My Round With Tom Lehman
By R.J. Smiley
The fact that Tom Lehman will join the Champions Tour in March makes us all feel like seniors. We all remember when he was just a kid winning the Big 10 Championship. We remember his struggles to finally become a “REAL PLAYER” on the Tour. We celebrated with him when he won The 1996 Open Championship at Royal Lythum. What I will relate in this article is what it was it was like to actually play a round with this Tour Champion.
Our foursome was an exhibition match for the grand opening of The Links at Northfork. I had known Tom earlier in his amateur career from the Pine to Palm, various shortstops and MGA Championships, but nothing prepared me for the awesome display of golf that I witnessed on that extremely windy day at The Fork. My nephew, Travis, was on my bag. Travis was the first to notice just how big and strong Tom Lehman really was as he drilled dead-solid-perfect range balls into the wind. It was not how tall Tom was, not how much he weighed, but how big and strong he was in the butt and legs. That first move down…. the forward weight shift with butt and thighs was where he generated all his power. His shortish swing was perfect for the wind swept conditions at The Fork that day and for his Open Championship victory.
The relaxed Tom stood on the elevated first tee with the strong wind whipping at his slacks as he signed autographs for his adoring crowd. To everyone’s surprise, he acted just like any other small town Minnesota kid.
The down-wind 540 yard par 5 first hole at The Fork was a driver, 6 iron, and 20 foot putt for an eagle for Tom. At that point, none of the gallery would have believed that the eagle was the start of a new course record score of 66 on that impossibly windy day. Two routine 2-putt pars left Tom 2 under after the third. The fourth hole was playing really tough, back into the wind with the pin cut back left. Tom’s knock-down 5 iron turned over a little and the wind did the rest. The ball caught the big hump on the back left and kicked hard. With thick lie and stiff side wind, Tom proved why he has won over $20 million on the Tour. He landed a lob shot just over the hump and stopped the ball about 15 feet past the pin. Then he promptly drained the side-hiller for par. He was still 2 under par. Tom attempted to drive the green on the par 4 fifth, hitting a high driver over the hill directly at the blind green. A nifty bunker shot gave him an easy birdie. He was now 3 under after five. If you have played The Fork, you know that with a north wind the next 9 holes play directly into the wind. Tom had a routine two-putt par on number six. At the dangerous little par 3 seventh, Tom’s birdie putt lipped out after a cute little quail-high-knock-down 7 iron. He was still 3 under.
On the impossibly long into-the-wind number eight, Tom hit a good drive and had about 220 yards to the center of the green. We had been walking together discussing golf memories about the Herzog and Kluver boys that Tom grew up with in Alex. When we got to his ball, Tom asked me about club choice. I told him, “Hit the 3 wood. There is no way you can knock your ball over the green.” Tom smashed a missile, that was never affected by the wind, directly over the top of the flagstick and his ball trickled into the little hollow just over the green… a nearly impossible up and down. A deft bump-and-run chip left Tom with an 8-footer that he lipped out for his only bogie of the day. I felt responsible for that bogie! Now Tom was back to 2 under. He could not get home in two into the wind over the water on number nine; another routine par. He was 2 under at the turn.
Tom humbled the short par 5 tenth with an easy birdie. He had a two-putt par at number eleven. He was still 3 under. Our discussion on the twelfth tee is still vivid in my mind. The hole, an always difficult 205 yard par 3, was playing directly into the gusting wind. Tom chose a 3 iron, teed his ball a little higher than normal for a long iron, and drilled a laser shot that never left the pin. That shot…was the best golf shot I have ever witnessed. Tom was left with a gimme, for him, 4-footer for birdie. Tom was now 4 under after twelve. When I asked him why he teed his ball so high, he said, “Into a wind you want to make sure to catch the ball on the down-swing and take no divot. That way there is more spin and the ball will fly straighter.” He proved it to me. The short thirteenth was another routine par, and he hit a beautiful little wedge shot over the bunker for a two-foot gimme birdie at fourteen. He was now an amazing 5 under after fourteen. The fifteenth hole at The Fork is the most difficult on the course. Tom hit his 3 wood down the middle but through the fairway, and his approach shot was blocked by the trees. Tom hit a knock-down cut shot that must have curved 25 yards and caught the left front bunker. Now Tom was faced with the toughest shot in golf… the 30 yard bunker shot. No problem for a player of his skill. He hit the shot to about 8 feet and drained the slippery down-hiller for another par. The 16th and 17th were again two putt pars. Tom was now 5 under on the 18th tee. “If he gets a par, he will have the course record,” someone in the gallery said. Everyone in our group and the gallery understood that something special was happening. His huge down-wind tee shot on eighteen left Tom with about 125 yards to the back right pin. No problem. Tom’s little wedge kept the ball about 10 feet directly under the hole leaving him with a simple birdie to shoot 4 under 32 on the back and a course record 66. Wow, what a round! His only bogie… my fault!
I am sure that Tom Lehman does not remember one shot in that fantastic round, but that brutal day he proved to me and the adoring gallery that he is among the best to ever play this great game that we love to hate.