Champagne Tony Lema: The Rabble Rousin' Golfer With A Heart Of Gold

He was the blue-collar boy from the wrong side of the tracks who developed a taste for the high-life and perished in a plane crash at the age of 32. His nerveless performance in the 1964 Open at St. Andrews proved he could've been one of the true greats...
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He was the blue-collar boy from the wrong side of the tracks who developed a taste for the high-life and perished in a plane crash at the age of 32. His nerveless performance in the 1964 Open at St. Andrews proved he could've been one of the true greats...

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British Open Championship Legend 'Champagne' Tony Lema: The Rabble Rousin' Golfer With A Heart Of Gold

Though he is variously remembered as a drinking partner, idol and one-time major winner, where Anthony ‘ Champagne Tony’ Lema is concerned, it is probably best to begin at the end. Nearly 47 years ago, on July 24 1966, Lema and his wife Betty arrived at Akron airport to board a charter flight bound for Chicago to play in a lucrative one-day golf tournament in Crete, Illinois.

Before boarding and seeing that the pilot was a woman, Lema got edgy. “I really love women,” he said, “I like to go dancing with them, but I don’t want to go flying.” It was only after repeated assurances concerning the pilot’s credentials that Tony Lema pulled up the collars of his sports jacket, took Betty’s hand and stepped on board the twin-engine Beechcraft Bonanza.

One hour and 360 miles after departure and James Watson is standing on the seventh hole of Lansing Sportsman’s Club - less than a par-five from the Chicago Hammond airport - the plane’s final destination. The sight of aircraft was nothing new to twilight golfers, but this one on the horizon was low enough to trouble television antennae. “The pilot gunned the engines to clear a set of power lines and one spluttered and died,” remembers Watson, “then, the pilot banked left into the stalled engine which killed the other one too.”

The inevitability of the result of the engine failure was all too clear to the watching golfers and as the plane came down, one wing scythed across the seventh green before it flipped, skidded and burst into flames. At 8.20 pm, state police confirmed that ‘mismanagement of the fuel system,’ and ‘failure to obtain and maintain flying speed’ were the reasons behind the crash. Tony Lema, his wife Betty, the pilot and the one other passenger on board were killed instantly and golf had lost one of its most colourful and respected characters.

 Tony’s playground was rusting cargo containers, giant dock winches and other visible remains of a struggling industrial wasteland

“He was my guy, not Arnie,” said Johnny Miller, “He was the greatest, boldest putter I’d ever seen. His death broke my heart, to be honest with you.”

Anthony David “Tony” Lema was born on February 25, 1934 in Oakland, California. As the son of poverty stricken Portuguese immigrants, he grew up in the tough San Leandro district  and though the majesty of San Francisco was visible over the nearby hills, young Tony’s playground was rusting cargo containers, giant dock winches and other visible remains of a struggling industrial wasteland. When Lema was three-years-old, his father died of double pneumonia, leaving mother Clotilda to bring up four hungry and demanding kids.

As a teenager he followed the usual route and went off the rails. He had a few skirmishes with the police and was caught stealing cases of beer off the back of a truck. He would also bring home two report cards from school - one for Clotilda to see  and the real one that he would get his sister Bernice to sign.

As golf obsessed as he was – he would charm his way out of washing up by saying it would soften the callouses on his hands – his overriding obsession was to get the hell out of dodge. So in 1951, aged 17, Tony Lema joined the Marine Corps and spent four years of active service in Korea.

1955, the year he was discharged,was one of cultural and political change. Winston Churchill resigned as Prime Minister, Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama sparked a huge movement against racial segregation and rock ‘n’ roll exploded with the release of Bill Hailey’s Rock Around the Clock. Lema wouldn't make his global mark for some time yet, but he was all too aware he didn’t want to end up as ghost of another ex-serviceman in the warehouses and bars of San Leandro.

“They had his picture up in every bawdy-house there,” says Ted Blohm, a local jeweller who used to run wild with Lema

Taking a job as Assistant Professional at San Francisco GC under the legendary John Geersten, Lema spent two years being schooled in the intricacies of the swing and the starched nature of clubhouse life. “I think coming from where he came, exposure to somebody such as Geersten in a setting such as the San Francisco GC had a huge influence on how Tony developed, as a person and as a player,” says former USGA president Frank Tatum.

Although he didn’t know it Lema was not only being coached by a legend he was also teaching a future one. While he was engrossed in practice the eight-year-old Johnny Miller (the future gunslinging double major winner) was also being taught by Geersten. And Tony’s rhythmical swing left an indelible effect on the youngster.

“Basically, in the ‘70s I had three swings,” says Miller, “I played Trevino on my cuts, I imitated Lema on my draws and I hit the ball straight with my own swing. So I would use his swing, hitting into greens, probably six times a round and I won all those tournaments with Lema hitting a third of my shots. I was always thinking, ‘OK, Tony, this is your shot. Back-left pin. Nice little lazy draw in there.’ Nobody used Lema more than I did. Nobody.”

In 1957 and feeling sufficiently prepared to find his own way, Lema left the watchful eye of Geersten and took the position of Head Professional at Ruby View GC, a municipal in Elko, Nevada. He also tried his hand on tour that year, but his lifestyle in Elko was not conducive to shooting the lights out and tearing through the field. “They had his picture up in every bawdy-house there,” says Ted Blohm, a local jeweller who used to run wild with Lema, “we were both single and we both liked girls, drinking and golf."

Like many of his blue collar peers, he displayed a ferocious impetuosity that meant the wedge throw was never too far away

Between 57’ and 62’, Lema ran wild. And, like many of his blue collar peers, he displayed a ferocious impetuosity that meant the wedge throw was never too far away. As is often the case though, the love of a good woman made him grow up and after meeting Betty he became a lot more thoughtful. Sure, he still chain-smoked Camel cigarettes and liked a good scotch, but his newly found seclusion transferred into both a maiden victory and the birth of the greatest nickname in the history of professional golf.

After walking in to face the press as third round leader of the 1962 Orange County Open, Lema was drinking a beer. “It’ll be champagne for all if I win,” he told the assembled journalists. Following his defeat of Bob Rosburg in the play-off he kept to his word and supplied the press with a crate of his favourite drink, securing a sponsorship from Moët and Chandon in the process.

Thirty years later, a stranger approached Rosburg to ask him if he remembered the play-off. “He was an ex-Marine like Tony and told me that he’d kicked a ball of Tony’s back into play,” remembers Rosburg, “I said that was fine, but that Lema had been considering leaving the tour and if he hadn’t kicked that ball back in then Tony Lema would be alive today.”

That seems unduly harsh, but the help of the Marine did finally give Lema the belief that he could win in an era of sterling golfers. In 1963 he finished regularly in the money and almost won The Masters. After a fine birdie at 18 he was dragged off to Chairman Clifford Jones' office and watched with Bobby Jones and friend Arnold Palmer as a 23-year-old Jack Nicklaus finished with two steady pars to beat him by one shot. But golf being golf, he didn’t have to wait long to reverse this outcome.

The weather was horrific, though it would take more than wind and rain to dampen the spirit of Tony Lema

1964 started well for Lema. He won the Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach before going on a run of victories that any golfer before or since would be proud of. He won three times in four weeks, including beating Arnold Palmer in a play-off to win The Cleveland Open. And it’s a good job he did, because Arnie had a proposal for him.

Unable to travel to St Andrews for The Open, Palmer tried to convince Lema to go in his place. “I told him how good he was playing and he should go to the British Open and play,” says Palmer. “He was reluctant, very reluctant. I said, ‘Tony, what do I have to do to get you to do this?’ He said, ‘Give me your putter.’ He was sort of kidding me, but he was kidding seriously. I said, ‘OK, I’ll give you the putter and I’ll also give you my caddie (the legendary Tip Anderson). ‘Which he accepted.”

Arriving in the British Isles for the first time, Lema rocked up in the East Neck of Fife and played a solitary practice round with friend Phil Rodgers. The weather was horrific, though it would take more than wind and rain to dampen the spirit of Tony Lema. After the round with Rodgers, who told him to, “do exactly what Tip tells you, use the club he tells you and hit the ball where he tells you,” he followed this advice to the letter and posted 73, 68 over the first two days to lead by two from second place and nine from Nicklaus.

The 36-hole final day was coloured by two poignant exchanges between Lema and Nicklaus. During the morning round, Lema was on the sixth fairway standing two-over for the morning, as Jack walked past on the 13th five-under for the day. The lead was down to one and lesser men could have wobbled. Lema even said himself that, “when Jack charges at you, you know you’ve been charged at.” Though he seemed unperturbed as he posted five consecutive 3’s to reach the 18th three-under par, where the second meeting of the two came about.

"He wanted to be a very good-living person and struggled to do that on occasions, but I liked his company.”

As Jack waited to tee-off for his final round, Lema stood over a 40- foot birdie putt. With every eye in the vicinity on him, Champagne Tony drew back his putter and propelled the ball dead centre for another birdie and a four-under par, 68. As the putt dropped, he looked over at Nicklaus who grinned and shook his head. The Golden Bear had shot 66 and only managed to cut the lead to seven. Four hours later after shooting a nerveless 70, Tony Lema lifted the Claret Jug and won The Open Championship by five strokes. And that night in the Jigger Inn, with Tip Anderson, innumerate spectators and rivers of champagne, he hosted a raucous shindig to celebrate.

Though this was his one and only Major victory, between 1963 and 1966 Lema never missed a cut in a Major Championship, he played on both the 1963 and 1965 victorious Ryder Cup teams and he finished in the top ten in more than 50% of the tournaments he entered. He was, it seems, destined for greatness.

Before heading to St Andrews in 1964, Lema played a series of exhibition matches with Peter Alliss. “He was a complex man,” says Alliss. “The times I played with him, he’d sort of disappear and go to church and then we’d come back and stay out too late and drink too many drinks. He wanted to be a very good-living person and struggled to do that on occasions, but I liked his company.”

And in that context, where Champagne Tony Lema is concerned, it’s probably best to end at the end. After the untimely death, aged 32, of the man who could have been King, the Nuns at the Poor Clares Convent in Oakland noticed that the envelopes of cash that used to arrive regularly had stopped coming.

Until the crash, they had no idea who had sent them.

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