, Port Arthur, Texas

August 20, 2013

West column: Lietzke still paying tribute to Henry Homberg

Bob West
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — Bruce Lietzke won’t speculate on what path life might have taken if his dad hadn’t been transferred from Wichita to Beaumont when he was nine-years old. It’s obvious, however, from listening to him talk about the late Henry Homberg’s influence on what became a highly successful PGA Tour career that the transfer was something close to divine intervention.

    “Two things happened because of that move,” says the 62-year-old Lietzke. “I was able to play golf year round, so my game didn’t fall off because of being shut down in the winter. Even more important, it enabled me to meet Mr. Homberg and learn from him. Because of all the  hours I was at Tyrrell Park as  kid, I think he spent as much time looking over my shoulder as my dad did.”

    Lietzke’s love for Homberg, and his wife Juel, is why he’s part of a junior tournament in Beaumont every summer, and why he’ll be headed back in September for the fifth rendition of an event called the Tyrrell Park 40 Year Junior Golfers Reunion. It’s set for Sept. 13-15 and is open to anyone who played junior golf or college golf at Tyrrell from 1942 to 1982.

    According to Idylwild pro Ronnie Pfleider, who learned the golf business under Homberg, the idea for a Tyrrell Park reunion dates back to 1999.

    “Several guys who used to play at Tyrrell as kids got to talking about the good old days,” said Pfleider. “I think it was during Bruce’s junior tournament. I remember Jimmy Singletary being in on the conversation. And Gerald Richardson. The more we talked, the more everybody liked the idea of putting some sort of reunion together.”

    Reunion tourneys have been held in 1999, 2002, 2005 and 2010. Originally, the plan was to hold the event every three years, but Hurricane Ike and another rainout wreaked havoc. Sixty-five guys showed up for the inaugural tournament and it’s averaged about 50 players ever since. Getting the word out has always been a challenge. So has picking a date that works for the masses.

    One thing remains constant. Bruce Lietzke shows up because the reunion traces back to Henry Homberg.

    “I’m still trying to repay the things Mr. and Mrs. Homberg did for me in the years they helped raise me,” he explains.

    Lietzke loves to tell how his mother used to drop him off at Tyrrell Park around 8 each morning. She would give him $2 and tell him she would pick him up at 5. He’d pay $1.50 for an 18-hole junior greens fee, then blow the other 50 cents on a drink and a snack when the round was complete.

    After that, he and some of the kids who lived near Tyrrell would hang out playing games on the putting green. Since Tyrrell Park didn’t have a full-sized practice area, they could only work on 7-iron through wedge. One day Homberg walked up and asked them why they were just hanging around. They told him they were out of money and didn’t have anywhere else to go.

    That led to him making them an offer they couldn’t refuse — picking up trash along holes 1 and 10 each day in return for a complimentary round of golf in the afternoon.

    “It was a great life lesson,” recalls Lietzke. “For a little work and effort we were rewarded by getting to do what we wanted to do — go out and play more golf. Making it even better, Mr. Homberg would be out at No. 1 tee as the starter. We would do our work, then come to the tee and he’d get us right off.

    “He would tell guys waiting to play that these boys have been doing some work for me and have earned the right to play. If you don’t mind, I’m going to let them tee off right now. It made me feel like a million dollars. I can’t imagine something like that happening today at a public course. A pro would get crucified for letting kids out in front of paying customers.”

    Homberg apparently saw something special in Lietzke. Although he never worked with him on his game — Bruce’s brother Duane was his swing coach — there were tips about mental approach, etiquette, rules and on-course strategy. One of his best suggestions was for Lietzke to always play the ball down, even at Tyrrell where the gumbo fairways got hard and crusty in the summer.

    “We used to bump it just about everywhere,” Lietzke recalled. “I came back from a junior tournament one day — I think I was maybe 11 or 12 — and Mr. Homberg asked me how it went. I told him I hit the ball pretty good and putted well but I didn’t score because I had a lot of bad lies.

    “He pulled me off to the side and said  I know this is going to be hard for you because your buddies are going to bump the ball. But you need to be disciplined enough to play the ball down here at Tyrrell. He went on to explain why it’s so much easier to hit the ball off nice turf and good lies, but that playing the ball down would lead to me shooting better scores. And it did.”

    Homberg would live long enough to see Lietzke win 11 of his  13 PGA tournament titles in a career that was remarkable not only for how much he won, but how he did it. With his family the top priority in his life, and always being there for his son and daughter, Lietzke never played more than 25 tournaments in a year. And not more than  20 after 1988. Yet he was almost always competitive when he showed up.

    The Lietzke resume includes seven victories on the Champions Tours, highlighted by a two-shot victory over Tom Watson in the 2003 U.S. Senior Open. There almost certainly would have been more Champions Tour triumphs, but an ailment called “frozen shoulder” began to plaque him in late 2003. Ultimately, it attacked both shoulders.  His game would never be the same.

    Though frozen shoulder is no longer an issue, bursitis and arthritis in the shoulder are. At a time when guys his age are still competing and winning, Lietzke is unable to play back-to-back rounds because of pain. When he comes in for the Tyrrell Park reunion, he’ll be mostly limited to iron shots and putting on the second day.

    No need to feel sorry for him, however. Bruce is living the good live on his ranch 75 miles southeast of Dallas. As long as the fish are biting — he’s got a 50-acre lake and two 20-acre lakes — you won’t hear any complaining. Well, maybe he’ll fuss a little over the Dallas Cowboys continued ineptitude.

    Indeed, Lietzke has a sunny philosophy that extends to the the inflated PGA Tour purses that dwarf payoffs he collected. Chris Stroud, whom Lietzke follows and roots for, has won more money this season ($1.5 million) than Lietzke ever did in one year. In 1981, when he won three tournaments, his winnings totaled $343,444. In his biggest year, fueled by the U.S. Senior Open, he pocketed $1.1 million.

    “People used to ask Byron Nelson about the money he’d have made in another era,” Lietzke says. “Bryon would say the money didn’t matter, that he loved the time he played and the guys like Ben Hogan that he competed against. I feel the same way. One of these days when Chris Stroud looks back, I bet he’ll tell you the same thing about the era in which he played.”

    Somewhere Henry Homberg is smiling. That’s exactly the kind of answer he’d have wanted his protégé to give.

    Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at