Seeking reversal of his misfortune Golf: The past three years, Tom Lehman has been in the hunt for the U.S. Open championship going into the final round. And to show for it, he has one second-place finish, two thirds and a lot of questions.

June 14, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Some golfers head into major championships hoping to make history. Tom Lehman goes into the 98th U.S. Open later this week at the Olympic Club in San Francisco hoping to find one place in the record books -- and avoid another.

In each of the previous three years, Lehman has entered the final round of the Open with at least a share of the lead. It is a feat that has been accomplished by only one other player. The legendary Bobby Jones did it between 1928 and 1930, winning twice.

Lehman has taken an 0-for at the Open.

"Not many people have been in the last group on Sunday, and I've been there three years in a row," Lehman said recently. "Even though I haven't won, it's still thrilling. There are still a lot more positives than negatives. I certainly have the experience others don't."

Three years ago at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, Lehman was tied with Greg Norman going into Sunday and shot 4-over 74, finishing third behind champion Corey Pavin. Two years ago at Oakland Hills, Lehman bogeyed the final hole and lost by a shot to good friend Steve Jones.

But it was last year's Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda that stayed with Lehman the longest. Tied with Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie for the lead through 69 holes, Lehman played aggressively and bogeyed the 16th and 17th holes. He finished third, two strokes behind Els.

Asked what he was thinking after hitting his approach to the par-5 17th in the water, Lehman smiled sadly.

"I'd give anything in the world for a mulligan," he said.

He would also now give anything to play the way he had the past four years. He went from a player who was forced off the tour for seven years because of inconsistency to the PGA Tour's Player of the Year in 1996. In that stretch he won five tournaments, including the 1996 British Open.

But the problems that surfaced last year, when Lehman went winless on the PGA Tour for the first time since 1993, have become even more apparent in the past two months. After finishing second in The Players Championship in early April, Lehman has missed the cut three times in seven events, including the Masters.

"My game is definitely improving," Lehman said before the Kemper Open, where he started well but finished poorly, with rounds of 77 and 76 on the weekend leaving him tied for 66th. "I played better last week [tied for 11th at Memorial]. I feel good about it."

Some attribute Lehman's decline to his losing some 25 pounds since the end of last season. Lehman said the weight loss began when he dropped 7 pounds the week of last year's Ryder Cup, the result of stress brought on during the U.S.'s shocking defeat to Europe at Valderrama.

It continued through the off-season, when Lehman made a conscious decision to stop eating late at night. A meat-and-potatoes guy on and off the course became a soup-and-salad guy. The weight loss changed Lehman's swing plane and affected his strength, giving him less distance off the tee.

"I was sick and tired of being overweight," said Lehman, 39, whose svelte, 190-pound figure caused many double-takes earlier in the year. "I think I had to make some adjustments, but I think I've done that. What I haven't done this year is make some putts."

Lehman has always been somewhat of a streaky putter, and the kind of birdie strings he put together had enabled him to blow away the competition in most of his victories. He also had gained the reputation for coming up with a clutch putt when needed.

After winning the 1994 Memorial Tournament by five shots over Greg Norman, Lehman showed an ability to come from behind, making birdie putts on the last two holes the following year in the Colonial Invitational to beat Craig Parry by a shot.

A course-record 64 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes allowed Lehman to open a six-shot lead on Nick Faldo going into the final round, and he wound up winning by two over Els and Mark McCumber. He won the 1996 Tour Championship by six shots over Brad Faxon. His only victory since then was at Loch Lomond the week before last year's British Open.

Of late, Lehman hasn't been able to string together a few birdie putts in a row, let alone four straight below-par rounds. There are some who wonder whether Lehman, a late bloomer who didn't find success on the tour until he was 33, has peaked.

Or if he is merely a victim of his own heightened expectations, which despite this year's disappointments will still be there headed into Olympic. At least one member of Lehman's family thinks that he is putting too much pressure on himself.

"I think it's going to be more difficult," Jim Lehman, a Minneapolis attorney and an accomplished amateur player himself, said about his older brother. "Not physically, it's more a psychological pressure. But he's a very tough guy, the tougher the circumstances the more he fights."

Asked to assess the state of his brother's game, Jim Lehman said, "He's still ranked No. 1 in greens in regulation, so his swing can't be that bad."

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