Lake Orion, Mich. – Eighteen times Tom Lehman
has competed in the U.S. Open. Not once has he ever won it.
But, boy, has he come close.
During a four-year stretch in the late 1990s,
Lehman held three successive 54-hole leads and
entered the 1998 U.S. Open’s final round in second place.
“I think you learn,” said Lehman,
53, of Scottsdale, Ariz., of the run between 1995-98. “You
learn the pros and the cons, the strengths and the weaknesses. The thing that I
probably learned the most was that I had the ability to handle pressure.
“I think I shot 71, 72 and 73 with the lead
on Sunday. Watching the U.S. Open, how many guys do you see who have the lead
and they shoot 78 or 80 or 76? You see it a lot. And so I proved to myself that
I had the ability to deal with the pressure and that my game was good enough
and that I was mentally strong enough.”
Lehman is not seeking atonement
for those near misses, but is hoping to draw on the experiences as he prepares
for this week’s U.S. Senior Open at Indianwood Golf and Country Club. In three
previous U.S. Senior Opens, Lehman has finished no
better than a tie for eighth, which occurred in his 2009 debut.
Lehman, the 1996 British Open
winner, three-time Ryder Cup player and 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup captain possesses a
pit-bull mentality that is generally required for a United States Golf
“I think it's persevering and not giving up,”
said Lehman of his mental makeup. “I may not always
be the straightest iron player or the most accurate driver, but I can generally
kind of keep it in play, keep it on the greens. So my whole career was built on
hitting it 15 feet
from the hole or 20 feet
or 30 feet
with a 3‑iron, something where I could put the ball on the green.
“I kind of feel like I had a better chance
of shooting even par on a U.S. Open golf course than 25 under on another kind
of golf course.”
Should scores go low, though, don’t rule Lehman out.
Lehman, who is the only player to have won Player
of the Year honors on the PGA Tour’s three tours (1991 on the then-Hogan Tour,
1996 on the PGA Tour and last year on the Champions Tour), enters on his best
form. Starting with a final-round 68 at the Senior PGA Championship – where he
finished tied for 29th – Lehman has a streak of 12
successive sub-70 rounds. That is one shy of the Champions Tour record of 13
set by Hale Irwin in 1999, and it is also Lehman’s
second such 12-round streak.
During this current streak, Lehman is a
combined 39 under par with a tie for fourth, a win at the Regions Tradition and
a runner-up at the Constellation Senior Players — the latter two being senior
majors. He has six top-10 finishes this year.
“So I feel like I'm kind of hitting on all
cylinders,” said Lehman, who has four career wins on
the Web.com Tour, five on the PGA Tour and six on the Champions Tour. “My swing
feels pretty good. I've been putting well, thinking well and excited to be
Ah, the putting. That area of his game is
what Lehman believes may have cost him one, if not
more, U.S. Open titles.
“I've always been a very good lag putter,”
he said. “I've always been a very good short putter. I don't maybe make as many
15- to 20‑footers as I maybe need to be able to make. I'd say I'm a good
putter, at times a really good putter, but I think to win U.S. Opens you need
to be consistently a great putter.”
In 1996, at Oakland Hills Country Club, just
a 40-minute drive from here, Lehman’s best
opportunity slipped away. Heading to the inward nine, Lehman
led Steve Jones by three strokes. Lehman
made three bogeys, including missing on a 15-foot par attempt to tie Jones on
the 18th hole, to shoot 71 and finish one stroke behind.
Lehman does not dwell so much on
what might have been. He has moved on. He has gone all-chips-in with the
Champions Tour, this season being the second in which he hopes to seriously
contend for the Charles
points title, which he currently leads.
While Lehman says
his game can still be competitive on the PGA Tour, the lower stress and
commitment of the Champions Tour appealed to his desire to be home.
“The idea of being able to compete and work
on my game and do what I love to do in a way that lets me be a part of the
things that I want to be a part of at home more often, that was the turning
point for me,” Lehman said.
Maybe this week can be a
turning point in his USGA career, as well.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has appeared
previously on USGA websites.