The Golf Career of Tony Lema, AKA ‘Champagne Tony’

In the summer of 1966, 32-year- old Tony Lema was in the prime of his life and game. After a hardscrabble upbringing in Oakland, Calif.—his widowed mother raised him and his three siblings on welfare—and a few lean years on the PGA Tour, ‘Champagne Tony’ had a lot to celebrate. Thanks in part to the calming influence of his new wife, Betty, Lema had become one of the best players in the game, winning 12 events from 1962–66, including the 1964 Open Championship at St. Andrews.

But his life was cut tragically short. On July 24, after tying for 34th at the 1966 PGA Championship at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, Lema boarded a private charter with Betty for the two-hour flight to a Monday outing at Lincolnshire Country Club just south of Chicago. They never made it. The twin-engine Beechcraft Bonanza ran out of gas a mile from the airport and crashed, ironically, into a water hazard at Lansing Country Club.

“The top players didn’t find out till the next day at a charity exhibition in Columbus,” recalls Doc Giffin, who had been the Tour’s press secretary but began working as Arnold Palmer’s assistant that very day. “They had a moment of silence and then played that day in his memory. Tony was very well liked and everyone was stunned.”

Giffin was partly responsible for Lema earning his memorable nickname. After the third round of the 1962 Orange County Open in Costa Mesa, Calif., the tall and sweet-swinging Lema told the small group of sportswriters on hand that he’d buy them all champagne the next day if he won. Giffin made sure bubbly was on hand and when Lema beat Bob Rosburg in a playoff for his second Tour victory (the first coming just a month earlier), a legend was born.

And Palmer had a hand in Lema’s biggest win. Lema wasn’t planning on playing in the 1964 Open until Palmer, who wasn’t going either, talked him into it because he was playing so well. “I’ll go if I can borrow your putter [a Tommy Armour model],” Lema said, to which Palmer responded, “I’ll go you one better. Not only can you borrow my putter, but I’ll arrange for my caddie [over there], Tip Anderson, to caddie for you.”

With Anderson on his bag, Lema cruised to a five-shot victory over Jack Nicklaus on the Old Course. That major victory looked to be the first of many, but it was not to be. Still, he had made a memorable impression during his all-too-short career. So we raise a glass to you, Champagne Tony.