Tragedy followed professional golfer Tony Lema’s final round in Akron

Professional golfer Tony Lema and his wife, Betty, were Akron’s toast.

Fans and friends made the top couple feel right at home when they attended the PGA tournaments at Firestone Country Club.

The sacred course is where Lema played his last trick. A few hours later, a tragic accident devastated the world of golf.

Sports presenter Howard Cosell called the California native “one of the glamorous boys of the golden age.”

Born in Oakland in 1934 to a Portuguese American family, Lema grew up on the golf courses around San Francisco. He served in the Marines in the Korean War, returned home, worked at a golf club, honed his swing, and turned pro in 1957.

Lema was 24 when he first competed at Firestone, winning $ 51.42 for finishing tied at seven for 13th place at the Rubber City Open in 1958. The 6-foot-2 player and 200 pounds captivated fans with her beautiful looks, charming wit and immense talent.

Tony Lema took a break on August 18, 1964, while filming a television segment at the Firestone Country Club in Akron.

He earned the nickname “Champagne Tony” at the Orange County Open in California in 1962 after making a promise to reporters: “Folks, if I win this tournament, it will be champagne for everyone.”

He was half joking, but damn if he didn’t win. Lema kept his word and bought sparkling wine for the media. Afterwards, he celebrated each victory with champagne.

“There is nothing quite like ending a great day or a good round of golf with a little taste of the sparkling,” said Lema.

On tour with my wife

In 1963, he married Elizabeth “Betty” Cline, an Oklahoma City flight attendant who looked like a Hollywood star. The fun-loving couple have become inseparable, traveling together from city to city on the PGA tours.

Beacon Journal writer Betty Jaycox noted that when auburn-haired, blue-eyed Betty Lema walked through the lobby of the Akron Tower Motor Inn for a newspaper interview, “all eyes turned to her. direction”.

Betty Lema sits for an interview with the Beacon Journal in 1965.

“It’s not easy for a woman to walk the PGA golf circuit,” Betty Lema told Jaycox. “You have so much free time, especially in cities where you don’t know anyone.

“Tony is on the golf course every day playing under great pressure. He has little time for me, so I often do the course with him. When I don’t, I have little to do.

It wasn’t so lonely in Akron, where the couple enjoyed socializing with several friends. They went to restaurants, attended parties, and took trips together. Then it was back to golf.

Lema’s best year was 1964 when he won the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, Thunderbird Classic, Buick Open Invitational and Cleveland Open. In terms of earnings, he trailed only Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

“I’m third on the winners list but first on the expense list,” he joked.

Lema’s only major championship was July 8-10 at the British Open in St. Andrews, Scotland, where he beat Nicklaus by 5 shots. The victory qualified him for the World Series of Golf on September 12 and 13 at Firestone Country Club in Akron.

“I’ll be there,” Lema said.

Golf in Akron

He got in tune by playing the American Golf Classic Aug. 17-23 in Akron, whose crowds, he said, were “the best people in the world.” The carefree golfer delighted fans with his wry sense of humor during the tournament in the rain.

He lifted his heels after making a good kick. After missing a birdie putt on the 17th hole, he waved his hands like a maestro, directing the applause from the crowd. Then, when he unexpectedly finished a lap under par, he beamed, “I don’t know what I’m going to do for an encore. I feel like I have already won the tournament.

As a film crew followed him around the 18th fairway for a TV segment, he said his mind went blank as soon as the light came on: “See, I had to improvise my first line and I do not remember. … It was, ‘Hi, I’m Tony Lema.’ “

He finished the tournament in a tie four for fifth place, but it was a great practice for the main event in September.

“You just have to take breaks at this golf course to win,” Lema said of Firestone. “It’s so difficult, you can’t do it without them.”

Champagne flowed freely at the World Series of Golf. Crowds cheered as Lema rallied on 5 strokes to defeat US Open champion Ken Venturi by 5 strokes to win the top prize of $ 50,000. Bobby Nichols was 9 strokes back and Arnold Palmer was 10.

Sipping champagne with his wife, Lema joked to reporters, “I think I’m going to buy Arnie’s plane with all that money I just made.

Hearing it, Palmer replied, “When uncle [Sam] You’re done, Lema, you might have to come and borrow a few dollars from old Arn.

In 1965, Lema’s earnings soared to $ 101,816. He took a step back, however, in 1966 when arthritis developed in his elbow. He still managed to win the Oklahoma City Open in May.

Tony Lema competes in the PGA Championship on July 22, 1966 at Firestone Country Club in Akron.

The final round

Tony and Betty Lema returned to Akron in July 1966 for the PGA Championship at Firestone. Among the big participants in the tournament were Nicklaus, Palmer, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Gary Player and Tom Weiskopf.

Almost 65,000 people attended the event, including a crowd of 22,516 on Sunday July 24.

Lema met PGA President Max Elbin on his way to 9 a.m. mass at St. Bernard Catholic Church. Lema was climbing a steep sidewalk.

“Boy, Max, these hills are getting steeper and steeper every year,” Lema joked.

Lema, 32, struggled throughout the tournament. He shot a 74 in the final round for a total of 295, finishing tied at three for 12th place and $ 775. Al Geiberger won the title with a 280.

Tony and Betty Lema chartered a plane for 6 p.m. Sunday at Akron-Canton airport. They were heading to Crete, Illinois, where Lema was scheduled to play at the Little Buick Open on Monday.

Just before boarding the twin-engine Beechcraft Bonanza, Lema signed an autograph for an 8-year-old girl. Then the light plane took off.

Pilot Doris Mullen and co-pilot George Bard, both from Illinois, were at the controls. The Lemas were the only passengers.

At approximately 8:15 p.m., the aircraft attempted to make an emergency landing at Lansing Sportsman’s Club, a golf course in Lansing, Illinois. The plane was out of fuel about half a mile from the municipal airport.

Witnesses said the plane was about 50 feet off the ground when the pilot swerved to avoid hitting a group of people standing near the clubhouse. The left wing dug into the ground on the seventh green, the aircraft skidded in a water hazard and caught fire. All four people on board were killed.

“Champagne Tony” died on a golf course.

Golfer Tony Lema, his wife Betty, and two pilots were killed on July 24, 1966, when a small plane crashed while attempting an emergency landing in Illinois after taking off from the airport in 'Akron-Canton.

Golfers Respond to Tragedy

The PGA was distressed. Golfers choked back tears and spoke in strangled voices when a reporter from the Beacon Journal contacted them.

“Oh, my God, what a terrible thing,” Nicklaus said from his home in Ohio. “Tony was one of the really great guys on the tour. We’re just sitting here in the living room staring at each other. We just can’t figure out what happened.

Palmer was also in shock: “It’s awful, just awful. It’s hard to think clearly in a situation like this. You cannot measure in a few words what to say about such a big boy. It is certainly a great loss for golf and, for me, the loss of a wonderful friend.

Snead cried, “It’s a shame. He was in the prime of his life.

Tony and Betty Lema’s funeral was held July 28 at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Oakland. They were buried in the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Hayward, California.

In an interview a few weeks before the plane crash, sports presenter Howard Cosell asked Lema, “How would you like people to remember you?

Lema replied, “Well, I really didn’t think about it, Howard. I would just like to play good golf, successful golf, for as long as I can. And if I remember, that’s fine.

“Do you want a great golfer to be remembered?” Cosell wondered.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Lema said. “I would rather be remembered as a decent person than as an athlete. “

Then he popped a cork and poured Cosell a glass of champagne.

Mark J. Price can be contacted at