Friday, July 22, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Tony “Champagne” Lema, July 24 1966

On July 24, 1966, Pro Golfer Tony “Champagne” Lema’s Beechcraft H50 crashed into a pond on the seventh hole of the golf course in Munster, Indiana and Lansing, Illinois (the course straddled the state line).  The crash killed all four aboard including his wife Betty.  Lima,on a promotional tour for Buick,  was headed for Chicago when his aircraft ran out of fuel.  The veteran pilot of the Beechcraft had nearly 2,000 hours of flight time.  In a minor irony, Lema was supposed to play a one-day tournament on the course the next day.
            Among older hard-core golf fans, Lema’s early death at 32 is a recurring topic of “what could have been” conversations.  Raised in poor circumstances, he had enlisted in the Marines in 1951 and served in Korea.  He went to work as an assistant pro and earned his PGA tour card at age 23.  From 1962 to 1966, Lema won a dozen PGA tour events including the 1964 British Open at Saint Andrews and came within a stroke of  catching Jack Nicklaus at the 1963 Masters.  Lema played for two Ryder Cup teams and when he died ranked only behind Arnold Palmer in terms of fan popularity. Lema’s last tour victory was in May 1966, when he won the Oklahoma City Open.