Bruce Lietzke, the fun-loving, fade-hitting PGA Tour winner whose practice regime — or lack of one — spawned an often-told spoiled banana story, died Saturday, July 28, 2018, of brain cancer. 

It was the late fall of 1983. Jim Gallagher, Jr., a 22-year-old hot-shot golfer out of the University of Tennessee, had aced PGA Tour Qualifying to earn his Tour privileges.

And now he was joining the staff of Tommy Armour Golf Clubs, which is pretty good work if you can get it. They pay you big bucks to use their golf clubs.

“That’s when I met Bruce Lietzke,” Gallagher says. “Leaky was already on the Tommy Armour staff. He instantly became my mentor. That’s who I wanted to be. I wanted to be like Leaky.”

Lietzke, a Texan, was 10 years older than Gallagher. He had already won nine times on the PGA Tour. But it wasn’t Lietzke’s winning so much that attracted Gallagher. It was the way he handled himself – the calm, friendly demeanor, the way he put his family first and golf a rather distant second.

Rick Cleveland

Thirty-five years later, Gallagher, a Greenwood resident who now announces for The Golf Channel, mourns the loss of Bruce Lietzke, who died July 28 at the age of 67. Lietzke was a victim of the aggressive brain cancer called glioblastoma.

“You’ll just have to trust me on this,” Gallagher says. “You will not find one person, not one, who knew Leaky and did not like him. He was just the nicest person you can imagine. He treated everyone with the utmost respect. He loved his family… man, he loved his family. And, man, what talent he had. The man could hit a golf ball.

Jim Gallagher, Jr.

“He took me under his wing. We played most of our practice rounds together. This was before cellphones. We just knew to meet up about 9 in the morning, hit a few balls and then go play. We built this friendship. I used to just watch him hit golf balls. His tempo was so natural, so smooth. He’s the reason I hit a fade. I changed the way I hit a golf ball because of him.”

Gallagher firmly believes that Lietzke’s influence helped him to the remarkable success he enjoyed in the late 1980s and early-to-mid ’90s, when he won five times on tour, including the 1993 Tour Championship, and was a U.S. Ryder Cup hero.

“Leaky was a great encourager,” Gallagher says. “I’ll never forget, early on, I played with him in the PGA Championship and he was interviewed on TV after it. He said some really nice things about me and what a great future I had in front of me. That really, really meant a lot to me.”

Last Saturday, at the Canadian Open, the tables were turned. News of Lietzke’s death had just arrived and The Golf Channel wanted Gallagher to say something about his close friend on the broadcast.

“It was a lot tougher than I thought it would be but I somehow got through it,” Gallagher says. “I just said what was in my heart.”

There were so many stories he could have told about golf, but Gallagher clearly enjoys talking more about Lietzke, the person.

“Leaky had his priorities right,” Gallagher says. “His family came first. That’s why he played so few tournaments. He’d just take summers off when his kids were out of school. And when he put the clubs down, he put them down.”

One famous story: Before one of Lietzke’s extended breaks from the tour, his caddy put a banana underneath the cover of his driver just to see if Litzke really didn’t practice at all during his vacations from golf. Months later, when Lietzke rejoined the Tour, the banana was still there – and smelled awful.

“I tried to model my career after him,” Gallagher says. “But the truth is, I couldn’t not practice like he did. I have to play and practice. He didn’t. Leaky always did it his way, on his terms. His family came first.”

A month ago, Gallagher and daughter, LSU golfer Kathleen, were in the Dallas area where Kathleen was in a tournament. They paid what turned out to be one last visit to Lietzke and his wife, Rose, at his ranch.

Says Gallagher, “I wanted to make sure he knew what he meant to me.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.