One of the great benefits of editing Sun Country Golf magazine years ago was getting to know Guy Wimberly, who related how New Mexico and El Paso pros helped Lee Trevino gain entry to the PGA Tour.
Guy, dean of New Mexico golf professionals, wrote for a regular column for me. In one, he related the enduring and unique relationship Super-Mex had with New Mexico and El Paso.
In addition to his two U.S. Open wins, two British Open victories and two PGA championships — 29 PGA Tour wins overall — Lee Trevino had notched wins at the 1966 and 1972 New Mexico Open.
Through Guy, I learned that Trevino donated his 1972 New Mexico Open winnings to the New Mexico chapter of the Southwest Section of the PGA of America. The money helped the New Mexico and El Paso County, Texas, pros defray the cost forming their own group — the Sun Country PGA Section.
The record of golf in New Mexico revealed more tidbits.Lee Trevino was on hand for the 1979 opening of a course in Elephant Butte, N.M., and he designed one nine of the (now-defunct) 27-hole Rio Rancho Country Club.
Guy Wimberly, who has since passed on, told the story of how a small group of guys in West Texas and Southern New Mexico helped Trevino get admitted to the PGA Tour.
In the 1960s, Trevino wasn’t yet the trailblazing Mexican-American icon he would become. He was an assistant working as a Dallas driving range whose chief duty was picking the range at night. His days were spent playing and gambling on golf at a Dallas muni.
A ‘Ringer’ was Needed
Before long, his golf game led to his recruitment into a money game organized by local pros and El Paso and Las Cruces-area cotton and chile farmers. To be clear, this was no small-dollar game and the players were hardly muni hacks.
Former El Paso Country Club professional, Fred Hawkins, who had tied for second in the 1958 Masters and finished 6th in the 1952 U.S. Open, was in the game, as was Orville Moody, then a soldier stationed at nearby Fort Bliss. Moody would go on to win the 1969 U.S. Open.
Later additions to the game included Horizon Country Club pro Bill Eschenbrenner, would would later run El Paso Country Club, and Guy’s brother, Herb Wimberly, who later would become the golf coach at New Mexico State University.
One of the players, cotton farmer Martin Lettunich, who was tired of losing week after week. He asked another player, Bobby Sparks, if he knew of anyone that could come to El Paso and be a good partner. “Sparks said, absolutely, speaking of a young ‘Mexican boy’ from Dallas,” Guy said.
Trevino, still working in Dallas, went to El Paso to join the game. Although he had once worked in a cotton field, when his mentors tried to pass their ringer off as a Mexican farm worker who drove a tractor, their cover story lasted about as long as it took Trevino to step up to the first tee.
Guy Wimberly estimated that “hundreds of thousands of dollars” were won and lost in that game.
An Obstacle: a Letter of Reference
In time, Eschenbrenner, Herb Wimberly and others in the game suggested that Trevino had the game to make it on tour. The problem, however, was Trevino’s boss at the Dallas driving range. He wouldn’t write a letter of reference to the PGA of America — which ran the PGA Tour at the time — attesting to Trevino’s character.
It was a letter that Trevino needed to gain admission to the PGA Tour. And the answer from his boss was a firm no.
Whether it was racism or Trevino’s penchant for gambling that was behind the refusal is unclear. Locals only remember that the Dallas pro told anyone who asked that he didn’t think Trevino would make a good PGA professional.
To help Trevino, Eschenbrenner hired him as an outside services worker at Horizon Country Club in El Paso, which Eschenbrenner ran at the time. At one point, Raymond Floyd, who would later win the Masters and PGA Championship, flew in for a money match that had been arranged at Horizon.
Lee Trevino Meets Raymond Floyd
As Trevino unloaded Floyd’s bag, the PGA Tour pro asked Trevino who he’d be playing. “Me,” Trevino said. Super-Mex won the match and his legend began to grow.
In a months-long effort, Eschenbrenner, Herb Wimberly and a few others petitioned the PGA on Trevino’s behalf, making the case for him to join the PGA Tour. After a lot of letter writing, some negotiations with the North Texas PGA Section and some bureaucratic smoke and mirrors, Lee Trevino was admitted to the PGA Tour.
The entirety of the story explained Trevino’s long-term affinity for New Mexico and El Paso.
When Martin Lettunich — the cotton farmer who recruited Trevino as his partner — died in 2016 at the age of 89, his obituary in the El Paso Times listed the men who were honorary pallbearers. At the end of the list was “his favorite tractor driver, Lee.”
To this day, pros in the region say that if Eschenbrenner, now a member of the Texas and PGA of America golf halls of fame, were to pick up the phone to ask Lee Trevino to get on a plane and play someone sight unseen, Super-Mex would be there.
So much has changed in golf since the bad old days when men like the El Paso driving range pro held sway. Now and then, I still get the the whiff – and occasionally a nose-full – of racism, even in New Mexico, a state where Hispanics settled almost 200 years before the American revolution.
But golf has indeed been making progress. And a money game in El Paso played a not-so-small role in that progress.
Dan Vukelich is editor of New Mexico Golf News
Featured image: Courtesy of the PGA Tour