The Port Arthur News
PORT ARTHUR —
Sadly, it appears that the career of Southeast Texas’ most successful professional golfer is all but over.
Following a 2011 season that saw him limited to only three events on the Champions Tour because of problems with his right shoulder, 60-year-old Bruce Lietzke concedes the end is near. He’s going to try to play a handful of events this year, but concedes that he may not be able to finish any of them.
“I’ve been to a specialist and he says it’s a combination of arthritis and bursitis,” explained the former Beaumonter. “What’s going on is not related to the ‘frozen shoulder’ that I dealt with in the past, although the pain is very similar. It’s just an old shoulder that has seen a lot of action. I can hit irons without a lot of pain by shortening the following through, but it’s extremely painful with a driver and 3 wood.
“Surgery is an option, but I don’t really want to do that until it gets to the point where I’m restricted in doing other things. It would be six months to a year before I could play again and at my age coming back after that would really be tough. Truthfully, not playing doesn’t bother me that much. When I joined the Senior Tour in 2001, my goal was to retire in 2008.”
To a writer who remembers covering Lietzke dating all the way back to his days in junior golf, reviewing what he’s accomplished in the game is truly amazing. Especially since everything he did has to be taken in the context that he was basically a part-time player in his prime, because he made spending quality time with his wife, son and daughter his No. 1 priority.
Lietzke, after playing collegiately at the University of Houston, felt burned out on golf, put his clubs up for six months and worked as a security guard at the Mobil refinery in Beaumont. Later that year on a whim, he played in the Beaumont City Championship, won it and his fire for the game was restoked. He would turn pro in time to play the 1975 season.
His career took off in 1977 when he defeated Gene Littler in a playoff to win the Tucson Open. Over the next 24 years, he would win 13 times on the PGA Tour and come close to winning on several other occasions. The pinnacle was 1981 when he won twice in a three-week span — Bob Hope Desert Classic and Andy Williams San Diego Open — and later added the Byron Nelson Classic.
In addition to those three victories in ‘81, he also had two seconds, a third, 13 top 10s and made the cut in 22 of 24 events. This, mind you, in an era when Jack Nicklaus was still going strong and guys like Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Tom Weiskopf and Hale Irwin were weekly factors.
If a golfer in 2012 matched what Lietzke did in 1981, his bank account would swell by $6-to-$8 million. In the pre-Tiger Woods era of PGA payoffs, Lietzke’s earnings were $343,444. He got $50,000 for winning the Hope, $45,000 in San Diego and $54,000 for the Nelson.
The only hole in Lietzke’s resume, and it didn’t bother him nearly as much as it bothered others, was that he didn’t win a major. That hole wouldn’t be there if John Daly had not gotten into the 1991 PGA Championship as ninth alternate, and stood the golf world on its ear by winning. Bruce finished outright second. His other major bests were 6th at the Masters in 1975, 6th at the British Open in 1991 and 17th in the U.S. Open.
Lietzke, though, would get his major on the Champions Tour, winning the 2003 U.S. Senior Open by two shots over Tom Watson. That propelled him to his first season of going over the $1 million mark ($1,119,572) in official earnings. Prior to that, his high-water mark was $703,805 in 1992. By comparison, Chris Stroud pocketed $1,096,499 last year by tying for 81st on the PGA Tour money list.
You don’t need to feel bad for Lietzke over being born too soon, though. If he doesn’t make another penny on the Champions Tour, his all-time golf winnings are right at $14 million, with $7.5 million of that coming after the left the PGA Tour.
Meanwhile, he’s living the good life on a 628-acre ranch 75 miles Southeast of Dallas. The property contains a 50-acre lake, two more 20-acre lakes and four stock tanks. Bruce never needs to leave home for a terrific fishing experience.
“I’m enjoying life,” he said. “I spend a lot of time taking care of projects and chores around the ranch. I still haven’t hired a foreman. I really like working outdoors on the property, but one of these days I need to hire somebody to do wood splitting and mowing. For now, I’m enjoying it. And you know how I am about fishing.”
Before he calls it quits on the Champions Tour, Lietzke said he’ll try to play events in San Antonio and Houston and the Legends of Golf partnership with his good buddy Bill Rogers. He’s also eying a tournament in California and one in Minnesota. The fear is that he can’t finish what he starts.
“It’s bearable for a couple of days by taking Advil.” he explained. “The third and fourth day it’s pretty tough. I’ll talk to some of the sponsors and see if they will allow me to play in just one of the pro-ams. I may have to go to hitting a utility club off the tee. Or a 3 iron. If it doesn’t work, I can accept it. I’ve been blessed. There will be no regrets.”
All I can do, Bruce, is echo Bob Hope and say, “Thanks for the memories.” You’ve been great for Southeast Texas, you’re still an outstanding advocate for junior golf, you’ve been terrific copy for a certain sportswriter and you’ve been a wonderful ambassador for the game.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at email@example.com