- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2000

AUGUSTA, Ga. Until his tee shot on 18 drifted into the "deep, dark and dingy" woods, Tom Lehman looked like he might escape the first round of the Masters without a single disaster. That would have been something on a day like Thursday, a day that saw Tiger Woods lose five strokes to par in three holes and Craig Stadler go tumbling off the leader board with a nine on the par-5 15th.
With the wind blowing every which way and the course sporting some newly grown rough around the edges, Augusta National wasn't a very hospitable place in the opening round. But Lehman tamed the beast for 17 holes, ringing up five birdies and no bogeys, and even a double-bogey at the last couldn't spoil his mood especially since his 69 was still good for second place, a stroke behind unheralded, unsung and unshaven Dennis Paulson.
"I thought it was a tremendous score under the conditions," Lehman said. "So I'm not going to let one little blip on the radar screen bother me."
Smart man, that Lehman. Green jackets, after all, aren't won in a day. The Masters is a marathon, not a 100-yard dash. And after capturing two events in January to end a 3 and 1/2-year dry spell the non-Tour Williams World Challenge and the Phoenix Open he might have what it takes to finally break through at Augusta.
Lord knows the man has come close. In his first Masters in 1993, he was one of the first-round leaders and wound up tied for third behind Bernhard Langer and Chip Beck. The next year, he finished second to Jose Maria Olazabal Olly eagling 15 to clinch it and Lehman lipping out on the same hole ("one of those putts that couldn't miss but did").
But since then, he hasn't been a factor at Augusta. And his good but not great play of the past three years left people wondering if he would ever again contend here. At 41, he didn't figure to have too many more chances particularly with Woods on the prowl.
Things turned around for Lehman this winter, though. "I feel like I'm playing the way I should be playing," he said. "I've been playing very inconsistent, which is not my style. But today I hit a lot of shots close to the hole, which is not easy to do here."
Indeed, he bore a striking resemblance to the Lehman of old, the Lehman who won the British Open in '96 and has contended repeatedly in the U.S. Open. Of the five birdie putts he rolled in Thursday, only one was as long as 12 feet. If he can keep doing that, the rest of the field can probably go home.
"It definitely helped to win the Williams and then the Phoenix Open three weeks later," he said. "Those two wins were very, very big for me. It had been a while since I'd won anything, and it was good to win two really close [together]."
Good for his psyche, that is. Between his victory in the Tour Championship in '96 and his win in the Williams, you see, Lehman finished second seven times. Once he lost a playoff to Woods (the '97 Mercedes). Another time he lost a playoff to Tim Herron (Bay Hill last year). Still another time he was the runner-up in the Players Championship ('98). (And that's not counting the U.S. Open he let slip away at Congressional.) By the end of '99, he had dropped to 22nd in the world rankings, and he wouldn't have played on our U.S. Ryder Cup team last September if Ben Crenshaw hadn't made him a captain's pick.
But Lehman came through on the final day, launching America's miracle comeback with a 3-and-2 whipping of Lee Westwood. And who knows? maybe that's where it started for him. Maybe that's where he began to rediscover his game. Or maybe he's just inspired by the note he has been carrying around inside his hat all year, the one his daughter wrote to him. "To Dad, Love Rachael," it says with a 9-year-old's succinctness.
Whatever the case, since the beginning of the year Lehman has hardly been out of the top 10, tying for sixth in Hawaii, seventh at Pebble Beach and eighth in the Players (in addition to his victory at Phoenix). Obviously, he has plenty of good golf left in him. The question is, does he have another major championship in him?
"I'm probably more at peace with myself than I've been in a long time," he said. "And my religion, I think, has a lot to do with that. To win the Masters would be a thrill of a lifetime. Having already won the British, this tournament and the U.S. Open are the two tournaments I'd most like to win… . But I don't feel like the clock is ticking or that time is running short. I'm just going to keep on trying real hard, and I'll take whatever comes my way."
Come Sunday, perhaps a green jacket will come his way. He definitely meets the qualifications, even if he has won only five tournaments in his career. As golfers go, Tom Lehman is very much a master.

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