2001: Open road ahead
His time for the Senior PGA Tour has arrived, and if Bruce Lietzke were more rested, he’d be, what, pulseless in a pine box? Salmon hooked out of the Atlantic today aren’t fresher. This is true because for the last several years Lietzke has worked hard at not working hard at golf, to the point he has played exactly five fewer major championships than 78-year-old Doug Ford since Clinton became president.
But now, and here’s where the news bulletin flashes, the reluctant golfer, the Accidental Tourist, the nongrinder whose idea of practice has been the occasional Wednesday pro-am, Lietzke says he’s “very excited” about playing again. Not just that, but a lot of golf.
Bruce Lietzke, reborn golf junkie.
Some people retire at 50. Lietzke? He’s coming out of retirement.
“The Senior Tour will become my home over the next several years, and I’m very excited,” he says. “It’s a little bit like being a freshman in college.”
A busy Senior schedule has been Lietzke’s plan for years. His idea for nearly two decades has been to limit his PGA Tour participation to be a homebody family man, then travel the elders’ circuit with wife Rosemarie when their two children, Stephen, 17, and Christine, 15, graduate high school.
And so he will launch his new venture two days after he turns 50 on July 18. He will follow that debut in the SBC Senior Open at Kemper Lakes in Long Grove, Ill., with about eight more starts this year. He’s planning on 20-23 next year and 25-28 starting in 2004 when his daughter goes to college.
That load qualifies as heavy lifting for the man who played 16-20 Tour events in 1989-96 and about 10 a year in 1997-00. During that time scores of players envied him for his rare ability to play part time but still excel after months-long breaks. During that time he would coach his kids’ baseball teams and Stephen’s golf team and watch Christine play volleyball and run track.
“It’s been almost perfect,” he says of his juggling family with golf.
Now the next phase commences after 26 Tour seasons, 505 starts, 13 victories, 127 top-10 finishes, about $6.5 million in official earnings and 10 years among the top-20 wage earners. That record pays tribute to muscle memory. That record features two more wins and only three fewer top 10s than the late Payne Stewart, recently voted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Yet Lietzke says the greatest moment of his golf life involved none of that. Rather, it came on the Sunday the United States rallied to win the 1999 Ryder Cup, when he served as assistant captain to Ben Crenshaw. “I never experienced a day like that, with the adrenaline running for 16 hours,” he says. “I never felt that kind of emotion for so long in a day and been so exhausted.”
His emotions ride high again because of his eagerness to join the Senior Tour. He has used the word excited often to describe his feelings. Foremost, he’s enthused about competing and seeing how he stacks up. “My satisfaction comes from shooting low scores,” he says. “I never got golf out of my system. I left tournament golf behind because family’s my No. 1 priority. Golf was a passion from 8 to about 31. But now it’s moving up a notch or two.”
He’s looking forward to seeing his “old college buddies” and going to new cities and courses. When one plays more than 20 years at Doral, for instance, “you get to where you can play almost brain dead,” he says. “It’ll be nice to stand on a tee box and develop a new strategy. My concentration and enthusiasm will be better.”
By all accounts, Lietzke figures to be one of the most successful seniors. Using the same loopy swing, Lietzke led the Tour in total driving and greens in regulation in 1991, just as someone named Tiger Woods did in 1999-00. In other words, he has game.
Much of Lietzke’s charm lies in his free-form thinking, self-deprecating manner, checked-in ego and understated humor. But he’s confident enough to say this about his senior prospects: “On weeks I get my (long) putter going, I expect to be at or near the lead.”
He gets no argument.
“He’ll kill ’em,” says Senior Tour veteran Dave Stockton. “He’s really long, and there are no holes in his game.”
Lee Trevino went so far as to tell Lietzke, “By the time you’re 58, you’re going to have to have both knees replaced. Because by the time you pick up all the money they leave on the greens, your knees will be shot.”
Second-year senior Tom Kite figures Lietzke will succeed “because his enthusiasm is high. Plus, he’s only played enough tournaments to fill up three full years. He’s starting his fourth year.”
Lietzke admits his preparation has been based on a “resting mode.” He hasn’t practiced. Unlike so many others in his position, he hasn’t exercised, as his pot belly would indicate. “I swing a golf club,” he says. “That’s how I tone the golf muscles I use.”
His full-time Senior Tour scheme jibes with his mission statement. Spend any time with him and you’ll hear it: “Living life on my terms.” He wears that credo as a rapper does a gold medallion. And he’s pulled it off.
His terms: Family first. Cars second (he owns 12, almost right for his 11-car garage). Summers off. One equipment company, Tommy Armour, for 27 consecutive years (1970-96). One golf instructor, brother Duane. One ball flight, left to right. No practice or social golf at home. No swing changes. No corporate outings. No agent since 1985. No U.S. Opens since 1985. No British Opens since 1982. No country club membership until 1993, when Stephen got into golf. No golf magazine subscriptions. In fact, he says he can’t remember ever buying a golf magazine, but he estimates purchasing about 20 car publications a month.
Kite once said it’s a shame Lietzke didn’t have more drive and wasn’t more willing to pay the price to have a better golf résumé. Lietzke answers by saying the game wasn’t top priority. He says he’s more interested in how he’s remembered as a husband-father than as a golfer. He says he might have come to hate golf and burned out had he spent years away from his family while grinding on Tour. And he says that efficient swing didn’t improve from practice when he did play full time early in his career.
Lietzke decided in the mid-1970s that his swing worked and he didn’t need to tinker. Not that he always liked his loopy, over-the-top action. Predominantly a hooker at the University of Houston, Lietkze developed the slice-fade by accident while playing Florida mini-tours in wind. He recalls calling Duane from Tour Q-School in 1975 and moaning, “All I’m hitting is a fade. I haven’t hooked a ball in two months.”
“What did you shoot?” Duane asked.
“Sixty-six, but I hate it.”
His brother counseled him to go with the looped fade as a rookie. At the end of the year, Duane told him, “You’ve got a decision to make. Your swing is so out of whack, but you’re playing your best golf ever.” Lietzke decided to go with the new move “until it crashes.” It never did, and one reason is a rhythm Ben Crenshaw once called maybe the best he has ever seen.
Success after long layoffs convinced Lietzke his “muscle memory deal worked.” After one such prolonged sabbatical, Lietzke got into a playoff at 1992 Byron Nelson Classic, went fishing for a week, then won the Colonial. The record further shows that he finished in the top 70 of the Tour’s money list every year but one in 1976-95.
“Most players want a better swing,” he says. “I don’t. I want the exact same swing I had 20 years ago. That’s weird stuff.”
Nothing in his career perhaps is weirder than the famous “banana story,” one that has symbolized his approach, one that he estimates he has told upon request at least 1,500 times.
Back before Lietzke’s laid-back reputation flourished, Al Hansen did not believe a touring pro at the peak of his career could take such a casual, half-hearted approach to mining Tour gold. Hansen was Lietzke’s caddie then, back in 1985, when, while loading Lietzke’s clubs in a travel bag at season’s end, he inquired: “Bruce, what are you going to do during the off-season?”
“I’m going to put my clubs away in the garage,” Lietzke said, “and not touch them again until I get back out here in January.”
Hansen was skeptical. So when Lietzke wasn’t looking, the caddie stuck a banana up into the head cover of the driver and packed the clubs. Hansen figured his boss would find it when he played or practiced at home. He figured wrong, of course.
Six weeks later, when Lietzke returned to the Tour for Bob Hope’s tournament, Hansen unloaded the clubs and pulled off the driver cover. Underneath was a squishy, foul-smelling, black, rotten banana. The odor was so bad that they threw the bag away and had another one shipped overnight.
“I will never doubt you again,” Hansen told Lietzke.
Now no one does. But Lietzke’s Tour career almost never was because of doubts, his own. He soured on golf after playing poorly in his senior year at Houston. He had purchased a Buick to travel the Tour, but instead of turning pro he went home to Beaumont, Texas, put his clubs in a closet and announced he was through with competitive golf.
“Basically I chickened out,” he says. “I was scared to death to turn pro.”
After a few weeks, his father helped him get a job as a night security officer at a local chemical company. For the next six months, security officer Lietzke was, as he put it, “Beaumont’s answer to Barney Fife.”
“I had a gun in one desk drawer and bullets in another,” he recalled. “But both were locked, and they didn’t give me a key.”
The job gave him perspective. He decided he didn’t want to work second shift the rest of his life. So the clubs came out of the closet.
Twenty-seven years later, they’re coming out again. m