Lehman could be first playing captain since '63

Originally Published: March 15, 2006
By Bob Harig | Special to ESPN.com

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.


Tom Lehman
APIf he qualifies to play in the '06 Ryder Cup, should captain Tom Lehman relinquish his spot?

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.

The Champions Tour's decision to allow golf carts in competition -- after banning the use of them starting with the 2005 season -- is fine, as long as the tour and its players stop the ruse of trying to sell the 50-and-over circuit as true competition. Tell it like it is, that the Champions Tour is a nostalgia tour, an exhibition of the game's greats of the past.

That is the message being sent when the tour will not allow the natural evolutionary progression in sports to take place. Nobody wants to admit it, but banning golf carts helped wean out players who were no longer competitive.

On the Champions Tour, you did not necessarily have to be competitive to have a spot. The all-time career money category has let many players well past the days of being competitive still have a place, at the expense of better, yet maybe not as well-known, players.

If that's what they want, fine. There's nothing wrong with the greats of the game playing golf and using carts. Fans want to see their favorites, no matter how they play. But nobody should act as though it's anything more than an exhibition when the best senior players are left without a place to play.

Bob HarigGot a question about the PGA Tour? Ask ESPN.com golf writer Bob Harig, who will answer your inquiries in his column each week.

Q. All the rookie talk on the PGA Tour has focused around Camilo Villegas, Bubba Watson and J.B. Holmes, but I haven't heard or seen a thing on the rookie that was supposed to be the next sure thing, Ryan Moore. Where has Moore been hiding?
Columbus, Ohio

A. Moore is technically not a rookie as he earned enough money as a nonmember of the PGA Tour in 2005 to finish among the top 125 money-winners and earn his card for this year. That said, Moore, who was all-world as an amateur in 2004, is off to a rough start. He missed his first two cuts of the year, tied for 40th at the FBR Open and for 65th at the Honda Classic, and has made just $29,000 this year.

Q. Are the days of ball-workers like Lee Trevino gone for good?
Flint, Mich.

A. There will always be a need among the best players to work the ball in different directions, but it is unlikely we will see it in the manner shown by someone like Trevino. Today's equipment -- both the clubs and the balls -- does not permit the ball to curve as much. That's good for the average guy, but not so good for players who want to do it on purpose.

Q. I've heard that in the past two tournaments Tiger Woods was using a 5-wood. Is this true? If so, what club has he taken out of his bag?
Jose Trani
Durham, N.C.

A. It is true that Woods has been using a 5-wood at certain tournaments, depending on the circumstances. He said he is carrying 15 clubs with him to tournaments. If he uses the 5-wood, it is in place of his 2-iron.

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.

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Golf Writer, ESPN.com