champagne Tony” is definitely under-dressed for keeping company with the Big Three’s era-bestriding monikers. And I also knew that Lema’s nickname accurately reflected his life-of-the-party lifestyle. (As today’s parlance would have it, he owned his choices: “I have never denied myself a drink or a good dinner or a party while I am out on Tour.”) What I had not known, prior to turning from Boros to Wikipedia and beyond, was the extent to which Tony Lema’s tragically-short career had justified lofty expectations, right up to Big Four-dom.

The biographical basics I discovered are as follows. Anthony David Lema was born in Oakland in 1934, five years after Palmer, a year before Player, six before Nicklaus. Raised on the wrong side of the tracks, he learned golf at a local muni, becoming good enough to win the Oakland City championship at 18. He served overseas in the Marine Corps, then came home to work at the San Francisco Golf Club and a Nevada nine-holer. By 1957-58, Lema was out on the pro circuit, with financial backing from Eddie Lowery, otherwise known to golfing history as Francis Ouimet’s 10-year-old caddy at the 1913 U.S. Open.

With, as Peter Alliss described it, “an elegant swing of rare beauty” — so sweet and smooth “you could pour [it] on popcorn,” in another admirer’s words — Lema enjoyed some early pro success. (Video of that swing, with commentary by Hale Irwin, is available on YouTube.)

Lean years followed, but then came the breakthrough. He won three times in the fall of 1962, once in 1963, and in 1964 went on a streak that saw him win the Crosby at Pebble in January, the Thunderbird Classic and the Buick and Cleveland Opens in June, and the Open Championship (by five strokes over Nicklaus in second) at St. Andrews in July. (Lema chronicled his early tour experiences in Golfer’s Gold, which George Plimpton applauded as showing “considerable flair for the written word.”)

A couple more titles followed in 1965, and a final victory in May of 1966. Add a second-place finish at the ’63 Masters; a 9-1-1 record in two Ryder Cup appearances (’63 and ’65 — the best record of any competitor with at least two appearances); 50 percent top-10 finishes from ’63 through ’66; and a win over Palmer, Ken Venturi, and Bobby Nichols at the 1964 World Series of Golf (taking home $50K, which was then the game’s largest purse), and Lema’s career certainly seemed to be tracking toward Hall of Fame status.

Instead, too-soon his time ran out: on July 24, 1966, after his final round in the PGA Championship at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Lema headed with his pregnant wife for Chicago to play the next day in an exhibition in Crete, Illinois. Less than a mile from arrival, the twin-engine charter crashed … on a golf course, just short of the green of a par three.

As veteran N.Y. Times journalist Dave Anderson was to note, Tony Lema’s death “saddened even casual followers of golf because of his appeal.”

And his appeal was considerable

Tall, handsome, and personable, Champagne Tony lived extra-large — with “effervescence,” was Anderson’s memorable choice of adjective, although he could well have simply chosen “extravagance.” Lema boasted that although he finished second in tournament earnings in 1965, he finished “first in spendings.” (He took home just over a hundred thousand in prize money that year.)

With an outgoing style “that let others in on the enjoyment of his victories,” Lema became almost as popular as his good friend, the game’s charismatic King, achieving the type of crossover celebrity not previously enjoyed by professional golfers in the pre-Palmer era. So the nickname Champagne Tony was made to order for such a “colorful and endearing character.” He had been christened with it after his first big win at the Orange County Open in the fall of 1962. An excited Lema, hungering for a validating title at long last, promised the press corps after 54 holes that “if I win this thing, guys, it’ll be champagne all around, not beers, tomorrow.” And next day, sure enough, the playoff victory was Lema’s and the bubbly went to the writers — although, as he later admitted, “all the sportswriters there couldn’t have drunk as much as I did that night.”

(But at least that time he waited: an earlier, unofficial win had come after a playoff for which he’d prepared with three quick post-round highballs, thinking his workday already done. On the other hand, he would later go ahead and tempt fate by serving up the bubbly at the halfway point of his victorious ’64 Open Championship, when he held a two-stroke lead over the field.)

In short, whether taking driver out a 12th-floor hotel window during a late-night party, or exchanging club for baton during a TV appearance at the helm of Lawrence Welk’s “Champagne Music Makers,” Champagne Tony, off the course and away from the game, was always the life of the party.

Memorials

Lema’s friends and fellow pros kept that party going in his honor for many years. Beginning a year or two after his death, and continuing until 1980, the Tony Lema Memorial attracted top names in the worlds of sports and entertainment, as well as many of golf’s greats — 50 celebs, 50 pros, 100 amateurs. The one-day invitational, with gala dinner the night before, was held on Marco Island, Florida, at what was then the Marco Island Country Club, where Lema had been the first, albeit unofficial, club pro. According to local reporter Tom Rife, writing in 2006 in memory of the Memorial, “Not before, and not since has Southwest Florida known anything like it.”

Nor, as it turned out, had that golf-crazy youngster mentioned earlier known anything like the Marco Island course, when he and his father came to tee it up there in the spring of 1969. My scorecards from their two rounds are, I suppose, my most-prized golf mementoes. As the scores themselves attest (125 and 126, 118 and 121), neither I nor my father, whose own recent introduction to the game had opened the door to my taking it up, had ever played such an overwhelmingly challenging course. Indeed, handling the cards, a memory annotates the rounds: so many balls lost in the seemingly-ever-present water we had to suspend play to ride in to get more!

So that, anyway, is why one golfer, on this July 24th, celebrated the half-century anniversary of Tony Lema’s death with thoughts not only about what might have been, in Champagne Tony’s case, but also with reflections on what has been, in the lifetime of that kid who, amazingly now almost 50 years a golfer, is still trying to better his short game.

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Thomas Meagher is a Pushcart Prize-winning writer who learned the game on the East Coast and now plays the desert courses of the West. He writes on golf and books and whatever else at MeglerOnTee.com.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. RAT

    Jul 28, 2016 at 11:08 am

    Impressive ! Where’s the movie?

  2. Korean Slum Lord

    Jul 27, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    My family in the states live in Hayward, just minutes from Tony Lema’s course. He is well-regarded in Northern California. Everybody’s favorite Portuguese.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: A Tale of Two Misses

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It seems like I somewhat “touched a nerve” with last week’s post ‘A Defense of Blades’, based on the scoring you all gave my take on that controversial topic.

I do appreciate it when you take the time to score your reaction to my work, as it keeps me tuned in to what you really want me to pontificate about. Before I get into today’s topic, I request that any of you who have a subject you’d like me to address please drop me an email at [email protected], OK?

So, in somewhat of a follow-up to last week, let’s talk today about misses. Those too frequent shots that move your scores in the wrong direction.

Early in my life, I was always part of “the group” of low-handicap players who had various kinds of “money games”, but that put me in touch only with other low-handicap players who were highly competitive. Just as I was getting fully engaged in the golf equipment industry in the early 1980s, I was blessed to be a part of a group at my club called “The Grinders”. We had standing tee times every day…so if you could get away, you played. There were about 35-40 of us who might show up, with as many as 6-7 groups going off on Fridays and Saturdays.

These guys sported handicaps from scratch to 20, and we threw up balls to see how we were paired, so for twenty years, I had up close and personal observation of a variety of “lab rats.”

This let me observe and study how many different ways there were to approach the game and how many different kinds of mishits could happen in a round of golf. As a golf industry marketer and club designer, I couldn’t have planned it any better.

So back to a continuation of the topic of last week, the type of irons you choose to play should reflect the kinds of misses you are hoping to help. And the cold, hard truth is this:

We as golf club designers, engineers and fitters, can only do so much to help the outcome of any given shot.

Generally, mishits will fall into two categories – the “swing miss” and the “impact miss”.

Let’s start with the former, as it is a vast category of possibilities.

The “swing miss” occurs when the swing you made never had a chance of producing the golf shot you had hoped to see. The clubhead was not on a good path through impact, and/or the clubface was not at all square to the target line. This can produce any number of outcomes that are wildly wrong, such as a cold skull of the ball, laying the sod over it, hard block to the right (for a right-hand player), smother hook…I think you get the point.

The smaller swing misses might be a draw that turns over a bit too much because you rotated through impact a bit aggressively or a planned draw that doesn’t turn over at all because you didn’t. Or it could be the shot that flies a bit too high because you released the club a bit early…or much too low because you had your hands excessively ahead of the clubhead through impact.

The swing miss could be simply that you made a pretty darn good swing, but your alignment was not good, or the ball position was a bit too far forward in your swing…or too far back. Basically, the possible variations of a “swing miss” are practically endless and affect tour pros and recreational golfers alike.

The cruel fact is that most recreational golfers do not have solid enough swing mechanics or playing disciplines to deliver the clubhead to the ball in a consistent manner. It starts with a fundamentally sound hold on the club. From there, the only solution is to make a commitment to learn more about the golf swing and your golf swing and embark on a journey to become a more consistent striker of the golf ball. I would suggest that this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the game and encourage anyone who loves golf to go down this path.

But today’s post is about “mishits”, so let’s move on the other and much smaller category of misses…the “impact miss”. As a 40-year golf club designer, this is the world in which I function and, unfortunately, to which I am limited.

The “impact miss” is when most of the elements of the swing pretty much fall into place, so that the club is delivered pretty accurately to the ball…on the right path…face square to the target line at impact…but you miss the sweet spot of the club by just a bit.

Finding ways of getting better results out of those mishits is the singular goal of the entire golf club industry.

Big drivers of today are so much more forgiving of a 1/8 to ½ inch miss than even drivers of a decade ago, it’s crazy. Center strikes are better, of course, with our fast faces and Star Wars technology, but the biggest value of these big drivers is that your mishits fly much more like a perfect hit than ever before. In my own launch monitor testing of my current model driver to an old Reid Lockhart persimmon driver of the mid-1990s, I see that dead center hits are 20-25 yards different, but mishits can be as far as 75-80 yards apart, the advantage obviously going to the modern driver.

The difference is not nearly as striking with game improvement irons versus a pure forged one-piece blade. If the lofts and other specs are the same, the distance a pure strike travels is only a few yards more with the game improvement design, but a slight mishit can see that differential increase to 12-15 yards. But, as I noted in last week’s article, this difference tends to reduce as the lofts increase. Blades and GI irons are much less different in the 8- and 9-irons than in the lower lofts.

This has gotten a bit longer than usual, so how about I wrap up this topic next week with “A Tale of Two Misses – Part 2”? I promise to share some robotic testing insights that might surprise you.

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Golf's Perfect Imperfections

Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: World Long Drive! Go Mu!

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In this week’s podcast we discuss Wisdom In Golf Premium, new ways to help and fun talk about rules and etiquette.

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Opinion & Analysis

Vincenzi: How the 2022 Presidents Cup actually grew the game

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As fall approached, the world of professional golf was drowning in a sea of continuous division and animosity.

The Presidents Cup, which should have been a silver lining in the most tumultuous time in the history of the sport, had suddenly become a pasquinade.

The Internationals had always been an underdog and had just one win in fourteen tries against the Americans.

In 2019, the scrappy Internationals led by Ernie Els gave the United States team led by Tiger Woods all that they could handle at Royal Melbourne. The United States retained the cup, winning the competition 16–14, but the Els’ team fought to the end. The future was bright for professional golf on the world stage.

In 2022, things were different. The Internationals had just lost arguably their two best players in Cameron Smith and Joaquin Niemann, plus a handful of other Presidents Cup shoe-ins including Louis Oosthuizen and Abraham Ancer.

The International players who had joined the controversial LIV Golf series were deemed ineligible to participate in the competition, which resulted in the decimation of what should have been a deep and competitive team of Internationals. By the time the event started, the United States had ballooned to a -900 favorite.

One phrase that’s been repeated ad nauseum over the past few months has been “grow the game”.

After a bleak opening few days at the Presidents Cup, we caught a glimpse of what “growing the game” looked like over the weekend.

There are plenty of ways to potentially grow the game of golf. One of those ways unfolded in real time at Quail Hollow thanks in part to a spirited group of Asian golfers who refused to let their team go quietly into the night.

First, there was the budding superstar, Tom Kim.

Kim scored two points for the Internationals, but the impact he had on the event dwarfed his point total. The South Korean hijacked the event with his charisma, energy and determination to help his team succeed. Golf fans were treated to memorable moment after memorable moment whenever the 20-year-old was on their television screen.

Kim had already had a handful of moments that will live in our memories for many Presidents Cups to come, but the most memorable came on the 18th hole of Saturday’s afternoon foursomes. Facing a seemingly invincible duo of Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, Kim put a 2-iron to less than six feet of the hole. He then sunk the clutch putt to knock off the fourth and fifth ranked players in the world.

Tom wasn’t the only “Kim” to leave a lasting impact at the 2022 Presidents Cup. Fellow South Korean Si Woo Kim had his share of memorable moments as well.

Going into Sunday singles, the Internationals were trailing 11-7 and in need of a historic day. Typically, the trailing team will “frontload” their best players to attempt a comeback. When United States captain Davis Love III called the name of Justin Thomas to lead off in the first match of the day, many expected the international team captain Trevor Immelmann to call the name of Hideki Matsuyama or Adam Scott. Instead, he called the name of Si Woo Kim.

Si Woo did not disappoint. Kim took out the de-facto leader of the United States team 1-up. The 27-year-old didn’t shy away from the spotlight, and matched Thomas both in his ability to sink clutch putts and to bring energy with his animated style of play.

Tom Kim and Si Woo Kim provided some of the most memorable moments of the Presidents Cup, but it’s Sungjae Im who’s been the best player for the Internationals in both 2019 and 2022.

Back in 2019, Sungjae tied with Abraham Ancer for the leading points scorer (3.5) for the Internationals during their narrow defeat in Australia. He was a rookie then, but this year he was depended upon to go against some on the United States best teams and delivered, scoring 2.5 points and knocking off young American star Cameron Young in their singles match.

As influential as the performances by the trio of South Koreans were, the overall impact of Asian golfers cannot be discussed without mentioning Hideki Matsuyama.

The 2021 Masters Champion has long been rumored to be interested in joining LIV Golf, but he was at Quail Hollow competing alongside his International teammates.

Stars were born at the 2022 Presidents Cup, but Matsuyama has been “growing the game” for what feels like a lifetime. Labeled from an early age as the savior for Japanese golf, Hideki has delivered time and time again. The former young prodigy has slowly but surely turned into a pillar of global golf and leader of the Internationals.

After a slow start, Hideki was able to grind out a win and a tie to help the Internationals remain competitive throughout the weekend.

While the Internationals were eventually defeated 17.5-12.5, a more important mission that cannot be measured by wins and losses was undoubtedly accomplished.

Amongst all of the turmoil and strife in the world golf, it’s easy to forget how much the game means to so many people.

Countless young golfers across the world went to bed on Sunday night and dreamt of being the next Tom Kim, Si Woo Kim or Hideki Matsuyama.

That sounds like an excellent way to “grow the game”.

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