Lehman's toughest shot far from par for any drive

The Masters

April 07, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- More than two-thirds of the field shot over par in the first round of the Masters yesterday. Tom Lehman had the best excuse.

"It's not every day you're humming along on the highway, minding your own business, and someone fires a bullet into your car," Lehman said after recording a 4-over 76 yesterday.

His score left him fairly far down the leader board, a disappointing position for a golfer who was among the world's best a decade ago and has experienced a rebirth in 2006 after slumping for several years.

But at the very least, Lehman is assured of being this week's lowest-scoring survivor of a random drive-by shooting.

Lehman, 47, dismissed suggestions that his bizarre Tuesday night experience, which culminated with a visit to police headquarters that lasted well past midnight, had anything to do with yesterday's round.

"It happened so fast that I really didn't have time to be shaken up or scared," Lehman said of the incident. "More than anything, it was just surreal. If it hadn't been so potentially serious, it would almost have been amusing."

Lehman was on his way to the Augusta airport to pick up his family after having played a practice round Tuesday. Driving alone on a highway in a courtesy car, he was going 50 mph in the right-hand lane, preparing to exit, when a car shot past him in the adjacent lane and, according to police, the driver opened fire.

"I heard this bang. It sounded like a gunshot, but I had no idea what it was. I thought maybe a window had shattered for some reason," Lehman said.

He drove on to the airport, parked, got out and looked at the outside of the car.

"You couldn't miss the big bullet hole," Lehman said.

He immediately called the police, who investigated and made an arrest later that night. (Lehman went to police headquarters to provide descriptions.) The alleged shooter, a 26-year-old Augusta man, had taken a shot at a second car, whose driver was able to finger him.

The suspect remains jailed on felony counts of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm, plus carrying a concealed weapon and reckless conduct.

"I think you can safely say Jack Daniel's [whiskey] played a major role," Lehman said. "I'm just glad they caught the guy. You hear stories about people whose lives are changed by a random act that comes and goes in an instant. I'm just glad this didn't happen a few minutes later, after I had picked up my family. My 3-year-old would have been sitting right where the bullet entered the car."

Lehman was calm enough to play another practice round Wednesday, and he teed off yesterday with high hopes. He has finished in the top 10 at Pebble Beach and the Nissan Open this year, and also reached the semifinals of the World Match Play Championship.

A winner of one major title, the 1996 British Open, he was consistently ranked among the PGA Tour's top 20 from 1994 through 2001, but then he slumped, falling to as low as 74th as he yielded to younger players. He responded by ratcheting up his conditioning, losing 20 pounds and climbing back up the earnings list this year.

His current ranking is so high he has a chance to make the 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup team, which includes the top 10 Americans on the PGA Tour. (Lehman is ranked 11th.) PGA of America, the organization that oversees the American side of the Ryder Cup, named him captain of the team last year, never thinking he might play his way onto the roster.

The last U.S. Ryder Cup captain who also simultaneously played in the event was Arnold Palmer in 1963.

The Ryder Cup will be played in September outside Dublin, Ireland, with the U.S. taking on a European team captained by Ian Woosnam of Wales. Interestingly, Lehman and Woosnam were paired yesterday, just weeks after Woosnam told reporters Lehman "would be mad" to play and captain at the same time.

"We had a good time, talked about a lot of things" related to the Ryder Cup, Lehman said.

Neither played well. Woosnam, the 1991 Masters winner, shot 77.

"It was, for me, the course, not [Tuesday's shooting]. Things are tough out there," Lehman said of the lengthened Augusta National, which yielded just 18 subpar rounds out of 90 starters yesterday. "I actually hit the ball well, but the greens were fast and I putted poorly. I left way too many shots on the greens."

He smiled as he spoke, seemingly not at all upset - a rare sight for a pro golfer who shoots poorly, but understandable this week. Compared to "some lunatic opening fire on you," as Lehman put it, what's the harm in a few bogeys?

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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