Publish date:

On The Rebound Tom Lehman took a year to recover from his last U.S. Open trauma, but now he's ready to roll

The note was waiting in Tom Lehman's locker at Congressional
Country Club, and he read it as he prepared to leave the grounds
for the final time, having just finished trying to explain to
reporters, and maybe to himself, why the U.S. Open trophy was
not leaving with him. Again. For the third straight year Lehman
had led the Open after 54 holes, a feat matched only by Bobby
Jones. Also for the third straight year, Lehman had played a
solid final round. Yet once again he would be bitterly
disappointed, this time due to a fat seven-iron shot hit into a
water hazard on the 71st hole while the whole world watched.
Ernie Els won America's Open on that Sunday a year ago. All that
was left for Lehman was America's sympathy.

Then he read the note. He has forgotten the exact words, but not
the message: You're a great player. You deserve to win. Be
patient, your time will come. The note was signed by Jeff
Maggert, an expert on close calls who had played the final,
wrenching 18 with Lehman. Maggert had suffered his own
disappointment that day, three-putting twice on the last six
holes to lose his shot at the title, yet was thoughtful enough
to leave the note. "It's unusual for a player to do that,"
Lehman says. "It was very special."

June has always been special for Lehman, and even though he
pretty much dropped off golf's radar screen after Congressional,
winning only once, in the Loch Lomond World Invitational in
Glasgow, Scotland, last July, he appears to be ready to make
another run at the Open this week in San Francisco at the
Olympic Club. The clues were evident at Westchester Country
Club, site of last week's rain-shortened Buick Classic. Lehman
shot a final-round 65, despite missing four birdie putts inside
of 12 feet, to finish third, three strokes out of a playoff in
which 32-year-old journeyman J.P. Hayes beat Jim Furyk on the
first extra hole. Furyk gamely eagled the 54th and final hole of
regulation to tie Hayes, who then birdied the same hole in the
playoff for his only Tour win. "This will be the first time in
nine years that I won't have to fill out an application for the
Q school," said Hayes, a native of Wisconsin who attended
Texas-El Paso before turning pro in 1989.

Lehman's rush up the leader board on Sunday, though, had
everyone thinking ahead to the Open. "I wasn't paying a lot of
attention to the board until I saw Tom's name," said Brad Faxon.
"I thought, There's a guy who's been right there in the Open but
hasn't played that well this year. This course is similar to a
U.S. Open layout--you've got to be steady. I'm sure he'll be a
factor at Olympic."

To look at Lehman, not much has changed. He's 39, but that
familiar, dogged determination is still there. An all-day rain
wiped out play last Friday yet didn't stop Lehman from
practicing. He was the last man left on the practice green,
working on his chipping and putting in the downpour. Even Vijay
Singh, an inveterate practicer, gave up and went in before
Lehman. "Yeah, but he probably came out here three hours before
I did," Lehman said.

The closing 65 was an obvious good sign. Lift, clean and place
rules were in effect, and the soggy greens were nothing like the
trampolines seen in the opening round, before the rain arrived,
but the round nevertheless boosted Lehman's confidence going
into the Open. "It was kind of like Furyk's 63 in the second
round--it was easy," Lehman said. "Today was the best I've felt
on a golf course in a long time."

Lehman's patience has been thoroughly tested since Loch Lomond,
after which a post-Congressional funk set in. "I had every
emotion about the Open," Lehman says. "I could be proud. I could
be upset. I could be hacked off. I could be sad. At the time, I
didn't think it affected me, but after Loch Lomond I played
steadily worse." He began to struggle with his swing and
couldn't get to the root of the problem until a few weeks ago,
when, with the help of his coach, Jim Flick, Lehman determined
that he wasn't turning his right hip properly on the backswing,
which led to a kind of reverse pivot on his forward swing and
caused him to yank shots to the left. "The pulled shot is one
that I've never had," Lehman says. (He hit one last Thursday on
the 15th hole and then tried to slam the offending five-iron
against his bag but missed and hit his umbrella, bending the
club's shaft.) "That's the shot that drives me crazy. I know why
I do it, but correcting it is easier said than done."

Until last week Lehman's putter hadn't been cooperating either.
He switched putters earlier this season, during the Tour's West
Coast swing, but not for long. The replacement club didn't make
it through two tournaments before being deposited in a pond at
Valencia Country Club during the Nissan Open. "I've been rolling
it pretty well this year, but the ball isn't hunting the hole,"
Lehman says. "I've either hit it great and putted terrible or
hit it terrible and putted great. It would be nice to do both at
the same time--and I don't mean hit it terrible and putt

Even an attempt to improve himself physically seemed to have
backfired. Lehman dropped 25 pounds last winter. Instead of
becoming stronger, though, the power hitter who ranked 55th in
driving distance in '97 wasn't among the top 80 when he got to
Westchester. Worse, he was 133rd on Tour in scoring on par-5s, a
telltale stat among the pros. "I've seen a number of guys gain
or lose weight, and it has always had an effect," says Lehman's
caddie, Andy Martinez. "It can throw off your timing."

Timing seemed to be Lehman's biggest problem back in January
'97, when, coming off the best year of his career, he lost a
playoff to Tiger Woods in the season-opening Mercedes
Championships by dumping his first shot into a pond. "I think
[Tom's troubles] started with that playoff at La Costa,"
Martinez says. "That's a golfing trauma. Here you are, player of
the year, Arnold Palmer Award and Vardon Trophy winner, and all
of a sudden it's Tiger this and Tiger that, and everyone has
forgotten about you." Still, for one week last April, Lehman
reached No. 1 in the World Ranking. Then came June and the crash
at Congressional.

Maybe this is the year that Lehman finds out what Ernie Els, the
defending U.S. Open champ who was forced to withdraw from the
Buick Classic because of a bad back, already knows: How to take
the last step.

Martinez, who once lived in Napa, Calif., about 50 miles from
San Francisco, knows Olympic well. He knows Lehman even better.
"I've seen some fantastic golf in the last five or six years,"
Martinez says, "but the feeling I have is that I haven't seen
Tom play his best."

It's June, and for Lehman, it's about time.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Triple play Lehman has led the Open after 54 holes for the last three years only to finish third twice and in a tie for second. [Tom Lehman] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Making Hayes The two-year exemption he gets for winning the Buick will keep Hayes out of Q school for the first time in nine years. [J.P. Hayes]

"I didn't think [the Open] affected me...but I played steadily
worse," says Lehman.