LINKS LETTER, 2005 ANNUAL EDITION

EVERYTHING IN ORDER

By Bruce Lietzke with Jeff Hopper

What you have heard about me is true. I don’t practice.

I cannot tell you what a wonderful advantage this has been for me through the years, because when I’m home, I’m home. Over the past 18 years, I’ve been able to help as the Little League coach for my kids’ teams, I’ve been the golf coach for my son’s high school team, and I’ve had a lot of time for my hobbies.

But it hasn’t always been this way. I need to tell you that, because through the years, I think a lot of writers and fans have been fooled. They admired my priorities, not knowing that I had a lot of things out of order in my life.

That’s not entirely fair, though. For a long time I didn’t know I had a lot of things out of order. If I were to look back and trace my career now, there’s no other conclusion I could come to. I wasn’t doing things in the right order.

I began playing golf when I was only five years old. My oldest brother Duane, who has me beat by 10 years, had already started caddying. One day he brought home a little, short golf club that he had cut off. He had decided that caddying was not enough for him. He was going to be a golf teacher. And that day I became his first student.

Looking back now, I guess you could say that he knew what he was doing! Add to his expertise my surging interest in the game and you had a great combination. My mom would say that I came home from the course when I was just eight years old and told her, “I want to play on the PGA Tour. I want to play with Sam Snead and Gary Player.”

It was 1959. I was just a kid, but I knew what I wanted.

In those days I did practice. All the time. Even then golf was the number one thing in my life. I played other sports, but when those seasons were over, I’d get right back to golf. Eventually, because I was just an average athlete in those other sports, I gravitated toward golf more and more.

But golf removed me from the normal flow of teenage society. I spent so much time on the golf course, I didn’t get to know other kids too well. And because I wasn’t fitting in socially, I became more and more shy, and the golf course was my best refuge. No wonder golf became so important to me. But it also became my obsession. Until I was 23 years old, I played golf as much as you possibly could.

That included my time in college at the University of Houston. After my father was transferred from Wichita, Kansas, to Beaumont, Texas, when I was nine, I had the opportunity to play golf all year in the milder climates of Texas. A lot of good players come from southern states for this very reason—the weather is good. I was no exception, and when it came time to go to college, I chose the Texas school with the richest golf tradition at the time.

I enjoyed my years of college golf, but by the time I graduated, I was suffering from a classic case of burnout. Golf was about all I had known, and it was probably all I had before me, but I was playing poorly. It was a terrible time to make a decision about turning pro. I couldn’t make the decision. In a way, I choked. I told myself, “You know, I’m just not ready to turn pro.”

So I did the only other thing I could think of. I walked away from golf. My dad put me to work as a security guard. It was a minimum wage job and I was working graveyard shifts. I think my dad knew what he was doing. It took me no time to realize that there wasn’t a big future in the security guard business. Golf started looking better and better.

In six months, I was back on the course, down in Florida, trying my swing on the mini tours. Oddly, though, my swing had changed.

I don’t know if it was the lack of practice, or just a natural deal, or maybe having to beat the heavy winds in Florida. But I suddenly found I had only one shot: a fade. I couldn’t hit a hook if I tried. That wasn’t the way I’d grown up playing.

Now all of this was in the early 70s, before video cameras. So I had no idea what my swing looked like. Only my brother knew that. And when I called him, I couldn’t really explain, other than to say, “The ball just wants to fade slightly with every club.”

He’d say, “Until I see what you’re doing, it could be one of two dozen things.”

But then he’d ask the real question: “So what did you shoot today?”

“Well, I shot 67—but it makes me so mad that I can’t hit a hook.”

The next day, I’d call and he’d ask, “What did you shoot?”

I’d say, “66, but…”

Pretty soon, I just started realizing, Hey, I’m cashing some pretty good checks with this swing I hate. It shows up everyday, and when I’m under the gun, it holds up really well.

My old swing had tended to come and go. I’d have my good weeks and my bad weeks. But this new swing was amazingly consistent. The more I played well with it, and the more I got used to it, the more I started to like it.

Eventually, my brother and I decided that I’d just stick with the new swing until it failed me. That was 1975, and we have not changed one thing with my swing since.

Not only that, but I started to discover that I could take two or three days off, and that same hated swing would come back. Then I started taking two or three weeks off, and eventually I ended up taking five or six months off. I wouldn’t touch a club and that same swing with that one ball flight, the fade, was always there.

That’s when I decided that practice doesn’t do me any good, my swing doesn’t get any better when I go home and practice for a week. So why not go home and relax and recharge my mental batteries and get away from the game? Then I could come back and be mentally fresh with the same swing.

Now, I’m guessing my story so far has you thinking in a couple of different directions. First, you’re probably asking a whole bunch of questions, such as, Never? Does he really mean he never practices?

The truth is that I do warm up for about an hour before every pro-am day and before tournament rounds. All I’m trying to do, though, is loosen up my golf muscles. I hit balls for 30-40 minutes, then putt for about 20 more. I’m not working on anything; I’m just warming up.

I haven’t had a lesson in 30 years. I still play golf with my brother Duane sometimes, but we don’t talk about my swing. And I don’t play at all when I’m home, except for the four years I coached my son’s high school team. They’d get me to break my “routine” by talking me into joining them for nine holes once in a while, and I’d help them with chipping and putting, but that’s it.

So the next thing you’re probably thinking is, Man, I wish I could get away with that! After all, now that I tell you all this, it does sound a bit like the whiz kid in school who gets A’s without ever having to study. Here I am, making a living on the Champions Tour after a successful PGA Tour career, and I’m not working at it.

But all that extra time to do what a dad “should be doing”—spending time with his wife and kids—had its downside. It wasn’t a negative thing, certainly. I love my family. My father had been very involved in our athletic lives as kids, and I knew that when I got married, if my kids wanted to play sports, I’d want to be a part of that for them, too.

For eight years, until 1983, I played the PGA Tour with golf as the number one thing in my life. I was trying to win major championships (never did). I was trying to make Ryder Cup teams (which I did in 1981).

But when my kids came, all that ended. The day my son was born, I just knew that golf wasn’t going to be the same thing in my life. Golf didn’t just fall to number two in my life. It wound up fifth or sixth, behind my wife, my kids, my other family, and my friends.

The trouble was that for a long time, I was fooled into thinking that I had everything together, all lined up in the right order. When I started to play a reduced schedule, and explained to reporters that I did this because I wanted to spend time with my family at home, they gave me all kinds of praise.

They would write something like, “This guy really has his priorities in line. He wants to be a good father, he wants to be a good husband, and golf isn’t the most important thing in the world. Bruce Lietzke realizes this.”

That was all true. But what was also true was that my family was too important. I still didn’t have my main focus where it needed to be.

My wife and I began to reevaluate where we stood with God. She had grown up attending church, but we needed to find something more real for us.

Eventually, our search led us to a Bible study near where we live in Dallas. As we studied Scripture and got involved in a mini-church (as we call it), things in my brain started telling me that your wife and your kids can’t be the number one priority in your life. That place is reserved for Christ. Everyone and everything else have to come after Him.

My priorities were just as off as somebody who has a gambling problem or some other kind of sin. My priorities hadn’t been better than anybody else’s. I had to put Christ first.

When I look back on where I started—with almost all my aspirations having to do with golf—I guess it’s pretty remarkable that I think the way I do now. I’ve come to discover that as much as I love golf, where you finish on the money list and how many majors you’ve won or how many Ryder Cup teams you’ve played on doesn’t really mean anything. In this short life, the only thing that matters is whether you believe in Christ or you don’t.

That doesn’t make me any less competitive, I can tell you that. Golf is still my job. I still spend almost half the year on the Tour playing golf. And I still love the heat of the battle. I know golf isn’t a winner-take-all sport and sometimes I am satisfied with a lesser finish, but you can bet I’m upset when I have a lead and bogey the last couple of holes to give it away. You have to be a competitive person if you’re going to survive on Tour for 30 years.

But I don’t feel the pressure to perform or to prove things anymore. That has come from my faith in Christ.

COPYRIGHT 2005 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Bruce Lietzke

    13 PGA Tour wins: 1977 Joe Garagiola-Tucson Open, 1977 Hawaiian Open, 1978 Canadian Open, 1979 Joe Garagiola-Tucson Open, 1980 Colonial National Invitation, 1981 Bob Hope Desert Classic, 1981 Wickes/Andy Williams San Diego Open, 1981 Byron Nelson Golf Classic, 1982 Canadian Open, 1984 Honda Classic, 1988 GTE Byron Nelson Golf Classic, 1992 Southwestern Bell Colonial

    7 Champions Tour wins (one major): 2001 3M Championship, 2001 SAS Championship, 2002 Audi Senior Classic, 2002 TD Waterhouse Championship, 2002 SAS Championship, 2003 Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, 2003 U.S. Senior Open