After many tours of duty, Lehman stationed at top

April 10, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Who is this Tom Lehman leading the Masters going into today's final round? The same one who was such a miserable failure on the PGA Tour in the mid-'80s that he took a job for a while as an assistant club pro in Simi Valley, Calif.

The same one who entered the PGA's pressure-packed tour school tournament every year from 1986 to '91, trying to earn his tour playing card, and failed every year.

The same one who played on every minor-league tour from South Africa to South Dakota, becoming so frustrated at his career prospects that he almost took a job as the golf coach at the University of Minnesota four years ago. He decided against it only when he found out he also had to stick around the pro shop over the winter renting out cross-country skis.

He bears little resemblance to the Tom Lehman who has carved up fierce, old Augusta National as few golfers have in their first two Masters -- he finished third last year, and stands 7-under after three rounds this year -- but sure enough, they're one and the same.

"Sometimes it feels like a dream," he said after shooting a third-round 69 yesterday to take a one-stroke lead over Jose-Maria Olazabal.

Such players never win the Masters, of course; more than any other tournament anywhere, it has seemingly been reserved for the game's best and brightest. If you are a Tom Lehman who couldn't get a college scholarship out of high school, who has never won a PGA Tour event, who who has never even led a tour event after three rounds, you aren't even supposed to apply.

But then, we obviously aren't dealing with an ordinary, standard-issue long shot here. Lehman, a balding, blue-eyed Minnesotan of deep religious faith, has absorbed enough bad news over the years to push any reasonably minded golfer straight into the life of "keep your left arm straight, ma'am." Yet he kept resiliently hacking away and trying to put his game together, and, well, finally did.

"I'm the kind of guy who can't quite give up until I get something right," he said, redundantly, after offering reporters the short version of his life story yesterday.

He spent three years on the PGA Tour in the mid-'80s, but won only $40,000 and finally lost his playing card. As he vainly tried to get it back for six years, he mortgaged space at the bottom of the pro golf world.

"I played on the PGT Tour, which turned into the USTA Tour, which turned into the Jordan Tour, which turned into the Hooters Tour," he said. "I played in Asia. I played in Africa. I played the Dakotas Tour, the Golden Gate Tour, the North Florida Tour, the Carolinas Tour, the Space Coast Tour. You name it, I played it. Luckily, I had a supportive wife."

Question: Did he ever wake up not knowing where he was?

Answer: "When you wake up in Riverton, Wyoming, you know you're in Riverton, Wyoming."

Yet he was a long hitter with a natural draw, by no means without talent. His biggest shortcoming was right there in his head. He had failed so many times that he has ceased to believe in himself.

That began to change four years ago when, oddly enough, he missed the final cut at the PGA's tour school tournament for the penultimate time.

"I had a caddy named Dudley Logan who helped me realize that I had a lot more ability than I'd given myself credit for," he said. "To me, that was the biggest hurdle. Coming to realize that I was a champion, so to speak."

He went out and won four tournaments in two years on the PGA's official minor-league entity, the Hogan Tour, and finally got his playing card back. This time, he didn't blow it. In 1992 he won $579,000, finished 24th on the tour money list and tied for sixth at the U.S. Open.

That finish landed him an invitation to the Masters, which he parlayed into one of the best rookie performances ever. Only seven first-year players among the 525 in Masters history had scored lower than his 5-under. His natural draw was built perfectly for the course.

This year, he hung close to the leaders for two rounds and shot to the lead yesterday with a fabulous round on a windy afternoon when most scores were high. His 69 was six shots better than that of his playing partner, the world's No. 1 player, Greg Norman.

"We all have egos," he said about going head-to-head with Norman and winning.

After his press session he went straight to the practice range last night and swatted balls until dark, then headed for his rented house, where, he said, he probably would watch a movie with his kids -- "Winnie the Pooh" or "The Fox and the Hound" -- and eat dinner and go to sleep.

"I don't have any trouble sleeping," he said. "I won't tonight."

He stands on the threshold of golf's greatest test -- taking a lead into the back nine at Augusta on Sunday -- but insisted that his lack of PGA Tour wins wouldn't hamstring him.

"I won four events on the Hogan Tour, and won a tournament in Japan last fall," he said. "Winning is winning. And anyway, my well-being isn't riding on how I do. If I win, I win. If I lose, far better players have gone before me and done the same thing."

When you're a Space Coast Tour graduate who was just a chip shot away from selling cross-country skis out of a pro shop in Minnesota, losing the Masters on Sunday probably does sound pretty good.

And winning the thing? "What do you think it would feel like?" someone asked.

Lehman smiled. Suppressed a laugh. How in the double-knitted world would he know what it feels like?

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