U.S. SENIOR OPEN
Lehman Not Discouraged by Close Calls July 9, 2012 | Lake Orion, Mich. By Stuart Hall

During a four-year stretch in the late 1990s, Tom Lehman held three successive 54-hole leads in the U.S. Open. (USGA Archives)

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 Association championship.

"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 here."

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 Schwab Cup 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.