Lietzke passes away at age 67
July 28, 2018
By Jim McCabe, PGATOUR.COM
- July 28, 2018
- Bruce Lietzke won 13 times and had 19 runner-up finishes on the PGA TOUR. (Stan Badz/PGA TOUR)
You see it under nearly every photo on every page in the PGA TOUR media guide – “fishing” listed as a player’s special interest. Except, that is, for those days from the mid-70s to mid-90s when you got to Bruce Lietzke’s bio. He was into “serious fishing.”
His friends will smile about that, because Lietzke – who died Saturday morning in his home outside of Dallas at the age of 67, after having battled an aggressive form of brain cancer called Glioblastoma – was indeed serious about his fishing. Just not as serious as he was about his family, of course, because in wife Rose and children Stephen and Christine, Lietzke felt blessed to have a world in which he wanted to immerse himself – and oh, how he succeeded.
“To make it work like he did (a great family, a 628-acre Texas ranch, 13-win PGA TOUR career), anyone would have liked to have done it like Bruce,” said Bill Rogers, the 1981 Open champion who was Lietzke’s roommate at the University of Houston. “He did it the way he wanted to do it and in truth, he lived out his dream.”
When word circulated a little more than a year ago about Lietzke’s cancer, it was a jolt to his friends, and one could make the case that few players of his era were as beloved as this big man who never took himself too seriously. He was once asked to compare his golf game to one of the many cars he kept at his farm. “An old El Camino,” he laughed. “Half ugly, half decent. It fits me more than anything.”
“He was a classic, and that’s the right word,” said Rogers, who along with Jerry Pate – Lietzke’s brother-in-law – and two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw accompanied Lietzke for some early hospital appointments more than a year ago. Curtis Strange visited and kept in touch with Rogers, and the Wadkins boys – Lanny and Bobby – were part of the close circle, too.
“In the end,” said Rogers, “the Good Lord felt 67 years was enough, that he was satisfied Bruce deserved eternal peace. It’s a good place to be.”
For so many years, the place to be for Lietzke was his ranch in Athens, about 70 miles southeast of Dallas. That was home – for Rose and Stephen and Christine, and for Lietzke’s cars. But what shouldn’t be overlooked is that all of it was made possible by the man’s uncanny PGA TOUR success. In more than 500 tournaments between 1975 and 2001 (the bulk of which were played before he cut back on his schedule in his late 30s), he was a top-10 machine with 127, including 19 runner-ups to go with his 13 victories.
From 1976 to 1995 he was inside the top 30 on the money list 11 times and within the top 70 all but one season. In his prime, Lietzke hit a lot of greens (he led the PGA TOUR in 1982, ’85 and ’86) and consistently ranked among the top drivers for distance and accuracy. There was enormous talent, “but what he really had,” said Rogers, “was great perspective.”
PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan referenced that in a statement.
“Our PGA TOUR family lost a treasured member with the death of Bruce Lietzke. He touched on parts of five decades as a player, competed in 700 tournaments as a member of the PGA TOUR and PGA TOUR Champions, and recorded a total of 20 victories,” said Monahan. “But to celebrate Bruce Lietzke’s life properly, we offer praise to the great family man and the cherished friend to many. Our deepest condolences to his wife, Rose, and his children, Stephen and Christine.”To make it work like he did, anyone would have liked to have done it like Bruce. He did it the way he wanted to do it and in truth, he lived out his dream.
His desire for family time led to Lietzke’s unique schedule. He played a heavy dose of tournaments through May, a light summer, then the PGA Championship in August and a tournament here and there in the fall. It meant that the U.S. Open (just 11 appearances, none after the age of 34) and Open Championship (two trips) weren’t high priorities, and that was fodder for so many of those dinner conversations he had with Rogers and Crenshaw and Strange and the Wadkins boys and Jay Haas.
“I used to get on him about (brushing off the U.S. Open) and not trying to qualify,” said Strange, who won back-to-back U.S. Opens in 1988-89 and knew Lietzke’s patented high fade was perfect for the national open. “He was a heck of a driver of the golf ball.”
But Lietzke never wavered and all these years later, Strange admires him for that. “He did things how he wanted to, he raised a great family, and on top of it all, he was a good man.”
In stark contrast to today’s world, where social media dictates so much and pushes into over-hype the attention on major golf championships, Lietzke had his own measurement. “The TOUR is fun, and the TOUR events still are more important to me than the majors,” Lietzke told the New York Times’ John Radosta in 1981. His best finish in the Masters was a sixth and he was runner-up to John Daly at the 1991 PGA Championship, but Lietzke had higher priorities and no regrets.
A meeting with another Texan, the iconic Byron Nelson, convinced him he had it right, too.
“I started having guilt feelings, skipping the majors, not going after Ryder Cups,” Lietzke once told veteran golf writer Art Spander. “(So), I caught (Nelson) one time and I looked him straight in those blue eyes – and he couldn’t tell a lie for his life – and asked if he ever did regret leaving the game in his prime. He told me, ‘Bruce, not one time did I regret it.’ That took a weight off my shoulder.”
Rogers loves that story because he always felt his great friend was a modern-day Nelson, who walked away from pro golf at 34. “He had a dream, much like Byron – to build a home and raise a family.”
Truth is, Lietzke played like a golfer who was at peace with himself, “a man utterly without flash who yearns not to be noticed,” is how Jaime Diaz described him in a Sports Illustrated feature in 1995. If there was an epiphany, Lietzke told Diaz that it came with the birth of Stephen, the oldest of his two children.
The birth came Oct. 5, 1983, but Lietzke, then in his eighth year on TOUR, had stepped away from competition in August to be with Rose. He didn’t return until January, a five-month hiatus, but promptly tore a rib cartilage, took three more weeks off, came back to finish T-33 at Pebble Beach, then won the Honda Classic in a playoff over Andy Bean. “I remember thinking, ‘I can take five- and six-week breaks and not worry about losing my game,” he told Diaz. “Gosh, I’ve got this thing figured out.”
From then on, he was true to his blueprint. Ten of his career wins came in the January-to-May stretch, two were in the June-to-August period, and his final one came in Las Vegas in October. That was in 1994, by which time Lietzke had become a legend thanks to a piece of fruit.
Ah, yes, “The Banana Story,” laughed Strange. “And the best part of the story is, it’s true.”
No one enjoyed it more than Lietzke himself and it’s likely he told it to every golf writer of the era. The story involved his longtime caddie, Al Hansen, who didn’t buy into his player’s contention that he wouldn’t touch his clubs during the winter of 1985-86. So, Hansen put a banana into a head cover and when Lietzke arrived to start the 1986 season at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, the caddie removed the head cover and nearly keeled over. The rotten banana stench was insufferable.
A legend was born. “America’s finest recreational golfer,” quipped Bob Verdi of Golf World.
Lietzke with his engaging personality was accommodating to the media and quite all right with all the stories about his lengthy hiatuses and those months when he wouldn’t touch a club. “I am what I am,” he would say, and Rose insisted her husband was true to his word. “When Bruce is home,” she told Diaz, “he is 100 percent home.”
As for those summers when Lietzke put the clubs away to be dugout coach for Stephen’s Little League team, he told Verdi: “It’s not my fault that golf season conflicts with the baseball season, is it?”
Not that a strong passion for golf didn’t run through the man’s body. It surely did. In fact, Lietzke – who was born July 18, 1951 in Kansas City, Missouri, but raised in Beaumont, Texas, where his father, Norman, worked as a manager for Mobil Oil – spent nearly every minute of his free time at a local public course as a kid. He was a standout junior player in the golf-mad state of Texas, playing against the likes of Crenshaw and Tom Kite. Lietzke won the 1968 Texas State Junior and added the Texas State Amateur in 1971, by which time he was playing alongside Rogers and John Mahaffey for legendary coach Dave Williams at the University of Houston.
After his eligibility ran out at Houston, in 1973, Lietzke succumbed to “burn-out” and put the clubs away for about five months. He returned to Beaumont where his father got him a job as a security guard. Reminiscing with Diaz, Lietzke said he was given a gun and bullets, but kept them locked in separate drawers to which he didn’t have keys. “Just like Barney,” he joked, a reference to the bumbling Don Knotts character on the Andy Griffith Show.
His hunger for golf renewed, Lietzke headed out on the mini-tours where his famous left-to-right ball flight was born. He told Diaz that he realized the big, high towering draw that he had favored was ineffective in the wind and since he didn’t take lessons and eschewed mechanics, it became trial and error to make the change. He settled on a move whereby he would place the ball well forward in his stance, then “cover” it with his right shoulder, a slight outside-in action that produced a consistent fade.
You would be hard-pressed, in fact, to think of a player of that generation who produced the sort of consistency that Lietzke did and thus the nickname – “Leaky” – was a tribute to how every shot would leak to the right. “The man never did see much of the left side of the golf course,” laughed Rogers.
The way he fine-tuned this action ignited Lietzke’s enthusiasm and while the “recreational golfer” tag would stick later in his career, he did play about 26 times a year from 1976-82.
In his 47th start on the PGA TOUR, the 1977 Joe Garagiola Tucson Open, Lietzke beat Gene Littler in a playoff for his first win. He didn’t have to wait long for No. 2, because two tournaments later he closed with 67 – 273 to beat Don January by three at the Hawaiian Open.
In the first seven years of his career, Lietzke made the cut in 154 of his 184 starts, or 84 percent, and produced nine of his wins. He also earned his only Ryder Cup berth. The Americans in 1981 compiled a rousing 18 ½ - 9 ½ win over Europe at the Walton Heath Club in England and while Lietzke lost two team matches with Rogers, he halved his singles contest with then 24-year-old Bernhard Langer and cherished being teammates with nine future Hall of Famers – Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Larry Nelson, Crenshaw and Kite. Rogers, a major winner; Pate, a major winner; and Lietzke rounded out the squad.
The best Ryder Cup team ever? “Undoubtedly,” said Rogers. “And we played for the best captain (Dave Marr). It always put a smile on our faces, to talk about that team. We’d laugh and say, ‘How did we get to play with them?’ ”
Bruce Lietzke (top center) was a member of the winning 1981 U.S. Ryder Cup team. (Getty Images)
Lietzke and Rogers were more than former college teammates and best friends. They were eerily similar in their embrace of life, willing to put their families before their golf. Rogers’ four-win 1981 season included the Claret Jug and he challenged deep into the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but after winning his sixth and final PGA TOUR tournament in 1983, he felt he was a victim of burn-out. Like Lietzke, Rogers in his mid-to-late 30s cut back on his playing schedule, then he walked away completely, taking a job as Director of Golf at San Antonio Country Club.
“We used to talk about our decisions,” said Rogers. “Bruce didn’t have any regrets and neither did I.”
In explaining his choice to cut back, Lietzke told Diaz: “My first seven years on TOUR is when I fed my ego. I wanted to find out how good I was. I played all the majors, went overseas. I found out I was not a great player, but a good player. And that was enough for me.”
Rogers insists Lietzke short-changes himself, that he had enormous talent. His nine wins in that 1976-82 window were more than what Crenshaw (seven) or Lanny Wadkins (seven) or Strange (three) compiled in that period “and let me tell you, you could be fooled by his nice, warm smile, but you couldn’t give in to him, because he had a fierce competitive streak,” said Rogers.
Lietzke just didn’t have the desire to stick to the demanding travel schedule. Reflecting to Diaz in 1995, Pate – the 1975 U.S. Open champion whose wife, Soozi, is Rose’s older sister – said: “Fifteen years ago, I would have thought, ‘This guy is selling himself short,’ Now, I feel Bruce was the one who knew the right things, and I had it backward. Winning the U.S. Open is not more important than the things Bruce has accomplished.”
Lietzke and Rogers were part of the historic U.S. rally to win the 1999 Ryder Cup, serving as vice-captains to Crenshaw. On his 50th birthday, in 2001, Lietzke joined the PGA TOUR Champions and through 2009 he played 20-plus tournaments a year, the highlight of his seven wins being the 2003 U.S. Senior Open when he clipped Tom Watson by two at Inverness. But by this phase of his life, what thrilled Lietzke more than the golf were the friendships he had made and retained. The pheasant-hunting trips with Rogers and Pate and Crenshaw and Strange and Bobby Wadkins, some of which included their sons, personified what he loved about his PGA TOUR career.
And, of course, the dinners with his best friends. That is where Lietzke shined. “He was one of the best story-tellers ever,” said Strange. “If you got him going on one of his speeches, you just sat back and laughed.”
In the spring of 2017, Lietzke started getting groggy and had a constant headache. He and Rose visited the doctor, underwent two CAT scans, then got the shocking news. “Just a bolt of lightning,” he told Tim Rosaforte of Golf Digest. Within days, Pate, Rogers and Crenshaw – along with their wives – visited with Rose and Bruce, who was at the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center.
The ensuing months brought more visits and phone calls from countless friends, most of whom appreciated that Lietzke was a special talent with a keen sense of what’s important in life.
Rose had accompanied the Pates to the Hawaii Open in 1979, primarily to help babysit Soozi’s and Jerry’s first child, when she watched the golf one day and was interested in this young golfer named Bruce Lietzke. Until Bruce and Rose met, he had favored trips from tournament to tournament in his low-slung Pontiac Trans-Am, glitzy white, fully stocked, a pure racing machine that burned 103-octane gasoline. Crenshaw once squeezed into the back seat, took a five-minute ride and couldn’t wait to get out. That was OK with Lietzke, who loved the solitude of long drives as much as the ferocity of the car’s engine.
“I’m not a powerful guy,” he told Radosta. “But I do let my cars speak for me.”
When he married Rose in 1981, then had children, Lietzke let his family commitment speak for him. It did so emphatically and beautifully.
“He was my best friend and the most strong-minded person I have ever been around,” said Rogers. “He also understood that the best of life comes from relationships – family and friends. I will miss him terribly.”