Two weeks ago Tom Lehman did something that Tour pros never do.
He finished the final round of the Canon Greater Hartford Open,
in which he came in 62nd, then hopped in his car and drove 115
miles so he could get in a second 18 before the sun went down.
Last week just about everyone said that that dash to the Country
Club in Brookline, Mass., the site of next month's Ryder Cup,
was Lehman's best drive of the year.
To a large degree that sentiment had to do with his timing.
While David Duval and Tiger Woods, among others, were being
barbecued for saying that the players deserved a bigger piece of
the action at the Ryder Cup, Lehman was making like Ernie Banks
and saying, Let's play two. He had gone to the Country Club by
himself to get a look at the course just in case he was
fortunate enough to make the U.S. team. There were no guarantees
that he would. Lehman wasn't among the top 10 players on the
points list, so he didn't have an automatic berth. He had played
well in the last two Ryder Cups, but would Ben Crenshaw use one
of his two captain's picks on a player who was coming off
shoulder surgery last fall and hadn't won on Tour in almost
three years? Didn't matter. "If I have to pay them to play in
the Ryder Cup, I will," Lehman said. Put away your wallet, Tom.
Lehman didn't win last week's Buick Open at Warwick Hills Golf
and Country Club in Grand Blanc, Mich., but he did assure
himself a spot on the Ryder Cup team. His eight-under-par 64
during a steady rain last Saturday was a vintage effort that
proved that Lehman is back on his game. He faltered slightly in
Sunday's finale and ended up in a tie for second with Ted Tryba
and Bob Tway, one stroke in back of Tom Pernice Jr., who closed
with a 65 for his first Tour win. A victory would've lifted
Lehman into the top 10 on the Ryder Cup points list. Still, he
moved up from 14th to 11th, and if he doesn't play his way into
the top 10 this week at the PGA Championship, the final
tournament at which points are at stake, he's a lock to be one
of Crenshaw's wild-card selections for the Sept. 24-26 matches.
That bodes well for the U.S.
"Anyone would want him on the team," says Jim Furyk, who was
paired with Lehman at Valderrama in '97 and is currently No. 8
in the standings. "Guys respect him as a person and as a player.
He's a leader. He's going to put his arm around you when you're
not playing well and get you going. After my singles match
against Nick Faldo in '97 [a 3-and-2 win by Furyk], the first
person I saw was Tom. He looked me in the eye and said, 'Great
job.' I knew he meant it."
A player like Lehman is precisely what the U.S. will need if it
is to win the Cup after two successive losses. In addition to
giving the team some heart, he also brings much-needed
leadership. The player atop the U.S. points list, Duval, put
himself in an awkward position by criticizing the Ryder Cup
before he had actually played in one. At Valderrama, veteran
Mark O'Meara, who is now fifth in the standings, didn't seem
interested in taking charge, and neither did the Americans who
had won majors in '97--Woods, Justin Leonard and Davis Love III.
They went a combined 1-9-3. All three will be back at the
Country Club. Woods is second in points, while Love is fourth
and Leonard seventh.
A more mature Payne Stewart, who won his second U.S. Open in
June and is third in the standings, could pick up the slack, but
none of the other four players currently among the top
10--Furyk, No. 6 Hal Sutton, No. 9 Phil Mickelson or No. 10 Jeff
Maggert--are likely to. That leaves Lehman, who has a 3-2-2
record in two Cup appearances. "It doesn't matter who he's
playing or what the conditions are, you know he's going to do
well," says Leonard. "He knows what's going on. There are a lot
of guys you'd want on the team, but Tom, with his experience, is
a huge asset."
Lehman showed what kind of Ryder Cup player he was in his first
Cup, in 1995 at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., where he drew Seve
Ballesteros in singles. Ballesteros, a master of gamesmanship,
tried to distract Lehman during the match, but Lehman got in his
face, and Seve backed down. Then Lehman stepped on Ballesteros's
neck, beating him 4 and 3. In '97, when the U.S. was on the
ropes at Valderrama, Lehman inspired a dramatic final-day rally
by blasting Ignacio Garrido 7 and 6. Lehman, as they say on
Tour, plays big.
Now this. He nearly wins the week before the Ryder Cup cutoff,
after driving to the Country Club. "That renewed my motivation to
get to the Ryder Cup," Lehman says. "It's the kind of course I
love, U.S. Open-style golf, which is my favorite."
Lehman had considered visiting the Country Club earlier during
the week of the Hartford event but couldn't fit in a trip until
after the final round. He arrived at the club around 5 p.m. and
started the round--on the 2nd hole--with an assistant pro. "We
jumped ahead of some members on the 1st hole," Lehman says.
"They were a 'That's a peach, hon,' type of group. You know,
like in Caddyshack." Brendan Walsh, the head pro at the Country
Club, joined Lehman's pairing for the last eight holes. "He
played well all the way around," Walsh says. "He made six
birdies and didn't even sniff a bogey. At 15 [a 432-yard par-4],
he had 175 or 180 yards, and he hit a seven-iron to the center
of the green and made a nice putt for birdie. Then he hit it
about five feet at 18 for another birdie. Tom was such a
gentleman. Some members walked along, and he spoke with them.
Everybody loved having him here."
They finished around 8 o'clock. "I shot 61," says Lehman, "which
is the truth. I just didn't play the 1st hole." Lehman had
dinner, then arranged to spend the night in one of the club's
five spartan guest rooms (phones but no TVs). When Walsh left to
go home at 9:30, Lehman headed to bed so he could get up early
to fly to the Buick Open.
Crenshaw missed the cut at the Buick Open but was around long
enough to hear about Tom's excellent adventure. "I was very
happy Tom went up," he said. "It shows a commitment on his part.
He's playing and practicing hard, is intense and has meant a lot
to the matches. He's a good influence on the team."
After Lehman, Crenshaw will have a tougher time making his
second choice. No one has emerged as a clear-cut favorite. Steve
Stricker, who finished 33rd in the Buick, dropped from 11th to
12th in the standings. John Huston is 13th and missed the cut.
Chris Perry, who came in 15th at Warwick Hills, is 14th. Old
hands see Lee Janzen, currently 23rd on the points list, as a
candidate. If Janzen makes up some ground on the top 10 this
week, it will mark the fifth straight year he has been on the
bubble for the Ryder or the Presidents Cup teams.
If not for some final-round fireworks, Lehman, who has had four
runner-up finishes this year, might already be a secure eighth
place in the standings. The Buick was his tournament to win, but
two mistakes left the door open as Pernice and others
capitalized on greens softened by Saturday night's steady rain.
Lehman was two shots ahead when he came to a pair of easy birdie
holes, the 548-yard par-5 13th and the 322-yard par-4 14th. He
reached the greenside bunker at 13 in two but boned his bunker
shot over the green and into a pond and made bogey. "I haven't
skulled a shot like that in years," he said, shaking his head.
He also failed to birdie 14 despite driving to within chipping
distance, and then he hit his tee shot into the rough at the
15th, which led to another bogey. That put him two behind the
39-year-old Pernice, who had finished with an eagle at 13 and
birdies on three of the last five holes. Tryba also charged down
the stretch with seven birdies in a row, just missing a
record-tying eighth at the 18th.
Lehman gamely rallied with brilliant iron shots on the last
three holes but made only one of the birdie putts, at 16, and
failed to catch Pernice, who had finished in the top 10 just six
times since he first earned a Tour card in 1986. Last year he
was 55th on the money list, which marked the first time he had
placed among the top 125.
Lehman was pretty hot about losing the tournament, yet he blamed
no one but himself, concluding that he needed to play just a
little bit better to get a win. He even smiled as he left
Warwick Hills with his wife, Melissa, and their three children,
Rachael, 9, Holly, 6, and Thomas, 4. That's called leading by
respect him as a player and as a person."