PEABODY, Mass. – In his younger days, there never was a tournament Tom Lehman wanted to win more than the U.S. Open. As a child in Minnesota, he’d sit down during his busy summers to watch it on television. Later, as a pro, there were four consecutive years (1995-98) that he played in the final group on Sunday.
Still, no trophy.
Twenty years ago at Congressional, Lehman sustained what was his most painful brush with U.S. Open glory. He had a chance at the 71st hole, then a long par 4 with a hole cut back left, but turned over a 7-iron and watched his approach vanish into the glassy water guarding the left side of the green. Ernie Els would win his second U.S. Open title. And afterward, Lehman appeared empty. Crushed.
Off to the side following Lehman’s brief post-round interview, a Sports Illustrated columnist kept asking Lehman what emotions were churning inside. How did he feel, exactly? Lehman, a soft-spoken and serious man who made his way to the big time clawing and fighting through hardscrabble mini-tours, finally stared the columnist in the eyes and retorted, “It feels like somebody reared back and punched me in the stomach.
Lehman took the positives from his close calls, knowing he’d played very well to have been in the position. He’d already won a major a year earlier, in 1996, at the Open Championship at Royal Lytham, but he always longed to win his own national Open. Times have shifted. Now that he’s 58, the tournament Lehman desires most is the U.S. Senior Open. For two days at Salem Country Club, Lehman has been quite steady, driving it pure and making 10 birdies to sit at 7-under 133, just four shots off Kirk Triplett’s leading (and record-setting) pace.
“I’ve never won a USGA event of any kind,” Lehman said. “It would mean a great deal to me. This has always been my goal in life. If I could win any one tournament, it would be the U.S. Open. I didn’t quite get there when I was younger. Don’t know if I’ll get there when I’m older either, but I sure like the effort – the trying. I sure like setting that goal and trying to shoot for it.”
Lehman shot 2-under 68 on Friday, one day after shooting 65 in milder conditions. This is Lehman’s ninth start at the U.S. Senior Open, and he always has played them solidly. Five years ago, he was a runner-up to Roger Chapman in Michigan, at Indianwood, and five other times he has finished T-12 or better in this championship.
“He’s wired for this kind of golf,” said Olin Browne, who played alongside Lehman for the first two rounds at Salem. “He is so consistent, and hits the ball so solidly all the time. To play in the last group in four consecutive U.S. Opens, that’s a remarkable number. He’s going to keep trying, and it won’t surprise me if he wins.”
Lehman always has been a great fit for the Open. There are two main reasons: He drives the ball very well, and he has plenty of grit. In two days, Lehman has hit 25 of 28 fairways, helping lead him to hitting 32 of 36 greens in regulation.
“I’ve driven it beautifully the first two days,” he said. “Obviously, if you put it in the fairway, you’re going to have a lot more opportunities when the day is over.”
Lehman won five times on the PGA Tour and has won 10 times in his PGA Tour Champions career, including this year’s Tucson Conquistadors Classic, not far from his home in Scottsdale.
All parts of his game appear to be in very good shape. The ballstriking is a constant strength; the putting comes and goes, and usually can use some attention. But Lehman has been working hard on improving his approach when he gets to the greens. He is focused more on making a quality stroke than whether or not his ball finishes at the bottom of the cup. It’s not simply about the result.
“I made a couple little changes, which has allowed me to get my head more still, which has really allowed me to approach my putting like I approach my ballstriking, which is just the process of it. Not to be too worked up about a miss.”
Lehman ranks 16th on tour this season in putting average, up from 48th a year ago.
“I’m typically a very good lag putter, and I drive the ball well,” Lehman said. “So I don’t have a fear of 50-footers; I don’t have a fear of having a driver in my hands. I don’t really have a fear of putting, either, but I’m not as confident, typically, with the putting. I do feel like I’ve made some strides. So I feel better about that.”
As he should. By the time he left the golf course on Friday, there were only two names above his on the leaderboard. It has taken a lifetime for Tom Lehman, but he may finally be onto something at Salem. This just might be the weekend that he lands the big one.