When we last saw Tom Lehman, in mid-August, he was a sympathetic
figure. He had missed the cut at the PGA Championship, the third
straight tournament in which he had failed to advance to the
weekend. He was still grieving over the loss of his son Samuel,
whom his wife, Melissa, had delivered stillborn in July, and
despite being a three-time Ryder Cupper who'd finished 11th in
the U.S. standings, Lehman had been passed over by Curtis
Strange, who used his two captain's picks to select Paul Azinger
and Scott Verplank.
Little wonder, then, that the modest galleries last week at the
Invensys Classic at Las Vegas adopted Lehman, 42. He did his
best not to disappoint them. Rested and refocused after seven
weeks away from the Tour, Lehman equaled his best showing of the
year, tying Rory Sabbatini for second at 29 under par, a shot
behind Bob Estes. In a week marked by ridiculously low scores,
Lehman tied the Tour's 36-hole scoring record with a 19-under
125, which gave him a two-stroke lead after the first two rounds
of this five-day event, and on Sunday he remained even with
Estes until the 16th hole at the TPC at Summerlin, a 560-yard
par-5 that all the players were reaching in two. Lehman missed
his chance at birdie or better when he skulled his four-iron
second shot into the water hazard guarding the green.
Nonetheless, the second-place money ($396,000) lifted Lehman
from 36th to 20th on the money list and into next week's Tour
Championship, for which only the top 30 qualify.
"I felt real relaxed all week," he said. "Not making the Ryder
Cup team definitely hurt, but it also helped crystallize what I
want to get out of the next few years. I'll tell you this:
There's no way they're keeping me off that team the next time
Would that Las Vegas could recapture its mojo as quickly. The
city has been reeling in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks, and although the major hotels were reporting
close-to-normal occupancy levels last week, they were attracting
more bargain hunters than high rollers. The money drain has had
a debilitating effect on the area's golf economy, which was
sputtering before Sept. 11.
"We've had to lay off about 50 people, and I've never had to do
that in 30 years in this business," says Joe Kelly, vice
president at Walters Golf, which owns six high-end public
courses in Clark County. "We're directly tied in with the
hotels. When they're down, we're down."
The PGA Fall Expo, the second-largest golf trade show in the
U.S., would have provided a much-needed lift, but it was
canceled three days before it was to commence on Sept. 24,
costing Las Vegas more than $30 million in nongambling revenue.
In the days that followed, Invensys Classic chairman Charlie
Baron put to rest several rumors that his tournament was going
to be scuttled as well. The Invensys's fiscal success depends
largely on the 400-plus amateurs who pay $7,500 each to play
three rounds with a Tour pro, and while Baron replaced the dozen
or so amateurs who dropped out after Sept. 11, he said he could
not make up the $50,000 lost when two corporate sponsors--an
airline and a business with offices on Wall Street--failed to
meet their commitments for hospitality tents.
Still, Baron said attendance at the Invensys was up from a year
ago, which was surprising considering how infertile the Vegas
desert has been for pro golf. Within the last two years, the
city has lost the Senior tour's Las Vegas Classic and the LPGA's
Tour Championship. One of Vegas's biggest assets--its
all-you-can-eat buffet of entertainment options--is also one of
its greatest hindrances when it comes to staging sports events.
Says Kevin Krisle, assistant director of the LPGA's Tour
Championship, "Anytime you do something in Vegas, you know
you're not the only game in town."
Although the quality and the quantity of courses in Las Vegas
compares favorably with traditional golf destinations like
Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Phoenix, only 2% of Las Vegas's visitors
play golf, according to Bill Walters, president and CEO of
Walters Golf, and they pay some of the highest greens fees in
the country. "You can play a course in Myrtle Beach for $50, but
you can't do that here," says Bob May, a resident of Las Vegas
who finished 20th at the Invensys. "Maybe the problems we're
having now will get the greens fees lower so the locals can
play. We need to get the regular guy more involved."
If Vegas wants to market itself to the regular guy, it should
make Lehman its spokesman. His receding hairline and rumpled
clothes might not make him the ideal wingman on the Strip, but
he's definitely someone you'd want on your team if you were
playing for a $10 Nassau, which is how he spent much of the last
two months back home in Scottsdale, Ariz. He even shot a 60 one
day at DC Ranch Golf Club (though he somehow lost money). "It's
a lot of fun when you get five or six presses going on a nine,
and if a guy misses a three-footer, you're riding him like
crazy," Lehman says. "You may lose only 40 bucks if you play
lousy, but at least you're playing for something and you're
having a great time. That's the way golf is meant to be."
Lehman has also decided to scale back on endorsements and
corporate outings. "It's not worth crowding your life to make a
few extra bucks," he says. Last month he resigned from the
Tour's policy board. A lighter schedule will mean more time at
home, which isn't all good news for his three children--Rachael,
11; Holly, 9; and Thomas, 6. "Our kids would rather have fun
than study hard, so Tom spent a ton of time last month getting
them in line," says Melissa. "They'd come home from school, and
he'd ask, 'How did I do on my social studies test?'"
Over the last two years Lehman has been working on the design
and construction of the family's new Spanish-style house, which
will be completed next month. As the driveway was being paved on
Oct. 5, Tom, Melissa and the kids made handprints in the freshly
poured cement and signed their names. (Rusty, their two-year-old
standard poodle, contributed a paw print.) While his family is
poised for a fresh start, Lehman's career appears reinvigorated
as well, and he left Las Vegas believing that he will feel more
at home on the course. "Everything that has happened has helped
me to put things in perspective," he says. "The next time I see
Curtis Strange, I'm not sure if I should punch him or kiss him.
He definitely extended my career another three years."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM GUND Motivated Making his first start since his Ryder Cup snub, Lehman equaled his best finish of the year.