SBJ/March 25 - 31, 2002/Opinion

Remember, it's a game, not a grind

I've always thought the adage that familiarity breeds contempt was too harsh, but it's certainly true that hanging around the supposed stars of the sports world dampens feelings of awe. That's why we sportswriters have few heroes.

Still, I have a list of athletes I admire, and Bruce Lietzke is on it. He's there because he's a pleasant and unpretentious fellow, but that's not the main reason. What I really like about him is that he treats his sport — golf — like a sport instead of some godawful grind.

For golf non-fans, a few words of introduction to Lietzke might be in order. He's a native of Texas who in 25 years on the PGA Tour won 13 tournaments and almost $6.5 million in prize money, noteworthy totals both. Last July he turned 50 and joined the Senior Tour, where the latest tend to be the greatest. He proceeded to win twice before the year ended, post five other top-10 finishes and pocket about $1.1 million in earnings. He's continued strong this year with a victory and $386,256 to show for five appearances into mid-March.

The great thing is that he achieved many of those laurels as a part-timer, never playing in more than 20 tournaments a year after 1988. Most of the rest of the time he's stayed home in Plano, Texas, restoring and modifying cars that catch his fancy (he keeps them in an 11-car garage) and hanging out with his wife and two kids, sometimes going weeks without touching a club. In other words, he has a life outside his game.

The PGA Tour used to be like that. In the old days, after the 18th hole, the likes of Jimmy Demaret, Doug Sanders and Tony Lema, and their cohorts, headed for the 19th hole, like many a recreational player.

Today, any pro so inclined keeps it to himself, the better to comply with the PGA's ethos of practice-range fanaticism. To hear the current tourists tell it, any daylight hour not spent pounding balls is a wasted hour, utterly lost. At tournaments, even Tiger Woods always professes to be coming from or headed toward the range when he's not on the course, although maybe he says it to keep from being pestered.

Lietzke says he has nothing against practice, it's just that he's not very good at it. He learned golf on a course that had no practice range, so when he played he headed straight for the first tee, and the habit reasserted itself. It helps, of course, that he's blessed with a nicely grooved swing that produces a friendly fade he can replicate with about a half-hour of warming up. He reasons that anything beyond that only hardens his calluses.

The golfer came by this self-knowledge gradually, having spent his younger pro years grinding with the grinders. Once, though, he took a lengthy vacation, and discovered he played as well after it as he had before.

His breaks became more frequent as his children were born and grew. Lately, he's helped coach the high school golf team on which his son, Steve, plays, and is in the stands when his daughter, Christine, plays volleyball. He says he'll probably add a few more tournaments when the two go off to college, but notes that the seniors play mostly 54-hole events, against the 72-holers of the Big Tour, so it'll add up to about the same amount of work.

Lietzke allows that a more intense approach to golf might have yielded him more trophies and cash, but he's not into couldas, shouldas and wouldas. There's more to life than work, he says. Anyway, once you learn your job, you ought to be able to do it without a lot of overtime.

There's a message for the world there, I think.

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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