Like music’s Buddy Holly and Jim Croce and baseball’s Roberto Clemente, a plane crash tragically cut short the life of golfer Tony Lema in the prime of his career.

Lema’s is a story of what might have been.  Tall, handsome and sweet swinging, he was extremely well-liked.  Tony won a dozen times on Tour.  From 1963 until his death in July 1966, Lema finished in the top ten over half the time and made the cut in every major, finishing in the top ten in eight of the 15 in which he played.  In each of his final three seasons on Tour, the effervescent Californian finished in the top four spots on the money list.

A muni- golf kid from Oakland, Lema grew up in an era when the Bay Area churned out elite players, from Johnny Miller and Ken Venturi to Bob Rosburg and George Archer.  In 1964, Lema won the Open Championship at storied St. Andrews by five strokes over Jack Nicklaus using a putter and caddy he borrowed from Arnold Palmer.

Lema’s convincing performance at St. Andrews was his ninth Tour victory and promised to be a springboard to more greatness.   His golf swing was silky.  Jim Murray wrote Lema had “a swing you could pour on popcorn.”  Miller envisioned Lema’s smooth move whenever he wanted to hit a draw. Lema was on the verge of joining Nicklaus, Arnie and Gary Player – golf’s Big Three – with 12 PGA Tour victories in a four-year span beginning in 1962.

Lema played in the Ryder Cup in both 1963 and 1965.  He amassed a record of 9-1-1 [.864], which remains the best for any player who has played in two or more.

Known for partying, gambling and a quick temper, Lema went winless during his first six years on Tour.  His best finish was a second in 1958, and he had 10 top-tens.  Lema’s first win came in September 1962, in Las Vegas.  One month later, he held the lead after three rounds at the Orange County Open in Costa Mesa, California.  The popular Lema was interviewed in the card room of Mesa Verde Country Club following the round, where the club had placed a cooler with some soda and beer in it.  Tony had a beer during the interview.  When he got up to leave, he told the gathered reporters, “I’ll tell you one thing, fellas.  If I win tomorrow, there’s going to be champagne in there.”

The next day, Lema beat Bob Rosburg on the third playoff hole.  There was champagne all around, and from then on he was known as Champagne Tony.  The Moet champagne company took notice, showing up any time Lema had a chance to win a tournament.  It almost happened at the 1963 Masters.  Playing at Augusta for the first time, Lema birdied the last hole to put himself in contention.  A 23-year-old Nicklaus held on to win by a stroke, earning the Golden Bear the first of his record six Green Jackets.

Born in Oakland February 25, 1934, Anthony David Lema had a hardscrabble upbringing.  He was three when his father died, forcing his widowed mother to raise Tony and his three siblings on welfare.  Lema learned to play golf at Lake Chabot municipal golf course, where a black driving range attendant and Oakland cop taught him the nuances of the game.  At 17, Lema enlisted in the Marines and served in Korea.  After his discharge in 1955, he befriended Eddie Lowery, a wealthy San Francisco businessman who assisted talented players in the area.  Best known as the ten-year-old caddy of champion Francis Ouimet at the 1913 U.S. Open, Lowery gave the youngster $200 per week for expenses in exchange for one-third of the prize money Lema earned.

Lema won three of the final ten events to close the 1962 season.  He had only one win in 1963, but finished second six times and wound up fourth on the money list.  In 1964, Lema got white-hot.  He won the Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in January.  Then, in a four-week span in June, he won the Thunderbird Classic at Westchester, then the Buick Open.  After finishing 20th at the U.S. Open, he returned to the winner’s circle at the Cleveland Open.

“Tony was the most fearless putter – he made Arnold Palmer’s putting look conservative,” said Johnny Miller

After beating Palmer in a playoff in Cleveland, Arnie talked Lema into going to St. Andrews because he was playing so well.  Palmer was skipping the Open due to a hip injury.  “I’ll go if I can borrow your putter,” said Lema.  “I’ll go you one better,” Palmer told his friend.  “Not only can you borrow my putter, but I’ll arrange for my caddy, Tip Anderson, to caddy for you.”

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Lema had never played the Old Course nor had he been to Scotland.  Tip told him “just hit it where I tell you and you’ll do well.”  Lema had the good fortune of finishing his first round before the 60 mph winds kicked up, posting a 73 to put him in a tie for fifth.  He seized the lead with a second round 68 and never let up.  Playing some of the finest golf of his career, Lema was seven shots clear of the field after three rounds and cruised to a five-stroke victory.  Afterward, he raised a glass of champagne while clutching the Claret Jug.  It was Lema’s fourth win in six weeks.

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Lema attributed his newfound success to the calming influence of his new wife, Betty, a former flight attendant he had married in April 1963.  As a bachelor, Champagne Tony had loved the nightlife.  Betty’s presence, coupled with the end of his financial obligations to Lowery, allowed Lema’s game to blossom.  In May 1966, the 32-year-old captured the Oklahoma City Open in his wife’s hometown to give himself at least one victory in five straight seasons.

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After finishing T-34 at the PGA Championship at Firestone in Akron on July 24, Lema and his wife — pregnant with the couple’s first child — charted a plane to an outing at Lincolnshire Country Club in Crete, Illinois.  The twin-engine Beechcraft Bonanza ran out of gas a mile from the airport and crashed, ironically, into a water hazard just short of the 7th green at Lansing Sporting Club just south of Chicago.  Tony and Betty were killed, as were the aircraft’s two pilots.

There were uncashed tournament prize checks totaling nearly $20,000 found amongst the wreckage in Tony’s briefcase.

The golf world was stunned.  A fan favorite, Lema was second only to Arnie in popularity.  At the time of his death midway through the 1966 PGA Tour season, Champagne Tony had one win, two thirds and eight top-tens.  An investigation of the crash site produced a briefcase Lema brought on board.  In it were uncashed tournament prize checks totaling nearly $20,000.

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On this date in 1966, Tony Lema won the Oklahoma City Open Invitational at Quail Creek Golf & Country Club.  Lema fired a final round 65 to beat Tom Weiskopf by six shots.  It was the 12th and final win of Mr. Lema’s career.

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Comments

  1. Nice opening line comparing Tony Lema’s tragic accident to Holly, Croce, and Clemente. Most definitely a story of what might have been.

  2. I didn’t know much about him growing up, but I learned to play golf at the Tony Lema golf course. I also played at Chabot a couple times. Oh what might’ve been!

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