Paul Trevillion Interviewed: The Man Behind Golf's Greatest Strokes

The legendary Paul Trevillion, the man behind You Are The Ref, is also an acclaimed golf artist who hits vber 1000 putts a day...
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He’s taught thousands of golfers how to improve their game despite the fact that he can barely swing a club. He’s worked closely with some of the biggest stars that golf has produced over the last 50 years yet few people know his name. He’s hit 1,000 putts a day, every day for the last 40 years and claims that he’s never missed one thanks to the split-handed putting technique that he invented. More importantly than all of the above he’s got the uncanny knack of being able to capture the essence of a golfer thanks to his intuitive ability to control a pencil.

He’s Paul ‘The Man’ Trevillion - “the Cezanne of the sports strip, the Leondardo of the line drawing,” as one hyperbolic journalist once declared. Despite such grandiose proclamations - and the fact that Trevillion has a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes that he fires off about the sporting legends he’s met (Ali, Pele, Best, Botham - when you talk about the greats, you only need ever mention their surname) - in the flesh Trevillion is a down to earth, full of beans, whirling dervish of a figure, whose connection with golf stretches back to 1961 when the self-taught artist was approached by the Daily Express’ Scottish sister paper - the Evening Citizen - to draw a series of strips with Peter Allis on the best way to play Troon golf course, which was about to host the British Open.

At the time Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were at the height of their fame and instruction strips, bearing their image, were syndicated to newspapers throughout the world. However, Trevillion thought that the strips were awful and in an audacious move he introduced himself to the golfing titan’s agent Mark McCormack, founder of sports and celebrity management agency IMG who would later become one of the most powerful people in sport.

McCormack was stood next to Palmer when Trevillion made his bold approach. “I showed him the Troon strips and said ‘look at these. I’ve seen what Arnold and Jack have got out there and I can do much better’,” recalls Trevillion. “But Mark said ‘I’m not interested Paul. Arnold sells Arnold, Jack sells Jack. Mickey Mouse could draw the strips and they would still sell.” Trevillion didn’t know it at the time but McCormack’s Disney statement would one day prove eerily prescient.

Undeterred by the agent’s rebuff Trevillion decided to switch his attention to doing a ‘golf class’ strip with Allis, alongside whom, at the tail end of the 1960s, he would produce a book christened ‘Easier Golf with Peter Allis’, that was so successful it would be reprinted numerous times over the ensuing years.

While his working relationship with Allis was close, the next golfing legend he worked with was much more closed off mentally, especially in the build-up in a tournament.

Trevillion has fond memories of working alongside the BBC’s voice of golf. “Allis was the man. If he’d won a major he would have been the biggest golf star in the world. Bigger than Arnold, bigger than Jack, bigger than Tiger. He had everything. Film star good looks, the best swing in golf. Arnold Palmer said it, Lee Trevino said it, Henry Cotton said it. Allis’ swing was easier than Sam Snead but his problem was that he told himself that he couldn’t putt. The number plate on his car was ‘3 putt’ but the joke backfired on him. He made fun of the fact that he couldn‘t putt but the ironic thing is he was one of the best putters that I‘ve ever seen yet he convinced himself that he couldn‘t putt.”

While Allis’ struggles may have been on the green, from tee to green he was incredibly gifted, says Trevillion. “We were at a tournament one day and it was chucking it down so I said to him ‘why don’t you go out and have a practice?’ His reply was ‘some people don’t need to practice’ but he humoured me anyway and took me out to the practice ground where he gave me 12 balls and said ‘put these balls wherever you like. Put one in the worst divot that you can find, one in the worst piece of rough. Then nominate a club for each ball and I will give you the distance that I can hit it. Then you can pick a target’. So I did as he said. I stood on one ball and buried it into the ground. I put another one in the worst divot that I’ve ever seen. Then he went up to every ball, whuf, whuf, whuf, whuf, whuf, and they all went straight at the target. Allis was like Robin Hood - he hit everything as straight as a die. He could have split an arrow with a ball if he wanted to.”

While his working relationship with Allis was close, the next golfing legend he worked with was much more closed off mentally, especially in the build-up in a tournament. But this distance didn’t stop the pair creating an instructional strip for the Daily Express that was syndicated to 375 different countries globally and became the most widely syndicated instruction cartoon in the world.

“When Gary Player won the British Open in 1965 I decided to approach him about doing a strip but he was very difficult to talk to when he was at a tournament. He was in his own little cocoon - he might as well have been locked into a phone box he was so shut off from everything else,” says Trevillion.

In the same year, the South African had been trailing badly to ‘Champagne’ Tony Lema (“they called him ‘Champagne Tony’ because he used to buy the press champagne”) in the Piccadilly World Matchplay, but Player came from half a dozen or so holes behind to secure a victory that shocked many people, but not Trevillion.

“The first time I spoke to him properly on the phone in 1966 I said ‘there must have been a time when you thought that it was one hole too many against Lema’ but Gary replied ‘if I was six down and five to play yes, but until that point I would have always believed that I could beat him’. Player never gave up. Pound for pound in the history of golf nobody has been as good as him. He had so much energy. If you bumped into him at the airport he’d be skipping. He used to walk down the fairway eating raisins and he still does 1,000 sit-ups a day. Gary had a great philosophy that you make the best of your bad luck and the most of your good luck. To him if you hit a bad shot and it hits a tree and then bounces back into play and you still only make par on that hole, that’s criminal.”

Thanks to this unique insight, Trevillion was able to accurately capture the essence of a golfer and the subtleties of the game in his drawings.

Before Trevillion embarked on the Player strip he was given a crash course in golf by Welsh Ryder Cup hero Dai Rees, who came runner up in the Open three times earning him the moniker ‘the best golfer never to have won the Open’.

“The Express wanted me to get the Player strip right but I wasn’t a golf man - I couldn’t play golf. So they sent me to see Dai for a week. He took me through every club in the bag. He had me swinging in the rough to teach me about club head speed. He showed me how to open the club face, how to close the club face, how to get out of bunkers. He taught me the difference between an open and a closed stance, how to do an interlocking grip, a Vardon grip, a baseball grip. By the end of that week I knew everything about golf. I still couldn’t play it but I knew everything about the game.”

Thanks to this unique insight, Trevillion was able to accurately capture the essence of a golfer and the subtleties of the game in his drawings. As a result the Player strip proved to be an instant hit gaining more syndications than the Palmer and Nicklaus strips put together. This helped to open the door to McCormack in 1968, who by now was managing most of the game’s finest talents. McCormack laid a mouth-watering deal in front of Trevillion - a $1,000 a month retainer to join him in New York to work on projects with his stable of golfing talent, plus a significant chunk of any profits generated by his work. Trevillion leapt at the opportunity but when he got to the Big Apple he was in for a big surprise.

“Mark took me into a big room and told me that it was going to be my studio’. I said ‘it’s big’ to which he replied ‘it has to be because there’s going to be six chairs’. ‘But I only sit in one’ I said to which Mark’s response was ‘you don’t sit in any of them. There’s going to be a different artist sat in each chair - you’re going to be the Walt Disney of golf. You come up with the ideas and you do a little bit of drawing here and there to show them how it’s done, but you don’t draw anymore’.”

Trevillion wasn’t happy with the arrangement and told McCormack that he would mull it over during the upcoming 1968 US Open, where the IMG team were fully expecting Palmer or Nicklaus to win but then fate took another twist - Lee Trevino won the tournament and Trevillion instantly hit it off with a kindred spirit.

“I said to Mark ‘he’s a great guy, we’ve got to do something with Lee’, but Mark turned round to me and said ‘if you win one championship you’re a winner. To be a champion you’ve got to win two or three’. He didn’t think Lee could do it and he didn‘t want me to work with him but I didn‘t like the Walt Disney idea so we shook hands and I walked out on him.”

Before this new relationship could reap any financial reward Trevillion had his head turned again, and this time from a source much closer to home. “I went to the 1969 British Open to see Lee Trevino win but he didn’t win it, Tony Jacklin did, so I went straight to Mark with a number of ideas to do something with Jacklin, who was managed by IMG, but this time Mark wanted a bigger cut so I walked away and said that I would do the book anyway.”

“Before he went out on the course he would run gags past me - I’d tell him some of the American jokes that would work on a British audience and then I would give him some of the jokes that I had picked up from Pro-Ams“

Trevillion’s resulting book, ‘Tony Jacklin Tribute to a Champion’, sparked a bitter court battle with McCormack who claimed copyright infringement over Trevillion illustrations that reproduced the swings of players under his management. The artist emerged triumphant from the battle when a judge ruled in his favour, but despite the legal spat he remained on speaking terms with McCormack until his death in 2003.

“Tony Jacklin changed golf,” says Trevillion. “He was supreme when he won it in 1969 but he won it before his time. It would have been better for Tony if his two major championships had been spread out. But he was a great champion for a short time who took them on and beat them.”

Jacklin was favourite to win the British Open again in 1971 around which time Trevillion was close to securing a deal to do an instructional strip with reigning US Masters champion Billy Casper, but in yet another one of those little quirks of fate that have punctuated his life, an old friend stormed up on the outside rail to clinch the title - Trevino was back to cement his status as a true champion despite McCormack’s initial reservations about his ability. Trevillion forged a friendship with the American golfer that is still going strong today. Part of this bond was formed over the pair’s shared sense of humour.

“Before he went out on the course he would run gags past me - I’d tell him some of the American jokes that would work on a British audience and then I would give him some of the jokes that I had picked up from Pro-Ams,“ says Trevillion. “They didn’t televise all of the holes back then so before a tournament Lee and I would work out which tees had got cameras on and which ones hadn’t. He’d crack the gags on the televised holes and get a big laugh but if the camera wasn‘t on then sorry, it wasn‘t showtime.”

It wasn’t just the comedy that Trevillion helped him with. When Trevino came back to the UK to defend his Open title in 1972 at Muirfield he walked the course with Trevillion three or four times before the competition got underway.

“When we were walking the fairway Lee said to me ‘there’s a lot of bunkers out there and people are going to miss some of those greens - this tournament is going to be won by a guy who can chip’. So one night he got his driver to turn on the car lights and there he was in the dark, chipping away. And it didn’t stop there. Afterards when we got back to his hotel room he would put the television on and he asked me to stand behind it with a hat. He chipped every single one straight into the hat.”

This extracurricular activity paid off. Trevino chipped in five times over the final two rounds, including an all-important holed chip shot on the penultimate hole of the tournament, which dealt a decisive blow to tournament leader Tony Jacklin from which he never recovered. Despite Trevino’s undoubted prowess with a short iron, Trevillion admits that the American’s swing was far from orthodox.

“He had a terrible swing but although he never hit the ball straight he knew where the ball would land. I remember one day John Jacobs came up to him and said something derogatory about Lee’s swing to which Lee replied ‘how many majors have you won John?’”

He has few regrets about his career but one of his biggest is that he’s yet to add Woods to the glittering array of sporting legends that he‘s worked with.

Trevino’s incredible touch around the greens wasn’t lost on Trevillion. While he admits that he can’t play the game he’s a dab hand with the putter and could teach some of today’s biggest stars a thing or two about holing those tricky four footers. In the 1970s he did after all invent a split-handed putting technique that he showcased throughout America, holing putt after putt on live television. (A DVD is available that explains his theory entitled ‘Missing Impossible: Paul Trevillion’s Method of Perfect Putting’). So confident was he in his ability to nail four foot putts time after time that he even set down a $1m challenge as an added incentive for people to take him on (nobody ever rose to the challenge). And in the true spirit of ‘drive for show, putt for dough’, he once challenged Colin Montgomerie to a £1m putting contest for charity but Monty politely declined the invitation. Somewhat unusually Trevillion attributes his ability to consistently hole short putts to his skill with a pencil.

“The reason I don’t miss is because from here to the hole is four feet and it’s a straight line. All I have to do is draw a straight line and the ball drops and I can draw a straight line time after time.”

To this day it still amazes him that he witnessed the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer and Jacklin, missing short putts. “Golfers look like magnificent athletes on the tee and on the fairway they look graceful but once they get on the putting green they look like little old ladies with walking sticks. They look completely unnatural.”

One of the few players whose putting he admires is Tiger Woods. “He’s the greatest putter the game has ever seen because he can putt from all distances. But the big question now is will he ever get it back. Their swings are good enough to get them from tee to green but once their putting goes they lose it forever.”

He has few regrets about his career but one of his biggest is that he’s yet to add Woods to the glittering array of sporting legends that he‘s worked with. A potential collaboration was on the cards before McCormack - whose agency manages Woods - passed away but it has since been put on the back burner. Whether or not a collaboration will ever happen looks increasingly unlikely, but it’s not as if he’s short of other projects. He’s currently got offers on the table from as far a field as America and Australia. In addition, Trevillion still draws a weekly ‘You are the ref’ football strip for The Observer, with a ‘You are the umpire’, illustrated book of the laws of cricket recently launched to critical acclaim. Even Trevillion finds it extraordinary that he has travelled the world and met pretty much every sportsman of note to emerge over the course of the last 50 years all off the back of his skill with a pencil.

“I’ve been everywhere, I’ve met everybody. I’ve had record deals, I’ve been a stand-up comedian, I’ve been the world kissing champion but at the end of the day I’m just a guy with a pencil. Mark McCormack once said to me ‘you could have a great standard of living Paul. You could have a fleet of cars, houses, the lot’. I replied ‘I’ve got a standard of life - that’s better. I’m the man!”

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