Hawk’s Eye: The story of how a former PGA President’s son landed Lee Trevino’s bag at the 1979 Ryder Cup
Unless you’ve worked for the PGA of America or possess some freakish knowledge of the Washington, D.C. sports scene, you probably don’t know Kelly Elbin. He’s 57 years old, a native Marylander whose father, the late Max Elbin, was the head pro at the Burning Tree Club for 50 years.
Kelly played high school golf and caddied at Burning Tree, where privacy is a precious commodity and the history runs deep. Every U.S. President from FDR to GHWB was given an honorary membership to the club. Eisenhower. Kennedy. LBJ. Nixon. Ford. The older Bush. Max Elbin knew them all and helped them with their golf games. Not bad for a Depression Era kid who was caddying in his early teens to help pay the family bills.
His youngest son had other ideas, however, and headed off to attend the University of Richmond in the fall of 1979. Kelly was all set to begin college life when Lee Trevino called Max, probably in mid-August. The Ryder Cup was less than a month away and Trevino had just found out his caddie had other plans. He wouldn’t be available for the matches at the Greenbrier.
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Imagine that one nowadays.
“They were great friends,” Kelly says. “My dad and Trevino hit it off immediately and got along extremely well.”
By this point in his life, Max was a pretty big deal in the golf industry. He had climbed the officer’s ladder at the PGA and was the last person to serve a three-year term as president. It was near the end of that appointment when Max became a central figure in the split between the tour pros and club pros.
Two separate divisions were formed — the PGA Tour as we know it today and the PGA of America. Max was directly involved in the negotiations and insisted on the club pros holding onto the Ryder Cup, which had existed for 40 years but still was barely causing a ripple on the game’s competitive landscape.
That explains why Trevino’s caddie blew off the duel against Europe, which had beaten the United States just once since 1933. And why the Merry Mex called Max Elbin, who knew how to get things done, although Trevino himself had come up with a solution.
“It’s one thing to caddie for a foursome of members at Burning Tree, another thing to caddie at the Ryder Cup for one of the best players in the world on a course you’ve never seen before,” Max’s kid says 39 years later. “I took a puddle jumper from Richmond to White Sulphur Springs. Got in that Thursday night, and the next morning, I’m out there with Trevino and Fuzzy Zoeller in the fourball.”
Any good story needs a touch of drama. Kelly’s mother, Mary, was dead set against her son flying off to caddie for Trevino barely two weeks into his freshman year of college. Nancy, the youngest of Kelly’s three older sisters, jumped in and knocked some sense into mom, informing Mary that if she didn’t let Kelly go to the Greenbrier, he’d probably never forgive her.
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Trevino had been the kid’s favorite player growing up, and the man with all the shots did not disappoint. “He hit a drive on the front nine of the first match and his ball ended up on a cart path,” Elbin recalls. “It’s kind of a gravel surface, and he’s got nowhere to drop, no real options. He thinks about it for a minute, then grabs a 6- or 7-iron and just rips this laser onto the green.
“The crowd went absolutely crazy. He hands me the club and I take a look at the bottom of it, thinking there’s got to be a scratch or some kind of a nick, and there’s nothing,”
Trevino would go 2-1-1 that week, and the Americans would roll to yet another victory, this time by a 17-11 count.
There were several interesting aspects to that 1979 gathering. It was the first time Europe included the entire continent when forming its team, not just Great Britain and Ireland. And before long, that inclusion would dramatically alter the dynamics of the competition, as Seve Ballesteros led a wave of Euro dominance that continues to this day.
It was also a Ryder Cup held without Jack Nicklaus, who had an awful ’79 season and simply failed to make the U.S. team. And on the same day Elbin was arriving, Tom Watson was leaving the Greenbrier to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. Watson would not return, nor was he needed. Larry Nelson would win all five of his matches that week, and the Yanks led by three points after the first day.
Elbin would graduate from Richmond with a degree in political science and spend seven years as a sportswriter for the Montgomery Journal back home in Maryland. And as fate would have it, he landed a job as the director of communications and publications for the PGA of America, where he spent 12 years and moderated all the press conferences at the organization’s biggest tournaments from 2006 to 2014.
Yes, Trevino paid the kid. He gave Kelly $250 for coming to his rescue in a time of need, the irony being that Elbin probably would have paid that much just for the opportunity to work Trevino’s bag.
“For Lee to have confidence in a kid who had never caddied for him, it just made the whole experience an honor and a privilege,” he says. “And I’m indebted forever to Nancy. It probably never would’ve happened if it wasn’t for her.”
Sisters gotta be good for something.