Mixed Returns Minnesota felt like home for Tom Lehman, a 1990s stalwart whose recent struggles have put him at a career crossroads

August 25, 2002

Let's ride in the back, it's more fun." With that, Tom Lehman
hopped into the bed of a sky-blue pickup, took a sip from a cold
bottle of beer and gazed happily across the rolling, muddy
landscape. Two hours earlier, in front of the friendliest
galleries he has ever played before, Lehman--a native of
Alexandria, Minn., 85 miles north of Hazeltine, and a three-time
All-America at Minnesota--had shot a strong one-under 71 in the
opening round of the PGA Championship. Now he was touring the
site of what will be Windsong Farm Golf Club, in Independence,
the third course in Minnesota he has designed since forming the
Fought/Lehman Company in 2000. With the sun starting to set and a
gentle breeze wafting, Lehman hardly seemed to feel the weight of
a state on his shoulders. "God, what a beautiful evening," he
said. "This is why Minnesotans love Minnesota."

More than anything, though, Minnesotans love other Minnesotans.
That was abundantly clear from the thunderous ovations Lehman
received at Hazeltine last week, even though he has called
Scottsdale, Ariz., home for more than a decade. The PGA marked
the first time Lehman had competed in a Tour event in his native
state (he was still playing on the Hogan tour when Hazeltine
hosted the 1991 U.S. Open), and to his chagrin the starter in
each of the first two rounds announced Scottsdale, not
Alexandria, as his hometown. The locals knew better, however, and
they turned out in droves to cheer him on, making Lehman so
jittery on the 1st tee on Thursday morning that he pushed his
drive into the right rough and began the tournament with a bogey.
"When I hit that shot, I was like, Man, you're 43 years old. What
are you getting so uptight about? Just go out there and play," he
said later.

Lehman turned in a respectable performance at the PGA, finishing
in 29th place at five over par, but the week of good cheer
nevertheless felt like a farewell. No amount of love from the
gallery can change one hard truth: If Lehman hasn't already
entered the winter of his career, he's at least midway through
football season. The $33,500 he earned at Hazeltine left him in
59th place on the Tour's money list, with $786,510; he hasn't
finished worse than 33rd since he arrived on Tour in 1992, wholly
formed after six years of slumming on various minor league
circuits in the U.S., Asia and South Africa. Winless on the PGA
Tour since January 2000, Lehman has only three top 10 finishes
this year, and he missed the cut at the Masters and the British
Open. Once the most hard-nosed of competitors, he now admits to
wondering whether his best golf is behind him. "I've thought to
myself at times, Is this what happens when you get older?" Lehman
says. "You see other guys' games start to deteriorate when they
reach my age, and you can't help but wonder whether it's
happening to you."

Lehman is clearly not the player he was in 1996, when he won the
British Open and the Tour Championship, finished first on the
money list and was voted Player of the Year. For one week in
April 1997 he reached No. 1 in the World Ranking. That was also
the month that a 21-year-old Tiger Woods won his first major
championship, at Augusta, instantly reinventing the Tour in his
own image. Lehman has won only once since that fateful Masters,
making him a poster boy of sorts for the post-Tom Watson,
pre-Woods era of diminished expectations, when two victories in
a season made you a star, and a major capped a career.

By his own admission, Lehman, who is involved in charitable
causes, immersed in his course-design business and devoted to his
wife, Melissa, and their three children (Rachael, 12; Holly, 10;
and Thomas, 7), has all but given up hope of ever reclaiming his
old spot atop the sport. "To get back to that level as a player
would require such a huge investment of time that I don't know
how I could possibly function in the rest of my life," Lehman
says. "I already practice as much now as I ever have, and I don't
want to take one more second of time from my family."

Yet, as he demonstrated at Hazeltine, Lehman still has the
ability to navigate difficult tracks, largely because his ball
striking remains among the best on Tour. He currently ranks sixth
in greens in regulation (69.1%) and is 18th in total driving.

Why, then, has Lehman failed to seriously contend this year? One
reason is his putting. He is 190th in that category in 2002,
although he has been rolling the ball better since switching to a
long putter in mid-April. The bigger problem, however, may be a
lack of fire. "I guess it comes down to your concentration and
how excited you are about playing," he says. "To be totally
honest, I have a hard time getting excited about tournaments
other than the really big ones." The Ryder Cup would certainly
qualify as the latter. Since Lehman finished 11th in last year's
Cup standings, he would automatically join the U.S. team for next
month's match if someone other than the two captain's picks had
to withdraw because of an injury. The emotional leader on three
previous American squads, he says, "I'd be ready to play,
definitely." But last week Lehman decided to skip the Sept. 5-8
Canadian Open, which he had planned to enter. "I know that after
playing this week and next week [in the NEC Invitational], I'm
going to want to go home," he says.

This nesting instinct comes naturally to a man who has
experienced his share of life's travails. In 1994 Lehman had
surgery to remove precancerous polyps from his colon, and in
July 2001 Melissa ended a pregnancy by delivering a stillborn
child. Last week, with Melissa back in Arizona shepherding the
kids through their first day of school and orchestrating a 10th
birthday party for Holly (Dad had 10 red roses delivered),
Lehman kept things simple in Minnesota. No big parties, no
dinners for 50, just a quiet meal one night with an old college
buddy and four trips out to Windsong Farm that felt like
anything but work. "I probably shouldn't say this, but I would
design courses for free," he says. Lehman no longer spends hours
pruning roses in his garden--Melissa convinced him last year to
give up that time-consuming hobby--but he is still happiest when
he has dirt under his fingernails. "I like making things look
pretty," he says.

After visiting Windsong Farm last Thursday night, Lehman drove
back to his older brother Jim's house, in Plymouth, for a family
barbecue. Tom's parents, Jim Sr. and Barbara, were spending the
week there, as were Tom's younger brother, Mike, and Mike's wife
and their two toddlers. Soon after Tom walked through the front
door, he and his brothers started flipping through old yearbooks
from Alexandria's Jefferson High that their dad had brought from
home. It wasn't long before the family began giving grief to
Minnesota's most famous golfer. "Tom was a horrible hockey
goalie," Jim Jr. said. "One game he played goalie, we lost 32 to
zero."

"It was 25 to zero," Tom said.

Minnesota may be a lovely place for Lehman to visit, but his days
of living there year-round are over, as Melissa is a Californian
who despises cold weather. ("I don't miss the winters here
either," Tom says.) Returning home made Lehman all the more
appreciative of the applause that greeted him on every tee and
green at Hazeltine. The outpouring was summed up neatly by a
woman who, as Lehman walked up his final fairway during Friday's
round, shouted, "Minnesota is proud of you!" Lehman smiled at her
and tugged the bill of his cap. It was one more reminder that
regardless of which state he lives in or the state of his game,
Minnesota is one place where Lehman can always count on a warm
welcome.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECKON THE BALL Lehman's long game still draws a crowd, but at 43 he admits to being bored by everything but the big events. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECKUNCLE TOM The homecoming allowed Lehman to show off his old yearbook to his niece Sarah and nephew Connor. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECKON TRACK Lehman happily got his hands dirty visiting Windsong Farm, the third course he has designed in Minnesota. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECKOH NO, NOT AGAIN! Lehman switched to a broom handle in April but still ranks 190th in the Tour's putting statistics.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)