Lehman calls team 'underdog'

Updated: November 3, 2004, 5:52 PM ET
Associated Press

Tom Lehman wants Americans who are winning on his Ryder Cup team, even if that means him.

Who got snubbed?
Tom Lehman
Two weeks ago, Tom Lehman pledged his support of Larry Nelson as the next United States Ryder Cup captain. "If they ever were to decide to break tradition and go with a guy over 50, I think I'd start with him," Lehman said.

Rather than breaking tradition and reaching back in time to take the 57-year-old Nelson, the PGA's Ryder Cup selection committee decided to go with Lehman -- a contemporary of today's players who embodied the spirit sorely lacking on the 2004 team. He became the lead candidate when Paul Azinger took his name out of consideration, citing his commitment to ABC and a desire to captain the team when he's older (Azinger is currently 44).

Nelson, a two-time PGA champion and owner of a 9-3-1 Ryder Cup record, was passed over in the '90s and had received support from a coalition of past captains led by Dave Stockton. "I won't even be disappointed this time," Nelson told Golf World in September. "If it doesn't happen, I'll be no worse off than I was ..."

Nelson did receieve serious consideration, but selecting him would have opened the PGA of America up to naming players like Hale Irwin, who had been passed over in the selection process. The final choice actually came down to Lehman and Corey Pavin, a 44-year-old former U.S. Open champion with the experience of three previous Ryder Cups, who, like Lehman, has a history of passionately embracing the event.

The news will hit hard in the Tiger Woods camp. Woods was hoping to see close friend Mark O'Meara get the job. O'Meara had a better playing record than Lehman, more Ryder Cup appearances and local knowledge at The K Club. PGA of America president M.G. Orender has stated publicly that O'Meara's previous lobbying for Ryder Cup players to be paid for their services, which ultimately became the PGA's Player Charity Distribution program, would not work against him in the process.

Another popular choice among today's players, Fred Couples, also was not in the mix this time around.
--Tim Rosaforte, Golf World

Lehman was introduced Wednesday as the U.S. captain for the 2006 matches in Ireland, charged with ending European dominance that soared to a new level this year when the Americans were dealt their worst loss ever.

"The Ryder Cup to me is the ultimate golf experience," Lehman said. "Including my British Open victory, my greatest moment in golf was being part of the Ryder Cup team. To be part of this next team, this is a thrill beyond belief."

Lehman loves the Ryder Cup so much that he wouldn't rule himself out as a player.

Arnold Palmer was the last playing captain in the Ryder Cup, at East Lake in 1963. Tom Kite came close to making the team in 1997, and some thought he should have made himself a captain's pick.

Lehman did not rule out removing himself as captain if he won enough to play his way onto the team.

"I'm looking for guys on top of their game, and winning is a big thing," Lehman said at a news conference in Amelia Island, Fla. "If I was winning, it would be unfair for me not to play. That said, what are the chances? Probably pretty slim."

Lehman has not won in almost five years. He finished the season with at least a share of the 54-hole lead in his last three tournaments, but wound up in a tie for second, fourth and sixth.

Winning means so much to Lehman that he said if he were to make the team with a number of top-10 finishes but no trophies, he would eliminate himself and pick No. 11 in the standings.

But even that process remains under review.

While the PGA of America selected its captain, president M.G. Orender said officials might revamp the selection process to make sure the United States has its 10 best players. He expected a decision by the end of the year.

Lehman said he called the PGA after Europe won the Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills, 18{-9{, to capture the cup for the seventh time in the last 10 matches.

He wanted to let officials know he was interested, and they talked to him after Lehman ended his year at Disney.

Lehman played in the '95, '97 and '99 matches and was one of the most spirited players. Along with his perfect record in singles, some remember him for leading the charge across the 17th green at Brookline when Justin Leonard holed a 45-foot putt -- even though Jose Maria Olazabal still had a 25-footer to halve the hole.

Lehman later apologized, saying the emotion caught up with him.

"You've got to like a guy who jumped all over their line trying to defend the cup for us," Scott Verplank joked Wednesday. "He'll be fine. He was a passionate Ryder Cup captain.

Lehman does not have the overwhelming credentials of past captains. He has won only five times on the PGA Tour, including the British Open and Tour Championship in 1996, when he won the money title and was voted PGA Tour player of the year.

Corey Pavin and Paul Azinger were among the other candidates, although Azinger told the PGA he was not interested in being captain in 2006.

Orender said passion was a factor in picking a captain, and Lehman has no shortage there.

"I think he was a natural choice," David Toms said. "He's a guy with high intensity and he's well-respected out here. When he played in the Ryder Cup, he was always on the key figures in the team room."

Lehman's job won't be easy.

Europe has captured the cup all but three times since 1985, and its recent record might be even better if Bernhard Langer had not missed a 6-foot putt in 1991, and Justin Leonard had not made a 45-foot putt in 1999.

Lehman already is playing the underdog card.

"We're going to have a tough road in front us," he said. "We always go into the Ryder Cup as the favorite. But the facts show that no matter how good are players are ... we seem to always have a difficult time. For the first time ever, we'll probably be the underdogs."

He sees his biggest job as molding the Americans into a team, and that might be the toughest task.

Lehman was introduced as captain during the PGA of America's annual meeting. Up the road in Atlanta at the Tour Championship, only 16 players in the 31-man field attended a players-only dinner Tuesday night. Not all of them were Americans, but the climate on the PGA Tour is clearly one of individualism.

"There is an atmosphere you can create," Lehman said. "The way we got beat four of the last five years, (winning) becomes a common goal. It brings guys together."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press