Stories You Should Know: Bruce Lietzke

They don’t make sports figures like Bruce Lietzke anymore. At least athletes like him are not in the public eye. He viewed his talent as a means to an end and not an ends in itself. Golf was a way to earn enough to live the life he wanted to live. 

Born July 18, 1951 in Kansas City, Missouri, his family moved to Beaumont, Texas in 1960. He was introduced to golf by his brother Duane. His success in junior golf led to a scholarship to the University of Houston. Houston at the time was a national powerhouse in golf. His roommate was future (British) Open Champion Bill Rogers, and they led the Cougars to back to back runner-up finishes at the NCAA Championships in 1971 and 1972. He graduated in 1973, then turned pro in 1974. He joined the Florida Mini-tour where he developed his famous fade, “I accidentally started coming over the top, trying to hit the ball low. All I know is after about a month in Florida, all I could do is hit a fade.” That shot earned him his lifelong nickname “Leaky”. He earned his PGA card in 1975.

His first win was in 1977 at the Tucson Open, he followed that with a victory in Hawaii later in the year. He would win 11 more tournaments between 1977 and 1994, 13 in all. But what he didn’t play was what set him apart. 

He never played more than 25 events in any year. After he and wife Rosemarie welcomed two children into his family he cut back even more. Son, Stephen was born in October, 1983, and daughter, Christine in October, 1985. When Stephen started school in 1988, Bruce committed to not playing golf while his children were out for summer break. He never again played more than 20 events in a season. His fellow PGA tour mates would play 30 in a season.

The tournaments he wouldn’t play included the most important tournaments of the year. He never again played a United States Open or a (British) Open Championship. He did play the Masters when he was eligible and the PGA because Stephen and Christine were in school. His best finish in a Major was a second to John Daly in the memorable PGA Championship in 1991. In his 12 Masters appearances his best finish was a solo 6th, in his three (British) Open Championships a tie for 6th, and 11 U.S. Open appearances a 17th in 1981. He was very philosophical about the Majors. “I’ve seen what happens to people who win Majors, and I’ve always liked to stay low on the radar screen.”

He rarely practiced while on tour and never practiced while at home.“It’s human nature to want to be better. I don’t want to be better. I want it to be exactly like I was yesterday.” If you ever doubted that he would put his clubs away when not on tour, his caddie, Al Hansen, put him to the test. He put a banana in the head cover of Bruce’s driver at the end of his 1985 schedule in September, thinking that he would prove that Bruce did practice in his off season. When he got Lietzke’s clubs out for his inaugural event in 1986 in January, the banana was still there, black and spoiled. “You should have smelled it. Al couldn’t believe that I’d go the whole off-season and not practice.” He had to throw away his bag. 

“Nobody enjoys the off season more than me. November and December are holy months to me,” Lietzke said.  

He did relish his Ryder Cup experience. Being a member of a team that many call the greatest Ryder Cup team ever assembled, he joined Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd, Hale Irwin, Ben Crenshaw, and Johnny Miller in a 18 1/2 to 9 1/2 dismantling of the Europeans at Walton Heath Golf Club in Surrey, England. 

Bruce joined the Champion’s Tour following his 50th birthday in 2001. He still played a limited schedule, but managed to win seven events, including the United States Senior Open in 2007. Tom Watson finished second, two shots behind “Leaky”. Lietzke bragged afterwards that he hit only two draws in the entire 4th round. 

Bruce Lietzke holds the U.S. Senior Open trophy with his wife Rosemarie during the final round at the 2003 U.S. Senior Open at Invernes Club in Toledo, Ohio Sunday, June 29, 2003. (USGA/John Mummert)

As Curtis Strange tweeted after Lietzke’s death “We hunted, we fished, but most importantly, we all laughed with ‘Leaky’. He was truly one of the good guys and will be missed.” 

Bruce Lietzke was always healthy, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, so it came as a shock when he was diagnosed with brain cancer in April of 2017. “It’s a bolt of lightning…Going from a perfectly healthy specimen, to finding out there’s a life threatening tumor in my brain,” he told Golf World’s Tim Rosaforte. The cancer spread rapidly and he succumbed to it July 28th 2018 at his home in Athens, Texas. The end of life here on earth for a man who really seemed to have his life in order.

We’ll leave it to his college roommate and longtime friend, Bill Rogers, to sum his life up in remembering Bruce, “Today was a day full of celebrating one who did it about as good as you could do it. He did it good. He led a great life. Now he can rest in heaven. Sure in that, we are.”

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