Golf legend Lietzke passes away

Published 9:23 am Tuesday, July 31, 2018

By Bob West

Golf Writer


Bruce Lietzke, the most successful professional golfer to come out of Southeast Texas, passed away Saturday morning after a 15-month battle with brain cancer. He was 67.

Lietzke, who won 13 tournaments on the PGA Tour and seven more on the Champions Senior Tour, had been battling glioblastoma since April 2017. He’d done reasonably well for roughly a year after having a golf ball sized tumor removed from his brain, but suffered a major setback this past April.

Services for Lietzke are going to be held in Athens, Texas.

Lietzke was born in Kansas City, Kansas, but moved to Beaumont with his family at age 9. He became a dominant force in Southeast Texas junior golf, battled Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw in statewide events and went on to become a collegiate standout at the University of Houston.

Shunning professional golf when he came out of college, Lietzke took a job as a security guard at the Mobil refinery in Beaumont. He missed the game too much to be burned out for long, however, turned pro and authored a professional career impressive for both his success and how he went about it.

Lietzke was able to win 13 times on the PGA Tour despite being a devoted family man who left the tour for weeks at a time to be there for his wife and for important events in his kids’ life. He was as happy being his son’s Little League coach as he was playing in the Masters.

Amazingly, when he returned to the tour it was as if he had never left. With his trusty fade that earned him the nickname “Leaky”, he was able to flip the switch and immediately start playing subpar golf.

“Bruce was the envy of every tour pro,” CBS’ Jim Nantz once said. “Everyone wishes they could step away form the game for a few weeks or months and see their games return to normal without any upkeep. Bruce was the only one who could do it.

“His career on Tour was more than solid with 13 wins. but it’s the way he balanced his life that was impressive. If there was a Hall of Fame category that compiled a playing record, with a fishing record and a family-time record, he would walk through the door with a first ballot induction.”

Of Lietzke’s 13 PGA Tour wins, eight of them came in four tournaments he won twice — the Tucson Open, the Byron Nelson in Dallas, the Colonial in Fort Worth and the Canadian Open.

Ironically, the PGA Tour is at the Canadian Open this week and a Southeast Texas junior golfer Lietzke influenced, Chris Stroud, is in contention there.

Stroud, who made it a point to get his picture taken Saturday alongside Lietzke’s photo on the wall of double Canadian Open winners, says he plans to find a way to honor him during Sunday’s final round.

“I am not sure what I’m going to do,” said Stroud. “I want to talk to tournament officials and see what they say. Maybe something as simple as wearing a ribbon on my hat. But I am definitely going to do something.”

Among Lietzke’s ongoing legacies in Southeast Texas was his commitment to junior golf in the area. The Bruce Lietzke Junior Championship has been played for years, mostly at Idylwild Golf Club, and Lietzke was almost always there to do a clinic and pass out the trophies.

“I will never forget him presenting me a trophy when I was about 14 or 15,” Stroud said. “It was a really big deal. When I was just getting into golf, my dad made sure that whenever Bruce was in contention I was in front of the TV. His record is remarkable.”

Lietzke’s dedication to junior golf stemmed from Henry Homberg, the pro at Beaumont’s Tyrrell Park municipal course, giving him and other juniors lots of attention as a young player. Homberg and Lietzke’s older brother, Duane, a club pro in Oklahoma, were the biggest influences on his golf.

Lietzke’s first win on the PGA Tour came in January 1977 at the Tucson Open when he beat legendary Gene Littler in a playoff. The last was in October 1994 when he won in Las Vegas. The biggest was in June 2003 when he prevailed in the U.S. Senior Open, beating Tom Watson by two strokes.

Just when his second golf career was really starting to roll on the Champions Tour, Lietzke was sidelined by a mysterious ailment officially known as adhesive capsulitis. In layman’s terms, it’s called “frozen shoulder.”

After needing nearly a year to work through it in one shoulder, Lietzke came down with it in his other shoulder. His golf game was never the same and he retired prematurely.

Almost always upbeat during his cancer ordeal, Lietzke’s recovery was going well enough for him to travel to the Feb. 8 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. Two months later, however, he started suffering from vertigo, needed a walker to get around and learned tumorous cells had returned to his brain.

The golf world reacted with predictable sadness to Lietzke’s passing.

“Our PGA Tour family has lost a treasured member with the death of Bruce Lietzke,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. “He touched on parts of five decades as a player, competed in 700 tournaments as a member of the PGA Tour or PGA Tour Champions and recorded a total of 20 victories.

“But to celebrate Bruce’s life properly we offer praise to a great family man and cherished friend to many. Our deepest condolences go to his wife, Rose, and his children — Stephen and Christine.”