Keeping Lema’s legend alive

  • David Lema, son of golf legend “Champagne Tony,” lives in North Hawaii and plays golf three times a week. Every five years since 1995 he goes to St Andrews to play the course himself in tribute to his dad who won the 1964 Open Championship there. (GEORGE FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    David Lema, son of golf legend “Champagne Tony,” lives in North Hawaii and plays golf three times a week. Every five years since 1995 he goes to St Andrews to play the course himself in tribute to his dad who won the 1964 Open Championship there. (GEORGE FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • Lema practices his golf stroke with Arnie Palmer. (COURTESY PHOTO)
    Lema practices his golf stroke with Arnie Palmer. (COURTESY PHOTO)
  • Tony Lema holds one of 12 tournament trophies he won during his 11-year career as a PGA pro. (COURTESY PHOTO)
    Tony Lema holds one of 12 tournament trophies he won during his 11-year career as a PGA pro. (COURTESY PHOTO)

KOHALA COAST — He was known as “Champagne Tony” and was one of the most charismatic and popular champions on the PGA Tour in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His contemporaries — Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Bob Rosburg among them — all thought he could have been one of the all-time greats. But it was not to be. Tony Lema died in a tragic plane crash in 1966, just 32 years old.

But during his 11 years on the PGA Tour, he earned 12 tournament wins, including the 1964 Open Championship at St Andrews when he defeated Jack Nicklaus by 5 strokes, after losing to him by 1 stroke the year before at the Masters.

Lema’s son, David, who nowadays lives in Mauna Kea Resort, said it had special significance.

“The reason my dad played the British Open in ’64 was because he was bunking with Arnold Palmer in the Ryder Cup in South America, and in a late night conversation Palmer told him, ‘Tony you really should go to St Andrews. It would be good for your game. You’re a good enough player.’ ‘I’ll go but I need some help. I’ve never played Scottish golf,’ my dad said. ‘I’ll give you my caddie, Tip Anderson,” Palmer responded. Tony said, ‘Thanks, but I need one last thing. Can I have your putter?’”

Lema went on to win, and legend has it he strolled around afterward in high fashion with a bowler hat on his head and a bumbershoot under his arm, endearing himself to the knowledgeable UK golf fans in the process.

Since 1995, David has gone to St Andrews every time it’s in the Open Championship rotation to play the course himself in tribute to his dad.

“It’s familiar now and I show my friends around,” he said. “Last year, when I went to the British Open, ESPN called me and asked for me to do a Dive remembrance of my father.”

Closer to home, David enjoys the PGA Tour’s Aloha Swing and next week will attend the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai.

“I get in the locker room and talk to the guys, which is cool,” he said.

Although David doesn’t play in that tournament, he is an Aloha Section professional.

“I’m just a golf bum, a Realtor and father,” he said. “I play the Hawaii State Open on Oahu — our only major. I like the competition. At 55, I’m playing the best golf I ever have.”

His father started as an amateur in junior tournaments in Oakland and Alameda with Kenny Venturi, the soon-to-be fellow golf pro.

“They were always battling against each other and his mom gave my dad his first pair of golf shoes,” David said. “One pro, Lucias Bateman, was the best guy in Oakland who taught him and was like a father to him. My dad had a beautiful swing.”

In 2014, a book was published titled “Champagne Tony Lema,” the nickname he earned at his first big payoff in Costa Mesa, California, at the Orange County Open in 1962.

“He had a playoff with Bob Rosburg and they said ‘Tony, what’s gonna happen tomorrow in the Open?’ He said, ‘If I win I won’t be drinking beer, I’ll be drinking champagne.’” He won, and from that point forward, “He had a case of Moet Chandon coming no matter where he played,” David recalled.

In 1964, Lema won the Cleveland Open.

“That earned him $20,000,” David said. “Back then it was like $200,000 today.”

In 1966, Lema won the PGA Championship at Firestone C.C.

“He won $50,000 in two days, beating his old friend Ken Venturi by 5 strokes and Bobby Nichols by 6. He felt so bad because Nichols was the PGA professional at Firestone, so my dad sent the trophy to him. I met Nichols at the Senior MasterCard many years later, and he mailed it back to me. That’s what the pros used to be like,” David said. “He was a humble kid riding the gravy train because he loved it.”

Following in his father’s footsteps, in 1988 David got a job as a cart boy at Waikoloa Beach Golf Course. With a 5 handicap, nowadays he plays about three times a week.

“I’ve got my dad’s backswing, but I’m still working on my downswing,” he said with a chuckle.

David plays Waikoloa Village, Mauna Lani, Waikoloa Kings’ Course and Big Island Country Club regularly.

“Mauna Kea is my favorite. It’s pretty spectacular and tough,” he said.

David also enjoys mentoring junior golfers with golf pro Jeff Ingman at Waikoloa Village Golf Club.

“Titan Oshura is a 15-year-old and hits it 340 yards,” David said. “Charlie Park is another boy I’ve worked with who is already in college golf. They’re great junior representatives of this game and hopefully they can continue on in their careers.”

He also supports Keep the Music Rocking Foundation’s charity golf tournament for the local schools’ music programs in his father’s San Leandro hometown.

In a 30-minute special Howard Cosell did with Tony in 1966 titled “Champagne on the Greens,” he asked him, “When your career is over, would you like to be remembered as a great golfer?” Lema responded, “I’d rather be remembered as a decent sort of person.”

They then cracked open a bottle of champagne.

“Hang onto your hat,” Lema said with a smile. ‘There’s nothing like ending the nice day or a good game of golf with a little taste of bubbly.”

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