A TRIBUTE TO TONY LEMA
A TOAST TO “CHAMPAGNE” TONY LEMA
By Paul Brekke-Miesner and Marc Matoza
Let’s all toast ‘Champagne’ Tony Lema as we watch him in the video’, pictures and tribute on this page.
Enjoy and THANK YOU for sharing some history with us.!
Tony Lema was one of golf’s best and most colorful pros of the 1960’s before his tragic death in 1966. “Champagne Tony won the British Open in 1964, played in four Masters Tournaments, including the thrilling 1963 tournament where he dueled the legendary Jack Nicklaus down to the last hole, accumulated 22 Professional Victories including 12 PGA Tour Titles.
The opening line of a Sports Illustrated story on Tony Lema in 1995 said it all,
“The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and “Champagne” Tony Lema from the streets of Oakland made for a most improbable pairing at the British Open in 1964.”
There are few “rags to riches” golf stories that can match that of “Champagne” Tony. He learned the game of golf as a caddie and player on the links of Oakland’s Lake Chabot Municipal Golf Course. He learned the game of life on the streets of east Oakland, growing up on 92nd and 105th avenues “on the other side of the tracks,” as Tony once described his home on 92nd Ave next to the train tracks that ran along what is now Bancroft Avenue. Lema attended E. Morris Cox Elementary and St. Bernard Catholic schools as a young child.
Then Lema’s father Anthony, 37 years old and working for the WPA, died from pneumonia when Tony was three years old and his mother Clotilda worked hard to support her four kids. Tony had a few run-ins with the law and with the nuns at St. Elizabeth High School growing up. He would sometimes cut class to go play golf. John Brodie, another Oakland youngster who later went on to an All-Pro career as a quarterback with the 49ers, caddied and golfed with Lema, said of him, “Tony was a tough kid. You had to be growing up in Oakland.”
When most Oakland kids his age gravitated to baseball, football or basketball, Lema came to golf for economic reasons. Attempting to help his family ﬁnancially, Tony started caddying at Lake Chabot and club pro Dick Fry noticed him and gave him golf shoes and instruction.
Soon Lema was balancing his life between school, golf and working at the Gerber’s Baby Food factory in east Oakland. He took to the game immediately and, with the help of local Black golf coach Lucius Bateman, won the Oakland City Amateur Golf Championship by the time he was 18 years old. After a stint in the Marine Corps, he landed a job as an assistant pro at the San Francisco Golf Club where he learned the reﬁnements of the game while observing and playing with the many talented players there. It was the break of a lifetime. He joined the pro tour in 1957 but after a solid rookie year in 1958, had some rough years and was in heavy debt to his sponsor. It was in 1962 during the Orange County Open that Lema’s luck changed and he earned his famous nickname.
During the Open, he blurted out to a group of sportswriters with whom he was drinking beer, “If I win this thing, guys, it’ll be champagne all around, not beers, tomorrow.” He won, his ﬁrst big win on the pro tour, and the champagne ﬂowed and from then on, he was known as “Champagne” Tony. His career skyrocketed as he ﬁnished one stroke behind the legendary Jack Nicklaus at the Masters in 1963 and played on the United States winning Ryder Cup team. In 1964 he won the championships of the World Series of Golf, the Crosby National Pro Am, the Thunderbird Classic, Cleveland, Buick and British Opens. In 1965 he was second only to Nicklaus in earnings and again participated on America’s winning Ryder Cup team.
In the years between 1962 and 1966 Lema won an incredible 12 PGA tour events, ﬁnished second 11 times and third 4 times. The money and the champagne were ﬂowing and Lema was golf’s media darling. It all ended suddenly and tragically on July 24th, 1966. Lema and his wife were ﬂying from Akron, Ohio to Chicago to play in the Lincolnshire Open. Unbelievably, the plane ran out of fuel and crashed just short of the green on the 165-yard, par 3, 7th hole of a golf course in Lansing, Illinois, killing Tony, his wife and the pilots. The funeral of Champagne Tony Lema and his wife Betty was held in St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in the Fruitvale neighborhood of east Oakland, his old stomping grounds, before an overﬂow crowd of mourners.
Because we tend to forget our local history, let’s all toast ‘Champagne’ Tony Lema as we watch him in interview and action on this page.
PaulBrekke-Miesner has written the Local Legends Series, highlighting Oakland’s many Sports Luminaries. This article is derived from his article.
Marc Matoza is the nephew of “Champagne” Tony Lema, Founder/President of MarcTECH and the Official spokesperson for Tony Lema and the Lema Family. This Tribute was put together to honor and respect “Uncle Tony” who always had time for me, introduced me to the game of golf & Lucius Bateman, made me promise to get a University degree and served as one of my examples of a True Professional – Sempre Fi.
1964 British Open Victory
Tony’s Last Interview: Howard Cosell
Howard’s Tribute to Tony
Tony Lema Montage
Tony Lema Golf Lesson
1964 Buick Open
1965 Buick Open