LAS VEGAS -- Tom Lehman has a love-hate relationship with the long putter that sometimes makes its way into his bag. Lately, he's been finding a lot more to love about it than ever before.
Lehman, using the long putter he put back in his bag only last month, shot a 66 on Saturday to take a one-stroke lead over Dicky Pride and Andre Stolz going into the final round of the Michelin Championship at Las Vegas.
Lehman took advantage of light morning winds to hit 17 greens, but it was his putting that helped him make eight birdies for his first 54-hole lead in five years.
"The putting has been the thing that has been just driving me crazy the last three years," Lehman said. "I've been hitting it basically well and, at times, very well with nothing to show for it."
Lehman had plenty to show after his third round in the 60s put him at 17-under and in the final pairing on a Sunday for the first time since the Buick Open in 1999.
Once thought of as one of the premier players on the PGA Tour, Lehman's stature has slipped in recent years as he struggled with his putting. He switches between the long putter and the more traditional putter occasionally and did so again after shooting 74 in the first round of the Canadian Open last month.
With the long putter working, Lehman followed his opening round with 70-70-64 to finish tied for fourth and earn his biggest check of the year. Lehman followed that with a tie for 17th in the Texas Open and now has the lead in the desert.
"I used it a couple of years ago and then gave up on it," Lehman said of the long putter. "I use it off and on. It's always back and forth. And it was time to kind of give in, give up and go in a different direction."
The direction has been the right one so far. Lehman is averaging 70.48 strokes a round this year but has been 37-under in the 10 rounds he has played since switching putters.
Lehman is 45 but still considered one of the best ball strikers on the tour. He won five times and was a regular on Ryder Cup teams but hasn't won in four years and hasn't been a factor in major tournaments.
Winning in Las Vegas isn't exactly like winning the U.S. Open, but Lehman said a win here would be a boost that could help return him to the days when he competed in tournaments reserved for the elite of the PGA Tour.
"It would be gratifying. It would renew my belief in myself," Lehman said. "I think I'm that kind of player, but after the last few years it's kind of slipped away from me."
While Lehman wants to regain his place as a top player, Pride is scrambling just to find a place to play.
A nonexempt player, Pride goes from tournament to tournament hoping he can get in and then hoping he can make a check. So far this year, he's made 21 tournaments but his best finish is a tie for 54th.
"I've played well this week, which is big for me," Pride said. "It's a pretty simple deal. I'm not going to get into any more tournaments unless I finish in the top 10."
Pride, who shot 66 at TPC Summerlin, won in his first year on the tour in 1994 but has struggled since. He's in his eighth week in a row on the road and has only $78,329 in earnings this year to show for his efforts.
"I've definitely got the road blues," he said. "It gets tough when you can't set your own schedule and pick the courses you play well on."
Stolz is in a similar position, with $88,373 in earnings this year. At one point, he missed eight straight cuts but on Saturday he shot a 65 to follow an opening pair of 67s.
"I'm kind of weird," Stolz said. "When I play well, I play really, really well. But when I play bad I'm horrible. I need to fix that."
Phil Mickelson withdrew before Saturday's third round, citing illness. Mickelson shot 68-66 his first two rounds. ...The cut, made at 54 holes, was 8-under. ... David Duval shot his second straight 68 and was at 12-under, five shots off the lead.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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