Lehman thrives in homeland

CHASKA, Minn. – Minnesota’s own Tom Lehman, mayor for the week here at Hazeltine, is doing his best to concentrate on golf.

That’s not easy when a 100-yard walk from the clubhouse to the driving range takes 20 minutes because of all the handshakes, autographs and old friends who want to say hello.

“Win one for Minnesota, eh, Tom?”

Lehman’s not complaining, though. He’s at the PGA Championship on a special exemption, playing a course he remembers fondly from his days as a walk-on to the golf team at the University of Minnesota. The head pro and members weren’t too pleased when Lehman and his teammates ended practice by teeing balls up in Hazeltine’s parking lot and blasting 7-irons at the large water tower behind the 10th tee.

“Goofing off,” Lehman said. “Typical.”

And while it’s serious business this week, Lehman is still having the time of his life. He posted an even-par 72 Thursday playing a course that maxes out at 7,674 yards. His opening par on the 490-yard par-4 first hole took a “crushed” drive and a “crushed” 4-iron to reach the green.

Sixteen pars, one birdie, one bogey. Not bad for a 50-year-old guy who has split time between the Champions Tour and PGA Tour this season. It probably helped, too, that the Minnesota faithful lining the fairways were boisterously urging him on.

“These crowds are the best I’ve ever seen,” said Andy Martinez, Lehman’s caddie, whose cap was colored Minnesota Vikings’ purple and gold. “It really helps to be infused with that type of enthusiasm.

“He needs it.”

Lehman is coming off a wild stretch of events that has included stops at the Colonial, Memorial, U.S. Open, John Deere Classic, British Open, Senior British Open and U.S. Senior Open. That’s seven events in two months, enough to make guys half his age need a vacation.

So, that’s what Lehman did last week.

The Lehmans went “up north” to their hometown of Alexandria, Minn., for a family reunion. His older brother, Jim, won the championship flight of the annual Resorters tournament at Alexandria Country Club, an event Lehman won in the 1980s. Lehman caddied for his 14-year-old son, Thomas, who played in the junior division. His nephew, Connor, played, too. The event was made even more special for Lehman’s father, Jim Sr., whose health is declining but still rode along in a cart and caddied.

Lehman flew back home to Scottsdale, Ariz., a few days later to celebrate his daughter Holly’s 17th birthday and see his daughter, Rachel, off to college at TCU.

“An emotional weekend,” Lehman said.

Which brings him here to Hazeltine. “An easy 72,” is how Lehman described his first round, which left him tied for 28th. Though he doesn’t have the length he did when he won the 1996 British Open and Tour Championship, Lehman isn’t deterred.

“I can hit it far enough,” Lehman said. “If I can drive it like I did today for the next three days, I’ll be in business.”

The spotlight is bright here in the Land of 10,000 Lakes for the hometown favorite. Tim Herron, who grew up just north of Hazeltine in Wayzata, didn’t make the field. Cameron Beckman, of nearby Burnsville, shot 78. Lehman admitted he had to consciously calm himself down a few times while on the course Thursday. With a solid number Friday, Lehman doesn’t think it’s too much of a stretch to find himself contending on the back nine Sunday afternoon.

“Win one for Minnesota, eh, Tom?”

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