A.J. Triggs was like a second dad to me. The same could be said for my friend Don Robert Johnson. We grew up at the Triggs' house when we were kids and close friends with A.J.'s son Mark. With the passing of Alexander James Triggs this week, Don Robert and I have lost a dear friend, life coach and role model. He taught us the little things in life that I still remember.Never wear brown shoes with a blue suit or gray slacks, he said. I took that to heart and though I have been told I dress well, nothing like A.J. or Don Robert.
They say the hardest part of getting older is having to say goodbye to friends. Yet, I am comforted because I know A.J. was a man of faith. He said he had gotten much closer to Jesus in his later years.A longtime member of Marvin United Methodist, A.J. and his wife Leslie sang in the choir together for many years. He is also survived by younger son Byron and daughter Lisa.
In our minds, DR, Mark and I were the big three of Robert E. Lee High School golf — way back in the day. We grew up watching the real Big Three of golf on television — Palmer, Player and Nicklaus.We bonded by playing junior golf together all over East Texas and saw A.J. win the big amateur tournaments like the Briarwood Invitational. We wanted to be like him, shooting low numbers and handling ourselves in a dignified manner.
So we sat at his feet in those days and gleaned every nugget of wisdom he might dispense. He captivated us with his stories of playing with Don January or in front of Byron Nelson. It was heady stuff for teenage boys already in love with the difficult and fickle game of golf.
"Boys, the only time you should ever make a double bogey is if you hit it out of bounds or up against a tree," he pronounced one evening. "Play within yourself and don't try to do something you're not sure you can pull off."
Great advice and an example of how he wanted us to get better. We did, especially Mark. I won a high school tournament, DR played college golf at OU and won the Willow Brook club tournament a couple of times and Mark won more than that and came painfully close to getting on the PGA Tour just after finishing college in 1975.
My last conversation with A.J. covered a myriad of topics as they almost always did, but somehow we got to talking about Mark and the time he almost qualified for the tour. It was in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, that year and A.J. told me something I never heard before.
"On about the 14th or 15th hole his last round, after he had made all of the cuts, he knew he was close to making it when he had a ball stick in a bush. After a lot of thought, he decided to play it out down the fairway," Triggs said. "During his swing the ball moved a little and when he completed the hole he said he had a five instead of a four. His playing companion said he was standing nearby and didn't see the ball move. But Mark did and that probably cost him getting his card."
He didn't say it, but his son's honesty made him prouder than if he had won his tour card.
Golf was A.J.'s passion but not just for the sake of winning or shooting a good score.
He believed golf teaches important character lessons like always doing your best, being polite to your competitors, accepting either victory or defeat with grace and staying humble. That was what he wanted us to learn during our impressionable years.
But don't think he couldn't play. He won numerous club championships at Willow Brook with the most memorable an epic nine-hole sudden-death win over perennial state left-handed champion Jack Wilkerson just after A.J. moved to Tyler in the 1950s.During his heyday on the old beer and barbecue circuit in East Texas, my dad had a running bet that he could get down in two from anywhere inside of 100 yards. The only problem was getting someone to take that bet.
I cherish so many memories of recent events such as his induction into the Texas Golf Hall of Fame in the fall of 2013. I played with A.J., Mark and Byron at historic Brackenridge Park in San Antonio the afternoon before his induction that evening at Oak Hills Country Club. It was magical as A.J. hit his driver inside our hybrids or long irons on just about every par 3. He even made a few long putts despite vision that was impaired due to his advancing years, or so we thought. Mark and I joked that night that maybe he was pulling one over on us since he didn't want the pin tended before draining one 40-foot putt.
When it came time for him to accept his award, he was the last to speak during a very long dinner. But he was spellbinding. Sitting near me was former British Open champion Bill Rogers and we both just grinned during his stories of shagging balls for Nelson or "there's nothing sweeter than gutting a flatbelly," from those legendary days on the barbecue circuit during the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Triggs was a consummate story teller but was encouraged to never repeat one of his best. It seems he went out to Willow Brook late one afternoon to walk nine holes and hit several balls for practice. He started on the 10th, an uphill par 4 with a blind second shot. Hitting two 5-woods from the center of the fairway, Triggs knew he had struck both balls solidly but glaring into the sun, he could not see where they landed. After not finding either ball for some time, he decided to look in the hole and there he was astonished to find both balls.
"I just sat down in the middle of the green," he said. "Then I walked in and the first person I saw was Slick, (caddie master George Brooks) who was sunning himself. I told him what had just happened and he looked at me funny and said, ‘If I were you, I wouldn't tell that to anybody because they won't believe you. And come to think of it, I'm not sure I do.'"
Triggs told Phil Hicks that his induction into the Texas Golf Hall of Fame was an honor he didn't expect. He said it was like peach cobbler and ice cream after a very good meal.
Several years ago, I talked A.J. and Byron into going to Gilmer for a one-day 27-hole tournament, the Yamboree 2-man scramble, to play with me and my brother Tim. All of us played fairly well the first nine holes and then the Triggs boys got hot. At age 82, A.J. could still summon good play from that deep reservoir of talent.
The next thing you know, A.J. and "B" are making putts all over the place. "B" is putting one hole right-handed and the next hole left-handed, making his share. But when the chips were down and it was a must make, A.J. caught lightning in a bottle and just had us laughing out loud as he made big putt after big putt. It wasn't the U.S. Open but man it was fun to watch.
After play was over and the Triggs had shot something like 35-32-30, their fate was contingent on the all-important draw of the numbered balls — 1-2-3, which determined your flight according to what you shot on that particular nine. Sure enough, it was a fortuitous draw and the Triggs boys won the first flight and $300 each!
As a former president of the Texas Golf Association and role model for every amateur in the state, A.J. said he couldn't accept the prize money but that maybe Byron could. Needless to say, Byron collected the cash and then treated his dad to a full-blown meal at Luby's on the way home.
"It doesn't get any better than that," A.J. told me later.
Pat Wheeler is a former Robert E. Lee High School and SMU golfer. He is the golf columnist for the Tyler Morning Telegraph and ETFinalScore.com
Note: Visitation is scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. Monday at Stewart Family Funeral Home, 7525 Old Jacksonville Highway in Tyler. Services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday at Marvin United Methodist Church, 300 W. Erwin Street in Tyler.