Bruce Lietzke

I lost another friend to cancer recently. Bruce Lietzke was someone I spent loads of time with when I caddied on the PGA tour in the early 1970’s. I first met Bruce through college golf when I was playing at Wake Forest and he played on the powerhouse golf team at the University of Houston. His team included the now famous golf instructor Jim McLean, and the PGA Player of the Year in 1981, Bill Rogers. Bill and Bruce were best friends, and I caddied for Bill in the early ’70’s. Bill and Bruce spent lots of time with each other, playing every practice round possible together. Needless to say, I knew them well during those years, and I became very familiar with the way Bruce played and thought about the game.

Even though Bruce would never represent himself this way, I believe he was a modern day golfing shaman who played the game with a level of acceptance and detachment I’ve never witnessed in any other professional golfer. A few stories to illustrate my point:

One day, we were playing a practice round at Westchester County Club. There was a par 5, I think it is number twelve. Bruce played one of his mammoth cuts off the tee, a perfect drive that was really long onto a plateau, where he not only had a shot at the green and two, but was able to do so with a long iron. The pin was in the back right, and if you missed to the right of the green you were dead. Bruce aimed to the left of the green, and hit his 3 iron so that it landed on the green, kicked right, and ended up inside of ten feet for a putted eagle. The next hole was a short par 4 and Bill said, “Leaky, how do you play this hole? Where do you aim?” He answered and then played a shot exactly the way he described. After 2 or 3 more perfect holes from tee to green, I asked him, “Leaky, what swing thought are you using today?” (Me, ever the golfer looking for clues on how to better play. Being a tour caddy was a fertile ground to ask the best players in the world for insight into the game.) To my question Bruce replied, “Lex, I’ve been making the same swing for over thirty years. I don’t need any swing thoughts. I don’t take lessons or tinker with my swing and I haven’t had a lesson since 1974, which was really just my brother watching me hit a few balls. Most of the players out here on tour are constantly attempting to make a better swing. I just want to make my swing, and I know how to do it without thinking. In fact, when I’m really playing well, I feel like I’m outside of myself observing my swing.” This kind of acceptance and detachment is not only unique, but it delivers great insight into how a man can play at the very highest level while still hitting less practice balls on the range in a month than most of the players hit in a week.

Bruce was the envy of most players. He had a life outside of the tour, and took more time off than almost anyone (and when he did go home to be with his family, he never practiced or played). His caddy once placed a plentiful green banana given to him at a tour stop under his driver head cover to find it black and rotten when he returned 6 weeks later – proving he hadn’t played a single hole while home on break. Matt Faye recently wrote an article paying homage to this southeast legend and noted that, “Family and friends say Lietzke’s 30-year professional career was always just a job, evidenced by his annual breaks from competition in the summer. Whether he was riding four-wheelers, vacationing with his family, fishing or tending to his muscle car collection, Lietzke had his priorities straight, said his nephew and Beaumont Country Club golf professional Rob Lietzke. ‘Golf was probably about the 10th most important thing in his life…he was one of those guys where it was never about what he was doing. It was about everyone else.’ Rob said.” Bruce once had an off day at one of the Florida tournaments – I think he shot 74. Jim McLean asked him, “Bruce are you gonna go practice?” To which Bruce replied, “No way, why would I go practice when I’m hitting badly?”

Bill Rogers told me that when they played together in college, he and Jim Mclean told Bruce he’d never make it at the next level playing that big slice. They said, “Your divots go dead left, Bruce. How can you play like this?” I guess he showed them how wrong they were.

Bruce once told me, “I play one shot. It starts to the left and curves to the right. And so, if the pin is on the right hand side of the green, I aim at the middle of the green and let it cut towards the flag. If the pin is in the middle of the green, I aim at the left edge and let it fade towards the pin. If the pin is on the left side of the green, I’ll either be putting from the right part of the green or, if I’m really playing well, I’ll aim left of the bunker and try to get it close.”

My fondest time with Bruce was after I had left caddying on the tour and landed a job as a golf professional working for Claude Harmon at Winged Foot Golf Club in Westchester County, NY. Bruce was playing in the tournament in White Plains and came to WFGC to have lunch and play nine holes with me. We played the back 9 after a sandwich, and he would ask me on the tee, as I was familiar with the course, “Where do I drive to have the best approach into the green?” He would then unleash one of his long towering fades into the exact place I told him to go, and I will never forget how far his ball went. The seventeenth hole at Winged Foot is a long par 4 dogleg to the right (Bruce’s favorite shaped hole). It was a hole that if I hit a good drive, I would have two hundred yards left on my second shot. Bruce’s drive, which started in the left rough and finished right center, left him an 8 iron into the green.

Bruce’s swing shape was in to over, swinging the club very inside on his backswing. The downswing plane was outside of his backswing. He swung way to the left with amazing body rotation. I can still see his high finished and the usual smile on his face as he observed the masterpiece he just struck.

As a student of the game, here’s what is interesting to me: someone once told me (it was probably Jim McLean) that in the days of building the railroads of America, it was widely understood that the most powerful and accurate way to swing a sledgehammer was with this same shape of swing—in and over. I think one of the reasons that this shaped swing is best is because swinging inside on the way back makes you less likely to sway and promotes good body rotation. On the way down, there’s almost no chance of the club getting stuck behind you, so you can create speed as there is no need for adjustment as you near impact.

In my opinion, we can all learn so much from Bruce’s acceptance of his own swing. So many of us never develop our own swing because we’re always trying to change. I’m not suggesting you try to swing like Bruce Lietzke, but that you just make your swing. Lastly, it’s very typical for young players to swing with Bruce’s swing shape from in to over- it’s a natural motion for most beginners. Unfortunately, almost all of them receive golf instruction to change.

And a beauty to you, Leaky.

 

 

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