Lehman could be first playing captain since '63

3/15/2006 - Golf Tom Lehman

ORLANDO -- There appears to be some flawed reasoning when it comes to the debate over whether Tom Lehman should play on the same U.S. Ryder Cup team he will captain this September in Ireland.

The theory suggests that the job is too time-consuming to allow a captain to play.


Let's not make the job out to be something it is not.

Yes, there are a lot of behind-the-scenes duties, probably more than any of us realize. Many of them involve making the players comfortable once they get to Ireland. Few have to do with actually putting the best team on the course and making sure it beats the Europeans.

Once the pairings are made, there is not a whole lot the captain can do. The players have to play, and in the last two Ryder Cups, the Americans have not played well enough. You can blame captains Curtis Strange and Hal Sutton for some of the problems of the last two defeats, but not most -- and certainly not all.

So if Lehman earns one of the 10 spots on the team, of course he should play. Why not?

Lehman has sparked plenty of interest in the topic recently. That's because he is not shying away from the idea of serving as playing captain, in both words and deeds.

It is one thing to say you wouldn't mind doing both. It is another to perform well enough to make it a very viable option.

Lehman, who turned 47 last week, made it to the semifinals of the Match Play Championship before losing to Australia's Geoff Ogilvy. No shame there, as Lehman defeated the likes of Stuart Appleby, Adam Scott, David Toms and Chad Campbell, who happened to knock out Tiger Woods.

If nothing else, Lehman is leading by example in the format that is used for the Ryder Cup.

"I have said all along that if you look at the history of the last decade, the U.S. team is just an eyelash away from having lost five in a row," Lehman said. "We're just that close to losing the last five straight.

"Knowing how strong the European team is and what the quality of their players are and how good they are and how well they play as a team, we would be completely foolish to not put our 12 best guys on the golf course, whoever they are. To have a chance to beat those guys, a chance to knock off a strong team, you need to have your 12 best guys."

Lehman has said he would not pick himself for the team, which comprises the top 10 players in a points race that concludes after the PGA Championship and two at-large selections. He has even hinted that he did not want to barely make the team on points, that he wanted to be playing well.

After his performance in California, Lehman moved up to 10th in the standings, but he has since slipped back to 11th after skipping Doral and Honda. He will need to have a strong summer run, likely including several top-five finishes or maybe even a victory, to make it.

And if he does? Good for him.

Two of the teams pairings already are all but set, Woods-Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson-Chris DiMarco. Previous captains have struggled to find the right matchups, but these appear to be two solid ones after the Americans' Presidents Cup victory over an international squad.

As for the makeup of the team? Well, 10 of the 12 players are chosen for him. He only needs to pick two players.

Nobody has served in both roles since Arnold Palmer in 1963, when the Ryder Cup was an entirely different deal.

"Tom knows what is going on and what is ahead of him," said Davis Love III, who lost to Ogilvy in the finals of the Match Play. "He's learned that it is a lot more work than people think and he's gotten ahead of it. Whether it is picking out the clothes or organizing the structure to do the things that he wants to do, he realizes that he needs to get it done. He's ahead of that now, so he can take some time and play golf."

Lehman also will have two assistant captains, Loren Roberts and Corey Pavin, who can help him gauge the strength of players and make pairings.

"He can definitely play his way on, I know he plans on playing a full schedule this year," Roberts said. "Obviously, he's committed to playing. He's been working out, and his golf has been great so far."

Lehman has lost 25 pounds in an effort to take the strain off his knees. And he posted consecutive tied-for-seventh finishes at Pebble Beach and the Nissan Open before his showing at the Match Play. It has been six years since his last victory and 10 since he won the British Open, but Lehman is making things interesting.

If he makes the team and wants to play, more power to him.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.