ATHENS — Bruce Lietzke, famed PGA Tour golfer, succumbed to cancer on Saturday at his ranch in rural Henderson County.
Lietzke was 67. He died of glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.
Born in Kansas City, Lietzke and his family moved to the Texas coast city of Beaumont when Bruce was nine years old.
Lietzke was a professional golfer — but he didn't have a swing coach nor an agent. He preferred fishing, hunting and muscle cars to golf.
He graduated from Forest Park, which served as the high school for the western part of Beaumont, in 1968. This school is known as West Brook today — after a judge mandated that Forest Park and Hebert High merge.
Lietzke was the University Interscholastic League Conference 3A boys' state champion in 1967. He then attended the University of Houston on a golf scholarship.
Overall, Lietzke won 22 events on both the Professional Golf Association and Champions Tours — winning his first tournament in 1977 at the Joe Garagiola Tucson Open. Bruce won a playoff over Gene Littler.
“Our PGA Tour family lost a treasured member with the death of Bruce Lietzke,” said PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan in a prepared statement. “He touched on parts of five decades as a player, competed in 700 tournaments as a member of the PGA Tour and Champions Tour. But, to celebrate Bruce Lietzke's life properly, we offer praise to this great family man and cherished friend to many.”
On several occasions, Lietzke earned a Tour victory over Tom Watson, who was considered the best golfer of that generation.
Lietzke bested Watson by two strokes to win the Garagiola Tucson Open a second time in 1979.
He defeated Watson in a playoff to garner the 1981 Byron Nelson Classic (Dallas), a tournament Lietzke won again in 1988.
At the age of 52, Lietzke finally won a major tournament — conquering the field at the 2003 U.S. Senior Open. He won by two strokes over, you guessed it, Watson.
Thanks to a marvelous ability for fabulous fading tee shots, Lietzke was always a threat to win on Tour, with a second-place finish to John Daly at the 1991 PGA Championship. He finished in the top 10 at the Masters twice, the (British) Open once and the PGA four times. He also won the Texas-based Colonial Championship twice.
He garnered the Franklin Templeton Shootout with partner Scott McCarron in 1997, and then the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in 2002 with his friend Bill Rogers.
There were plenty of funny anecdotes about Lietzke's life and career — including the time he worked as a security guard for Mobil after graduating from Houston.
The story that's top banana actually involves a banana, and relates to the fact Lietzke didn't like practice or tinkering with any parts of his game.
During the final Tour event of 1984, in October, Lietzke told caddie Al Hansen he wouldn't touch his clubs again until the open of the 1985 season.
Hansen, who didn't believe Bruce, stuck a banana in Lietzke's golf bag as a test — only to discover the rotten fruit that January.
Lietzke, who fired 62 on several occasions, was beloved by Tour competitors.
“We hunted, we fished, but most importantly, we all laughed with 'Lieky.' He was truly one of the good guys, and will be missed,” said two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange on Twitter.
He also battled adversity on Tour, suffering from a condition commonly known as “frozen shoulder syndrome,” which causes the area to become stiff and inflamed.
In published interviews, Lietzke said he was drawn to living in Henderson County because of the hunting and fishing opportunities and plenty of room to build a garage for his car collection.
An avid fan of motorsports, Lietzke said drag racer Don “Big Daddy” Garlits was his favorite athlete. Bruce's car collection includes a 1967 Corvette Stingray — considered his crown jewel — and a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda.
He also was a spokesman for Dodge Magnum in the late-1970s.
Ed Fowler, a sportswriter for the Houston Chronicle, once typed of Lietzke in May 1996: “Lietzke grew up to become the world's greatest hourly wage golfer.
He ventures out on tour when the mood strikes him, or his bank balance shrinks into the low seven figures, replenishes his stash of bullion — and goes home to kick off his shoes for several more weeks or months.”
Lietzke is survived by his wife, Rose (Nelson), son Stephen and daughter Christine.
He's also survived by his brother-in-law, fellow PGA Tour golfer Jerry Pate and his wife, Soozi.
Lietzke and Pate represented the United States as partners on America's 1981 Ryder Cup team.
Funeral arrangements have not been released.