Tom Lehman has more than a little in common with the cartoon character who was conceived a little more than three hours from his hometown of Alexandria, Minn.
Like Charlie Brown, Lehman is the guy everybody roots for but nobody expects to pull through.
Most people know Lehman as one of the nicest guys on the PGA Tour and a player who had the bad fortune of rising to the top of the golf world just before Hurricane Tiger blew through. But even that’s a better legacy than the one he has left in Potomac. Here he is the Guy Who Gave Away the U.S. Open.
So it’s a pleasant coincidence that Lehman, who lost the 1997 Open at Congressional with a 71st-hole tee shot into the water, is making a resurgence less than two miles down the road.
The 1996 British Open champion is quietly having what might turn out to be his best tournament of the year. He got to 12 under par and into the top five yesterday with a birdie on the 10th hole before bogeying three of the last eight holes and fading back to a tie for eighth place.
“I haven’t been on the leader board in so long, it’s hard to remember the last time,” he said. “I know I’m capable of playing this kind of golf. It would be nice to finish off with a good round tomorrow and get my game back on track.”
Lehman’s best showing this season was a 12th-place finish at the Bay Hill Invitational. He missed two months following knee surgery and is ranked 103rd in the world. But he shot 66 in the first round, and followed with a 67 Friday to move into sixth.
“Before his knee injury, he hit it really well. He’s been hitting it great all year. It’s just a matter of making some putts,” said Tom Kalinowski, Lehman’s friend from Scottsdale, Ariz., who is caddying for him here. “Every week I’ve been with him, he’s gotten into the top five. He just needs to stay there.”
This week, with three of his four children on hand for the first time this year, Lehman has exacted a little revenge on the area that drowned his major hopes in 1997. The motivation will become even more personal for Lehman next year when the Booz Allen Classic moves to Congressional while the TPC at Avenel gets a facelift.
“As soon as he found that out, he announced we’re coming back next year,” his wife Melissa said. “He was pretty excited when [he heard the news].”
Had a few things gone his way, Lehman might have as many as five major titles instead of one. He and Bobby Jones are the only players to lead the U.S. Open for three straight years after three rounds.
But unlike Jones, Lehman didn’t finish any of those tournaments in front. He was tied with Steve Jones for the lead on the 72nd hole of the 1996 Open, only to yank his driver into a fairway bunker. In 1995 at Shinnecock Hills, he did the same thing on the 70th hole, and wound up taking a double-bogey.
Throw in a loss on the 72nd hole of the 1994 Masters, and you have disappointments rivaling anything the Buffalo Bills cooked up.
He had a chance to change one of those memories earlier this month but missed qualifying for this year’s Open at Shinnecock Hills by one shot. It won’t be a U.S. Open at Congressional next year, but if he plays like he has this week, Lehman might finally get to kick the football — unlike Charlie Brown.
“That tournament is the week before the U.S. Open, so it would almost be like playing two U.S. Opens [two weeks in a row],” said Lehman, a sly smile crossing his face. “It would be nice to have a good one.”