Born: February 25, 1934
Died: July 24, 1966
Birthplace: Oakland, California
Turned Pro: 1955
Possessor of one of the all-time great nicknames in sport – “Champagne” Tony Lema was a PGA star who saw his life tragically cut short in a 1966 aviation accident.
Lema’s father passed away when Tony was just a toddler. Lema’s mother struggled to raise four children with the help of government assistance. Lema was introduced to the game at his local municipal course. He received instruction from Lucius Bateman, an African-American instructor.
At age 17, Lema joined the army and served in Korea. He was discharged in 1955 and returned to California and became the assistant club pro at San Francisco Golf Club.
Lema made his debut on the PGA Tour in 1957. The next season his career took off as he recorded 11 top-fifteen finishes. Lema slumped in 1959 and 1960 amid whispers that he was more focused on his night life than his golf game.
In 1962, Lema captured his first PGA title and his famous nickname. He promised the press he would serve champagne if he won the Orange County Invitational. The win ignited an incredible run of success for Lema. Over a four year span, he would record a dozen victories and 11 runner-up finishes.
One of those victories was in the 1964 Open Championship being held at St. Andrews. The win would be Lema’s only victory in a Major championship. Lema sported a fine record in golf’s biggest tournaments – 2nd at the Masters, 4th at the U.S. Open and 9th in the PGA.
Lema has one of the top Ryder Cup records of any American player, a 9-1-1 mark over two Cup appearances.
In 1966, following an event at Firestone Country Club, Lema and his wife chartered a twin-engine Beechcraft Bonanza. The plane ran out of fuel and crashed, killing everyone on board.