Lehman wins over even Brits Foils fears, Faldo fans in gritty Open victory

July 22, 1996|By Larry Dorman | Larry Dorman,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- All day long he had worked his way through hostile territory. In the company of a thoroughly dangerous man, wending through a sea of bunkers, and in an ocean of fans who screamed for his playing partner and rooted openly for his demise, Tom Lehman labored.

So as he stood in the rough at the final hole of Royal Lytham and St. Annes yesterday, an 8-iron in his hand and a lifetime of hard, hard road behind him, Lehman looked like the perfect winner of this British Open. There were brambles on his white shirt, calluses on his hands, dust on his shoes and dirt under his fingernails.

Here was a hard-working man about to put the finishing touches on the blue-collar Open. The stylish swingers and big-name stars who could get in the way were in his wake, buried back there among the gaping pot bunkers and shaggy sand dunes of the old links, strewn out there on this cruel Sea of Tranquility of a golf course.

There was a tombstone for Nick Faldo at No. 15, where he drove into a bunker and missed another putt. There was a mausoleum for Ernie Els near the monstrous bunker right of the 18th, where his 3-wood shot went to die along with his challenge. A simple headstone marked Fred Couples and his back-nine 41 and Mark McCumber and his charge that fell short. All that was left now was the 37-year-old Lehman, who had led three other major championships after three rounds in the past two years only to fall away.

"My great fear was to have on my gravestone: 'Tom Lehman. He couldn't win the big one,' " Lehman said later.

Well, Tom Lehman won the big one yesterday. With the sun breaking through clouds in the late afternoon, he took that 8-iron back and sent his golf ball flying toward the green in the shadow of the Victorian clubhouse. Two putts later he had a round of 73, a 72-hole total of 271 and a two-stroke victory over Els, who shot 67, and McCumber, who shot 66, and a three-stroke margin over Faldo, whose 70 was not good enough.

Finally, after coming so close only to finish second in the U.S. Open last month at Oakland Hills, after finishing third to Corey Pavin in last year's U.S. Open, after losing the Masters to Jose Maria Olazabal in 1994, Lehman became a major champion.

Not only that, he became the first American professional to win a British Open at Royal Lytham, and the first Yank to conquer Lytham since the great amateur Bobby Jones in 1926. Seventy (( years is a long time, even by British Open standards, but it pales beside the distance that Lehman has come in the last five.

"Back in 1990 or 1991, the idea of winning a major championship was totally outside the realm of possibility," Lehman said. "It was not even something I considered. To have come this far, to be here today, it's just thrilling. It puts tingles down your back, chills down your spine."

This is not to say that Lehman did not do everything he could to make this day as boring as possible. That was his objective, when he started at six strokes clear of the field. But there were more than a few tense moments. Couples came first, shooting 30 on the front nine, reaching 12-under par, and pulling within two shots.

Then, like the world's biggest roller coaster up the road in Blackpool -- 235 feet high and reaching speeds of 85 mph as it plummets -- Couples took a back-nine dive. He shot 41 for 71 and finished at 7-under, where he started the day.

Then came Els, who got to 13-under par with a front-nine 33 and birdies at Nos. 10, 12 and 15. But a 2-iron pulled into the bunker at the 16th and a 3-wood into another bunker at the 18th led to the two bogeys that finished him.

While all of this was going on, Lehman was trying to beat the best players in the world while not on top of his game.

The raucous roars that Faldo's shots were inspiring made Lytham seem like the Belfry and this Open seem like the Ryder Cup. Lehman's shots were greeted with unseemly remarks. At the third, when the Minnesotan pulled his drive, some in the gallery hissed, "Get in the bunker." It did, and Lehman made a bogey.

Faldo birdied the fourth to pull within four strokes, but he lipped out two critical putts at the next two holes, and that made the mood of the crowd uglier.

What set it off was Lehman's major championship save on the sixth hole, where he made a 5 from a bush. His drive at the 490-yard hole wound up in the middle of one of the ugliest spots on the golf course. But, after thrashing around in the thicket, he extricated his ball, hit his third short of the green, chipped up to 5 feet and made it.

On the next green, a Faldo fan yelled, "Remember Augusta!" Then, when things settled down, he yelled to Lehman, "Come on, Greg, er, Tom!"

The attempt was to link Lehman to Greg Norman's Masters demise. Lehman is one of the most easygoing players in golf. But the remark got to him.

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