Baby's are only tears as title inches away from Lehman

April 11, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Melisa Lehman was standing at the back of the big crowd gathered behind the scorer's tent, wearing sunglasses and a smile, holding a squirming 20-month-old bucket of blond named Holly.

A couple of reporters had tracked them down in the slanting evening sun, hoping to ask Melisa about walking 18 holes just to watch her husband, Tom, miss winning the Masters by an inch or three here and there.

"Well . . ." she started.

"Where's Daddy?" Holly sonic-boomed, careening toward a good cry.

"He's coming, he's coming in just a minute," Melisa said softly.

Next question.

"Were there times today when you thought he had it?" someone asked.

Melisa smiled. "All day," Melisa said. "I really thought he had it all day long."

Holly started crying, asking again imploringly, "Where's my Daddy?" Melisa shifted her to the other hip, trying to stop the tears.

"You can't get much closer than he did, can you?" Melisa said over the racket, knowing the answer to her question before someone gave it.

No, you couldn't get much closer than Lehman did to beating Jose-Maria Olazabal in the final round of the Masters yesterday.

There were the six inches that kept Olazabal from a watery disaster on the 15th hole. There was the quarter-inch that kept Lehman from making an eagle putt on No. 15. There was the inch that kept him from making a birdie putt on No. 16. There was the inch that kept him from making a birdie putt on No. 17.

That's how close Lehman was to, improbably, making the Masters his first PGA Tour victory.

Lehman was the one who spoke movingly about his faith at a local Methodist church yesterday morning, but Olazabal was the one who seemed to benefit from divine blessings on the back nine.

"When you see those kinds of things happen that happened to him, it makes you feel that it is probably your time to win," Olazabal said.

The most dramatic example occurred on the par-5 15th hole. Leading by a shot, Olazabal aimed a 7-iron for the green and hit it a little fat. The ball barely cleared the pond in front of the green and landed at the top of the closely mowed bank. Had it landed six inches closer to the pond, it would have slipped down the bank into the water, as did dozens of balls during the week. But it stayed in the fringe, and Olazabal made the 30-foot eagle putt.

The shot wasn't quite as gravity-defying as Fred Couples' tournament-winning shot that stopped on a sharp bank on No. 12 two years ago, but still, "I was very lucky that the ball did not go back down," Olazabal said.

Lehman, meanwhile, had easily cleared the pond with his approach, leaving him a 15-foot putt to match Olazabal's eagle. He was so psyched up that he took his hat off as he surveyed the green. His putt headed straight for the hole, kissed the right rim . . . and stayed out. Lehman fell to the ground and pounded the green with his right hand.

"There are times when you're so focused and determined to make a putt that it just shocks you when it doesn't go in," Lehman said. "This was one of those times. I put my heart and soul in that putt. To miss it felt like a stab in the heart."

Those inches here and there had cost him three strokes on Olazabal, and things just got more frustrating from there. Lehman hit a brilliant shot to the par-3 16th green, but just missed the five-foot birdie putt. Same thing on his 15-foot birdie putt on the par-4 17th.

"I didn't choke," Lehman said. "Choking is when you leave them short or something. I ran them all right at the hole. I can't putt much better. They just didn't go in."

Lehman still was within a shot on the 18th, but he ran out of chances when, pumped up, he hit a 1-iron off the tee 25 yards longer than usual. The ball wound up in a fairway trap.

Fittingly, Olazabal saved par on the final hole by getting up and down from the fringe behind the green. As much as the cursed inches cost Lehman, Olazabal's ability to escape trouble was the difference.

"Good players know how to do that," Lehman said. "European players are better at those bump-and-run shots [around the greens]."

Still, for all of Olazabal's escapes, Lehman was so close.

"He won the tournament, but I feel like I could have won the tournament also," he said. "Those were some really, really close putts. I'm sure it will be tough to sleep tonight, and tomorrow it'll be hard not to think about the lost opportunities."

He did not collapse, however, as had so many nonwinners before him when confronted with a chance to win a major title. Coming into the round with a one-stroke lead, his goal, he said, was not to give away the title.

"And I didn't," he said. "I'm not disappointed or ashamed. I led the Masters after three rounds and played well on Sunday. I didn't fold up."

At the end of the day, he finished his initial interviews behind the scorer's tent, swept his wife and two young daughters into his arms and settled into a golf cart taking him to the press room. At the sight of him with his family at the end of such an emotional day, the crowd broke into applause.

Lehman smiled and waved. No tears. No evident sadness. Just inches short, that's all.

THE MASTERS

The winner . . .

Jose-Maria Olazabal 74-67-69-69279 . . . and followers

Tom Lehman 70-70-69-72281 Larry Mize 68-71-72-71282 Tom Kite 69-72-71-71283 Jay Haas 72-72-72-69285 Jim McGovern 72-70-71-72285 Loren Roberts 75-68-72-70285 Corey Pavin 71-72-73-70286 Ernie Els 74-67-74-71286 John Huston 72-72-74-69287 Ian Baker-Finch 71-71-71-74287 Ray Floyd 70-74-71-72287 Tom Watson 70-71-73-74288 Dan Forsman 74-66-76-73289 Mark O'Meara 75-70-76-70291 Brad Faxon 71-73-73-74291 Chip Beck 71-71-75-74291 Seve Ballesteros 70-76-75-71292 Ben Crenshaw 74-73-73-72292 Complete scores: 10C

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