Lehman recalls near-misses in Open
More than a decade later, pain has turned to pride. Time is the ultimate salve for a broken heart, but perspective doesn’t hurt, either. Back then, in 1995-98, Tom Lehman suffered because he flirted annually with US Open victory and came away empty. Now, the achievement of being the only person in Open history to have played in the final twosome for four consecutive years feels better than a stab wound.
“I’m sick and tired of talking about them,” Lehman said recently, “but the pain is gone.”
Fourteen years ago, Lehman joined Bobby Jones as the only players to lead the Open after 54 holes three years running. That was in 1997 at Congressional Country Club, also the site of next week’s national championship. Lehman started that final round two strokes ahead. He left two behind winner Ernie Els and feeling almost as bad as he had the year before when he bogeyed the final hole and lost by one to Steve Jones at Oakland Hills.
At first, Lehman didn’t want to revisit Open near-misses yet again. Understandably, that’s not his favorite subject. But then he consented and talked candidly at length about discontent felt, mulligans wanted, lessons learned and wisdom that can be dispensed. Part of the reason is that he frames his body of work in a more favorable light.
“It’s something to be proud of,” he said of that unprecedented last-group run.
Without prodding, he went to his final rounds of 74, 71 and 73 when leading (at Shinnecock Hills, Oakland Hills and Congressional, respectively). They dropped him to third, tied for second and third.
“You think about it,” said Lehman, a three-time winner this year on the Champions Tour. “You watch US Opens over the years and go, ‘That’s pretty damn good to play that well with the lead and pressure.’ When I see how some people deal with the pressure of a US Open, I get more and more proud of the way I played on Sunday. The disappointment I have is, it wasn’t quite good enough.”
The two that hurt the most were 1996 and ’97. He said the Oakland Hills finish bothers him a bit more, but his career mulligan would come on the par-4 16th at Congressional. Tied for the lead, he hit a “beautiful-looking” 7-iron shot from the fairway toward the back-right pin. The ball was about a yard right and a yard short of carrying onto the green, recalled Andy Martinez, Lehman’s longtime caddie. Instead, it bounced into rough between the green and a bunker, and Lehman bogeyed.
“When I think of all the US Opens and think about one shot I could hit over, that’s the shot,” Lehman said. “If I had just played a little more conservatively, which is the way I always played the US Open. But I got really aggressive with that shot, and it cost me.”
Suddenly one back and needing to birdie, Lehman overturned his approach to 17 and hit it a bit heavy. The ball bounced off a bank and into water, leading to another bogey.
“People talk about 17,” Lehman said. “But 17 is a complete result of 16.”
The previous year, Lehman had won the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, PGA Tour Player of the Year, the Tour money title and the Vardon Trophy.
The British victory came a month after what he and Martinez call Lehman’s toughest loss, at Oakland Hills, because of great play and two bad bounces.
“That one bothers me the most,” Lehman says. “That’s the one that disappoints me most because I felt I played my best.”
Lehman moved a stroke ahead of Jones after a Saturday 65, then moved three ahead after birdies at Nos. 6-7 Sunday. At that point, Jones said recently, he thought he was playing for second place “because Tom was hitting it so good and was so in control that no one was going to catch him unless you did something great.”
But Jones went two ahead at the critical 12th, thanks to the second two-shot swing in three holes. Jones got up-and-down from a front bunker for birdie, and Lehman bogeyed after his “flushed” second shot, a driver from the fairway 272 yards out, landed on a downslope on the green and bounced near the back lip of a rear bunker. He had to play sideways and three-putted from about 40 feet.
“The execution was perfect,” Lehman said. “But you couldn’t have walked and placed the ball in a worse spot. It cost me one, probably two shots.”
Tied again at 18, Lehman hit what he called a “beautiful-looking” drive down the fairway, but the ball kicked left into a bunker, again near the lip. He laid up, made bogey and lost by one. Martinez says he wishes he had been more vocal in suggesting his man hit 3-wood off the tee.
“When you think about going out and playing to win and executing and hitting every shot the way you want to and having the absolute best attitude and letting it rip, that was that day for me,” Lehman said of his 71. “I played about as well as I could. I just didn’t feel I got what I deserved.”
Relying on a draw and using a “straight push” as his version of a fade, Lehman finished in the top 6 in majors 10 times from 1992 to 2000. He excelled at U.S. Opens largely because of driving accuracy and the strength of his lag and short putting.
“He controlled his ball and had tenacity,” Martinez said. “You’ve got to kill him to make him quit.”
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Lehman learned much from those days, including that sleeping on an Open lead three years in a row isn’t the same as resting on vacation. Typically on those Saturday nights, he went to bed at 10 p.m. and woke up about 4 a.m. He’d read and then fall back to sleep for a couple of hours. He says he never slept more than six hours in a row.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous,” he said.
Lehman identifies a few keys to playing Opens well. Accuracy, grit, a positive attitude, patience and preparation top his short list.
“Knowing you have to put it in the fairway takes a degree of mental toughness, and those who aren’t ready for that probably hate the experience,” he said. “More than anything, you have to be prepared for a battle. You have to walk to the first tee Thursday and know it’s going to be a long, hard week. It may not be all that much fun, but you have to be strong enough to be ready. If you go in uncertain and not quite prepared or afraid, you’re in big trouble.”
Wisdom comes with experience.
It follows that Lehman at 52 thinks he could’ve helped the Lehman of 37 with sage advice.
“I still want to win as bad, but I’m not as wrapped up in the results while I’m competing as I used to be,” he said. “It was always pretty easy for me to start projecting: ‘OK, I’ve got a one-shot lead, how great it would be to be the U.S. Open champion.’ Part of it was because I wanted so badly to win, I could taste it and feel it. That gets you out of where you are. You’ve gotta pull back, pull back. Just go play and not worry.”
To hear Martinez, Lehman played just fine. At least the picture looks better now.
“After many years, yes, it does feel like more of an achievement, but then it was very painful,” Martinez said. “And if it was painful for me, you can imagine how painful it was for Tom.
“It really hurts, because if anyone ever deserved to win a US Open and should’ve won a US Open, Tom Lehman’s the guy. And we didn’t get it done.”
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