On The Rise

Oct. 31, 1994
Oct. 31, 1994

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Oct. 31, 1994

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On The Rise

This year Tom Lehman has established himself as one of the best golfers in the world

The Volvo sped through the darkness, across Interstate 40 in Texas and through New Mexico on an all-night trip home to central California. It was the fall of 1990, and just short of the Arizona border Tom Lehman could no longer stand himself. He had left Amarillo seven hours earlier, his hair matted with sweat after a day on the golf course. The rain had started slowly, but now it was pouring. Through the blur of the windshield wipers Lehman saw a Holiday Inn at the next exit. He pulled into the back of the parking lot, as far from the lobby as possible, and stripped down to his underwear.

This is an article from the Oct. 31, 1994 issue Original Layout

Reaching into the backseat, Lehman grabbed his shaving kit and pulled out a tube of shampoo and a bar of soap. He dug through his bags for a towel but couldn't find one. At this point it didn't matter. He climbed out of his car and into the rain, showering in a Holiday Inn parking lot next to the railroad tracks in Gallup, N.Mex.

"I just reeked, but I didn't want to stop and get a hotel room because I didn't want to spend 30 or 40 bucks," Lehman says. "I couldn't afford to fly home, either. So I'm in my car busting my buns to go 1,000 miles in 12 hours. That pretty much sums it up, where I was just four years ago."

Lehman couldn't help but think back to that evening as he pulled up to the White House last month for a state dinner hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton to honor the two Presidents Cup teams. Violinists played before the main course was served, and afterward Lehman danced with his wife, Melissa, to a Marine Corps band in the East Wing. If Bill and Hillary only knew where Lehman had been and where he's going. He is truly an American success story—a man whose sheer determination has taken him at least as far as his talent has.

This year Lehman has earned close to $1 million on the Tour and established himself as one of the best golfers in the world. In April he came within inches of winning the Masters. In May he destroyed the field at the Memorial, setting the tournament record of 20 under par at Muirfield Village. He helped the U.S. to victory at the first Presidents Cup and enters this week's Tour Championship with nine top-10 finishes. At age 35 he is the highest-ranking American on the Tour's money list, trailing Greg Norman and Nick Price. But in 1990 Lehman was no more than a marginally accomplished touring pro who defined the word journeyman. He had traveled the world in pursuit of competition, making trip after trip to South Africa and Asia and to all the podunk towns in the U.S. where mini-tour events are played.

In the summer of 1990 the Lehmans drove the entire length of Interstate 10 twice—every mile from California to Florida and then back again. Halfway through the trip the car's air conditioner broke, and they didn't have the $800 to replace the compressor. So they drove on. Their daughter. Rachael, born that May. rode along with them in the stifling heat with the windows open. "That was the summer it was 100 degrees everywhere," Lehman remembers.

In the space of five years the Lehmans put 170,000 miles on that car. They ale in it, slept in it and changed Rachael's diapers in it. It carried them around the Ben Hogan Tour in 1991, when Lehman began to blossom. He won twice that year, was named that circuit's player of the year and as a top-five finisher on the money list earned an exemption for the '92 PGA Tour. Only then could he afford airfare and hotels with room service.

Lehman had played three full seasons on the PGA Tour in the early 1980s. All three times he lost his card. In 74 events from 1983 to '85, he made 28 cuts and just under $40,000. From 1985 to 1990 he went to O school six times and failed to qualify. He tried being a club pro for about six months but didn't like that. In the winter of 1989 he nearly returned to his alma mater, Minnesota, to become the golf coach. Instead Lehman persevered.

"I know exactly what it is that kept driving me," Lehman says. "I just can't give up on something until I feel like I've done my best at it. That's in everything I do. whether it's raking the yard, shoveling snow, whatever. All those years on and off the Tour, I just couldn't quit like that."

He used the South African and Asian circuits to build his confidence. In hellish climates Lehman competed against Jeff Maggert, John Daly. Vijay Singh and Ernie Els. But there was more to those days than just golf. There was adventure, and the bond he developed with Melissa. After his first stint on those circuits, says Lehman, "we made a deal. If we couldn't afford to be together, I'd quit."

In South Africa they traveled into Soweto when their caddie needed a ride home and were stunned by the contrast between that township's mud shacks and the nearby mansions. They went to the Kruger National Park and were chased by a stampeding elephant.

When they couldn't afford a caddie in Japan, Melissa carried Tom's bag. "We were paired with two Japanese players, and their caddies would literally run to the next shots." she recalls. "I said, 'Forget it. This is not a marathon.' "

Tom and Melissa had been introduced to each other by Loren Roberts's wife, Kim, on the practice range at the 1984 Bing Crosby Pro-Am. Melissa was a sophomore at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, attired in a baggy sweater and corduroys. Tom was, in his words, "this big geek from Minnesota," wearing brown polyester beltless pants and a golf shirt with pointy collars. They went to dinner that night at a French restaurant in Carmel, then she drove down the Pacific Coast Highway to Cal Poly in her VW Bug.

Four days later Lehman stopped in San Luis Obispo on his way to the L.A. Open, and their relationship soon became serious. Melissa knew her mother would approve. Lehman was so unlike the college football players and the surfers she had brought home to La Crescenta, Calif., in the past. "My mother always said, 'Why can't you date a Christian boy?' " Melissa says. "Tom was the first cool Christian guy I'd ever met."

Except for the fact that he met Melissa, Lehman's year was a disaster. He played in 26 tournaments, made the cut in nine and earned less than $10,000. The next two seasons were also busts. He ended up on the Tournament Players Association Tour in 1986, playing in towns like Myrtle Beach, S.C., Thomasville, Ga., and Prescott, Ariz. Players became suspicious when their checks started bouncing, and within a year the tour went belly-up. Lehman claims he is still owed $6,000.

Experiences like that convinced Lehman to seek steadier employment. In 1987 he became third assistant pro at Wood Ranch Golf Club in Simi Valley. Calif. The only tournament he played that year was the U.S. Open, at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He missed the cut by two strokes, an encouraging performance that got him thinking about tournament golf again. A week after the Open he married Melissa.

In December 1988, backed by a kind uncle, Tom traveled with Melissa to South Africa and Asia for the first time. Their flight from L.A. to New York to Amsterdam to Johannesburg took 24 hours. Upon landing they drove six hours on highways, dirt roads and through bush to Palabora, site of the first tournament. They stayed at the Impala Lodge, where lion heads and elephant tusks decorated the walls.

The next morning Tom went out to practice and nobody was at the course. A man in the pro shop told him qualifying was to be held in Johannesburg. The Lehmans retraced their tracks and arrived at 10 p.m., to find that Tom was ineligible because he had not preregistered. They spent that week in a hotel room, fighting off jet lag, loneliness and uncertainty. After minimal success on the South African tour, they moved on to Asia, which offered still more novelties: cobras in the rough and water only a fool would drink. In the spring they returned to the States SO Tom could play mini-tours.

The next year the Lehmans cleaned out their bank accounts and traveled back to South Africa with $100 cash, a maxed-out MasterCard and two return tickets they could cash in. If times became really desperate, Tom figured he could sell his clubs on the black market.

Tom and Melissa had faith that he would earn enough to live on. So did Kevin Bolles, a fellow American touring pro who loaned Lehman the money to register with the South African tour and to enter the 1989 ICL International at Zwartkops Country Club in Pretoria. With a final-round 68, Lehman jumped into a tie for 30th and made 1,977.50 rand, or $850. One month later he led the South African Open by four strokes after three rounds. A three-putt at the 72nd hole cost him the title, but he made nearly $11,500 and never had to borrow money again. "Tom was the type of guy who just never gave up," says Bolles, now an assistant pro at Boulder (Colo.) Country Club.

Still, at the end of that season, when he missed Tour school for the fifth straight time, Lehman's spirit was all but broken. He interviewed for the job as golf coach at Minnesota, where he had been All-Big 10 three times and second-team All-America as a senior. He was ready to accept the job until Rick Bay, the athletic director, told him the job would include renting cross-country skis out of the pro shop in the winter. Lehman withdrew his application.

"I remember arguing that he shouldn't go to the interview," says Dudley Logan, a friend whom Lehman had met at Tour school in 1983. "My concern was they were going to offer him something good, like $50,000 a year and four months off. Tom would have taken that and potentially kissed off something great. I remember saying, 'Look, man, you could be making millions of dollars next year!' "

After another tour of South Africa and Asia in 1990, the Lehmans returned to the United States for their summer of crisscrossing the country in the Volvo. In August, Lehman's golf game started to match his will to succeed. He was one of four players out of more than 300 to qualify for the Ben Hogan Tour event in Wichita, Kans. Going into the final round with a three-shot lead, he closed with a 67 to win by one. The trophy broke in the trunk of the car, but his $20,000 winner's check, plus $5,750 for a fourth-place tie in the final Hogan Tour event of the year, exempted Lehman from qualifying for the finals of Tour school.

With Logan as his caddie and motivational guide, Lehman came within one stroke of getting his card. Despite his failure, Lehman had gained a sense of confidence that he feels turned his career around. Needing a birdie on the 72nd hole to make the cut for the final 36 holes, he hit an eight-iron approach shot two feet from the hole. "I proved to myself with that one swing of the club that maybe I was a champion," Lehman says. "I may not win every major, but I have what it takes. I'm a guy who is capable."

Lehman didn't get his card after 108 holes because of a penalty stroke he called on himself. His ball had moved as he lined up a one-foot tap-in, though nobody else saw it. Not qualifying turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Lehman dominated the Hogan Tour in '91. winning three times and leading that tour in earnings, scoring and eagles. There has been no turning back.

Since he rejoined the PGA Tour in 1992, Lehman has made more than $2 million worldwide. Last November he won the Casio World Open in Kaimancho, Japan, birdieing the final hole to beat Phil Mickelson by a stroke. This year's Masters was his to win until the 15th green, where Josè María Olazàbal made eagle and Lehman's putt for eagle somehow didn't fall.

Losing in Augusta was excruciating, but the next month Lehman took that experience with him to the Memorial, where he shot four 67s and was 20 under for 72 holes. "Tom Lehman definitely played a game with which I am not familiar," said tournament host Jack Nicklaus, stealing a line Bobby Jones had once used to describe him.

Immediately following that victory Lehman received a letter from Rick Bay. It read, "Aren't you glad I asked you to rent skis?"

PHOTOPHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINLehman destroyed the field at the Memorial in May.PHOTOJOHN BIEVERIn Augusta, Lehman delivered a sermon just hours before the golf gods conspired against him.PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISIN[See caption above.]PHOTOMICHAEL SCULLYTom, Melissa, young Holly (left) and Rachael now live in luxury.