By Rob Alvarez
Museum Moment: “Champagne Tony” Lema: The Toast of the Tour in the 1960s
Jul 28, 2011
Too many times the sad news of a premature passing has shocked the world. Musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Ritchie Valens and Janis Joplin as well as athletes including Roberto Clemente, Thurman Munson and Lou Gehrig all met untimely fates after enjoying tremendous success in their careers.
Unfortunately, golf has also seen its share of tragedy. “Young” Tom Morris, who won the British Open Championship four years in a row, died of a heart attack at just 25 years of age, four weeks after returning home from a match with his father “Old” Tom Morris to find that his young wife had died during childbirth. Payne Stewart was lost in a plane crash just four months after winning his second U.S. Open with a dramatic putt on the 18th hole at Pinehurst. Most recently Seve Ballesteros, one of the most charismatic figures in the game's history, succumbed to complications from a brain tumor.
In 1966, Oakland Calif., native Tony Lema boarded a twin engine Beechcraft Bonanza with his wife Betty for a flight following the PGA Championship at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, to participate in an exhibition match just outside of Chicago. Lema's plane ran out of fuel, crashing into a water hazard at the Lansing Country Club in Lansing, Ill. Lema and his wife, along with the pilot and two other passengers, were killed in the crash.
Anthony David Lema was born Feb. 25, 1934 to Portuguese immigrant parents. His father died of pneumonia when Tony was 3 years old, leaving his mother to raise four children. Sports Illustrated writer Gwilym S. Brown described Lema's childhood as a “walk on the wild side. He began cutting classes at school, getting into fights and looking for small change and high excitement with a gang of young rowdies that avoided the clutches of the law largely because it moved fast.” Lema learned how to hustle on the street, and later on the golf course. While working as a caddie at Lake Chabot municipal golf course Lema learned how to play golf, picking up tips from the public and the course's professional staff. The athletic Lema was also a standout basketball player for his local CYO organization and high school.
At 19, Lema enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, serving in the Survey Section of the artillery in Korea. He returned home two years later and sought employment in the golf business. He took a job as an assistant professional at the San Francisco Golf Club. In 1956, he would qualify for the U.S. Open held at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. He finished in 50th place, earning a $200 prize for the week. Realizing how expensive life on the PGA Tour would be, Lema made an arrangement to be sponsored by Eddie Lowery, who had caddied for Francis Ouimet in his stunning upset at the 1913 U.S. Open. Lema would receive $200 per week for expenses which he would pay back to his sponsor plus one-third of his winnings. By 1962 Lema was more than $11,000 in debt.
Part of the reason Tony had accumulated so much debt was his penchant for the good life. He had acquired a reputation as the Tour’s playboy, frequently hosting parties in the hotels he would stay in while on the road.
While his reputation for having a good time preceded him, Lema did show occasional flashes of brilliance, leading several tournaments going into the final round only to fall out of contention. In 1960 Lema was partnered with amateur Danny Arnold in the Palm Springs Classic. The two would develop a friendship that allowed Lema to express his frustrations about life and his game. The conversations between Arnold and Lema were therapeutic. One month after meeting Arnold, Lema found himself in a playoff at the Orange County Open with 1959 PGA champion Bob Rosburg. On the third hole Rosburg missed a 10-foot birdie putt, leaving the door open for Lema to win his first Tour event. Lema did not let the opportunity slip away, depositing a 10-footer of his own into the cup for his first victory. He was so excited that he later bought champagne for the press, earning the nickname “Champagne Tony.”
Three weeks later Lema won the Mobile Open. Shortly thereafter he met an American Airlines flight attendant by the name of Betty Cline. The couple wed in 1963. Lema’s career had turned around; he would go on to win 12 events between 1962 and 1966, including his greatest victory, the 1964 British Open at St. Andrews.
Lema had developed a friendship with Arnold Palmer, who was unable to make the trip to St. Andrews in 1964 due to a hip injury. Palmer loaned Lema his Tommy Armour putter and his regular British caddie, Tip Anderson. Anderson was a descendant of Jamie Anderson, who had won the British Open three years in a row from 1877-1879. Working with Tip gave Lema an edge over much of the competition and after three days of smart links golf the only roadblock to victory came in the form of Jack Nicklaus. On the sixth hole, Lema had a two-shot lead over Nicklaus; the lead would grow to five as Lema made five consecutive threes, three birdies and two pars at the famous “Loop.” He once again broke out the bubbly to celebrate his victory, serving up bottles of Moet and Chandon to the press. The USGA Museum has in its collection a bottle of champagne signed by Tony Lema.
Two years later when Lema’s good friend Ken Venturi asked him why he was making the trip to Chicago, Lema would respond, “I’m getting $1,500 for this exhibition; I’m going where the money is.” Venturi stuck his finger in Lema’s chest and said “You’ll live to regret those words.” Sadly, he was right.
Rob Alvarez is the collection manager of the USGA Museum. Email questions or comments to RAlvarez@usga.org.
Lema was so excited that he later bought champagne for the press, earning the nickname “Champagne Tony.”(USGA Museum)
The USGA Museum has in its collection a bottle of champagne signed by Tony Lema. (USGA Museum)