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1971 Rewind: Trevino Recalls Career-Making 1971 U.S. Open Win

June 13, 2021 Columbus, Ohio By Dave Shedloski
All kidding aside, the 1971 U.S. Open playoff win by Lee Trevino (left) over Jack Nicklaus at Merion was a major milestone for the Merry Mex. (USGA Archives)

It could have been the rain, providence showering down on him at just the right time. Or maybe it was the heart-to-heart talk he had with the one player he admired more than any other, just a few words that buoyed his confidence. It could have been the new putter, which seemed to match up with his stroke. Or maybe it was the good-luck charm he stuffed in his bag, a toy snake that he had bought for his daughter.

Or perhaps it was simply that he didn’t want to fail, and the fear and the worry of failing was enough to summon him back to the practice tee, back to digging in the dirt, digging more than he ever had, digging back into his hardscrabble roots, his memory, his work ethic, his survival instincts.

It wasn’t that he loved golf so much, Lee Trevino says, but that he hated the thought of what he would do without it. So, when he is asked to recall his victory in the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion, the pinnacle to the best summer of his career, many things played a role, but the biggest factor was rediscovering himself.

“I loved to hit balls. I still go out every morning and hit balls for two-three hours. And for what? I’m 81 years old. It ain’t like I’m practicing for a tournament or anything,” Trevino said, seeming to assess his behavior as he describes it. “But I can’t say that I really loved golf. I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have any options. I’m not an educated guy. I left school at 14. I did it as a job.

“But I had sense enough to know that I could do this job by myself. I didn't have to have anybody around me. I was the judge. I was the jury. I wanted to be good at my job.”

Back to basics

Oddly, he had lost sight of that after his first win on the PGA Tour, which happened to be the 1968 U.S. Open at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. Trevino defeated defending champion Jack Nicklaus by four strokes, a win that stunned the winner as much as anyone else.

“What the hell, you can't dial up a golf swing, and I was still figuring out what I was doing,” he said. “I never played amateur golf or in college. And here I win the Open.”

It was a launching pad to… well, not a lot. He played decently, won a few times in 1969 and ’70, but not enough to qualify for the 1971 Tournament of Champions. Which got him thinking. And then moving.

“I realized that I was neglecting what got me there in the first place, which was moving a lot of dirt and paying attention to getting my body and my mind right,” said Trevino, who had turned pro in 1960. “I was just successful enough that I had forgotten where I came from, and I'd forgotten what got me there. I started practicing extremely hard.”

That included with the putter, a club he had largely neglected since first picking up the game as a youngster. He’d always believed the driver was the most important club. But in 1971 he attacked the putting green armed with a new putter. 

“I went to the Wilson 8802, the one Arnold Palmer actually designed,” Trevino said. “And it fit my stroke really well. I went inside with it going back and then released the face, and I had one hell of a run with that putter in ’71. It was crazy.”

Familiar, formidable foe

Trevino won twice leading into that year’s U.S. Open, contested June 17-21 on Merion’s East Course, which was hosting its 13th USGA championship and first National Open since Ben Hogan’s inspirational triumph in 1950, just 16 months after his near-fatal automobile accident. Only Nicklaus was having a better season in 1971, winning the PGA Championship in February and the aforementioned Tournament of Champions in late April following a runner-up finish in the Masters. And while Trevino was competing in the Kemper Open the week before the championship, Nicklaus was in Ardmore, Pa., getting reacquainted with the East Course, where he had shot 269 to wallop the field in the 1960 World Amateur Team Championship.

What Nicklaus didn’t realize is that he had provided Trevino with some of the artillery with which to beat him. In early March at the Doral Eastern Open, the Golden Bear sat down with Trevino in the locker room. Trevino had skipped the 1970 Masters and was planning to sit out again in ’71. The conversation was brief but impactful. Nicklaus said to Trevino, “You don’t know how good you are. You can win anywhere.”

“I already knew I could win anywhere. I could win on a dirt road,” Trevino said. “But coming from Jack Nicklaus, the greatest player in the game, that meant a lot to me. It was a gesture I never forgot. That filled me with a lot of confidence. I played unbelievable after that.”

Pre-championship showers softened Merion, which was thought too short at 6,544 yards – shorter than the ’50 championship when it measured 6,694. The rough, however, was healthy and penal, well past knee high in many places. To illustrate the point, Trevino agreed to pose for a photograph wearing a pith helmet and holding a hatchet in his right hand and a wedge in his gloved left hand. Dangling from the hosel was a rubber snake he had purchased for his daughter a few weeks earlier at the Fort Worth Zoo. 

“I was going to scare some of the caddies with it,” Trevino said, explaining why he stuffed it in his bag.

Rising to the top

Merion didn’t look like it was going to scare anyone early on, yet at the 36-hole mark, Jim Colbert and Bob Erickson led at a mere 2-under-par 138. The Texan known as the “Merry Mex” was four back after rounds of 70-72, one behind the Bear. Palmer also was in the hunt in his native Pennsylvania at 141.

An amateur named Jim Simons – “Kid Amateur” the newspapers called him – then stole the spotlight. Hailing from Butler, Pa., Simons, a 21-year-old member of the Wake Forest golf team, surged into the lead at 3-under 207 after a 5-under 65, just one off the championship record. He converted seven birdies after registering just two in his opening 36 holes. Four years earlier, amateur Marty Fleckman led the U.S. Open at Baltusrol only to shoot 80 while Nicklaus went on to win another showdown with Palmer.

A member of the USA Walker Cup Team that year, Simons would be paired in Sunday’s final round with, gulp, Nicklaus, whose third-round 68 left him two shots behind at 209. Bobby Nichols was third, while Trevino was locked in a four-way tie for fourth at 1-over 211 thanks to a 69.

At the turn, Simons proved he was no Fleckman, still holding onto the lead, but after birdies at 12 and 14, Trevino had nosed ahead. But at the famed par-4 home hole, Trevino whistled a 3-wood approach through the green and failed to get up and down for par, missing a 7-footer – after first backing off, his concentration broken by a spectator falling out of a tree. He was in the clubhouse with another 69 and 280 total, even par.

Needing birdie at the last to tie, Simons found the rough with his drive and ended up suffering a double bogey that left him with a 76 and a tie for fifth at 283. It’s still the third-best finish by an amateur since 1960, trailing only Nicklaus’ second-place finish in ’60 and his tie for fourth in ’61.

Nicklaus struggled coming home, too, but his putter kept bailing him out on Merion’s treacherous triple-cut greens. He had the championship on his putter on the 18th green, sizing up a straight 15-footer for birdie. “It wasn’t a hard putt, but I pulled it,” Nicklaus recalled. With pars on his last 13 holes, he settled for a 71 and a tie. 

Lee Trevino's 1971 U.S. Open victory at Merion was his second title in three years. (USGA Archives)

Formula for victory

Trevino couldn’t wait for the playoff the next morning. “I already felt like I had won because I had nothing to lose, and I always got extra motivated playing against Jack,” Trevino said.

He would get the first and last laugh that steamy, stormy day. The first occurred on the first tee when he pulled that rubber snake out of his bag and got the crowd laughing. Sitting on the opposite side of the tee, Nicklaus laughed, too, and asked Trevino to toss it to him. Nicklaus held it up and shook his head. Then Trevino bogeyed the short opening hole to fall behind, which seemed to augur a third U.S. Open title for the Golden Bear.

By the third hole Trevino was two ahead, thanks to a pair of uncharacteristic miscues by Nicklaus, who misplayed bunker shots at the second and third holes for a bogey and double bogey, respectively. 

“I didn’t give it away. I played two poor shots, but I still had 15 holes to go,” Nicklaus recalled. “Those happen in a round of golf. I would like to play them over to this day, though.”

Trevino got more help after Nicklaus birdied the fifth to cut the deficit in half. They split pars at the sixth, then the skies split open. Play was halted for more than an hour. The deluge changed the golf course and the dynamic of the competition.

“The only reason I beat him – and I’ve said this many times – is because of the rainstorm that came that sort of evened things out between us,” Trevino says. “Look, Jack Nicklaus could stop a ball in a parking lot, he hit it so high. And I hit the ball low. As soon as it started raining, I was saying, ‘Keep it up baby, keep it up.’ I knew it wasn’t going to hurt him and it was not going to help him, but it was going to help me. The rain softened things up enough for me to be able to hold the greens with my approach shots. That was a huge break. To this day, I don’t think I would have won that playoff without the rain.”

To Trevino, weather was only half of the equation.

“The other reason I won is because Jack helped me. He really beat himself. He hit three poor wedge shots, and that ended up being the difference. He left it in the bunker at No. 2. He left it in the bunker again at No. 3. And then he drove it in front of the green at No. 10 and laid the sod over one and bogeyed when it looked like he was going to make a birdie.”

“No, Lee beat me,” Nicklaus countered. “It was very disappointing because I had prepared very well for Merion. I didn’t play that badly [in the playoff], but he went out and shot 68, and a 68 at Merion is darn good golf. He had a knack for playing some of his best golf against me.”

That came out over the final nine holes as Trevino’s new best friend, that Wilson 8802 putter, made the difference. “If you really dissect that round, the whole back nine I made a lot of crucial putts. The one that really did it was the birdie I made on 12. It was downhill about 25 feet. That still registers in my mind as the one that won it. That’s the best I got, baby.”

Springboard to career year

Trevino, exempt for life on the PGA Tour after his 1968 Open triumph, has often said that he didn’t feel like he “truly belonged” until walking off Merion with his second national title. 

“I'd always felt like an outsider. But when I won that championship and beat the best player ever to play the game, a light came on and I actually felt like I was accepted,” he said. “The next week in Cleveland, a lot of those older players, they tolerated me, but they weren't the greatest of friends. But Bob Goalby saw me two fairways over during the pro-am, and he walked all the way across and shook my hand and said, ‘Hey, we finally got somebody that can beat him [Nicklaus].’ I really did appreciate that.”

Trevino responded by winning the Canadian Open the following week and then went to Royal Birkdale and won the first of two straight British Open Championships, becoming only the third man to win the U.S. and British Open titles in the same year, after Bob Jones and Hogan. Throw in his Canadian victory and he owns a so-called “Triple Crown,” equaled only by Tiger Woods. It was the most glorious 20 days he would ever know.

Nicklaus took the money title in 1971, but Trevino, with six victories, was PGA Player of the Year and won the Vardon Trophy for lowest stroke average. It was the grandest season of a long career in which Trevino won six majors and 29 PGA Tour titles overall. But one victory resonates above all others. “Man, Merion made my career,” he said simply.

One question remains. Whatever happened to the snake? Did it receive a proper burial? Did his daughter lose it? Was it misplaced after moving a few times? No, he knows exactly where it is, as he does his six major trophies. Only one of those things has a place of honor.

“It’s hanging on a wall in my shop,” Trevino said. “Hey, if you came to my house, you wouldn’t know a golfer lived here. All the trophies are in a bedroom upstairs. But the snake … I had it in my shop, and when I moved about three years ago, I just couldn’t let it go. My good-luck charm. I look at it and laugh and remember what happened. And, hell, it was all so much fun, as much fun as I ever had.”

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.