<
>

Lehman has seen the highs and lows of golf

11/11/2004 - Tom Lehman

Tom Lehman paid his dues in golf's minor leagues, criss-crossing the country in a beat-up old car, entering any tournament with a few bucks at stake, chasing a dream he would not let die.

Lehman once showered in the rain outside a Holiday Inn in Gallup, N.M., lathering up and standing in the downpour to avoid paying for a room. His background in the game could not be more different than that of Hal Sutton, who never needed golf to be wealthy and was destined to become a star in the game.

Perhaps that is why Lehman is the PGA of America's choice to be the U.S. Ryder Cup captain in 2006.

It was Sutton who presided over the worst U.S. loss in Ryder Cup history at Oakland Hills, and so it makes sense to go in the opposite direction.

"I would like to play another time without question, but I would love to be the captain of the next one," Lehman said two weeks ago at the Funai Classic. "I think being a captain in Ireland would be a phenomenal experience. I could go either way (playing or being the captain), but I'd love to be captain. It's not really my decision, but if the chance came, I'd jump on it."

Something had to be done, right? That 18½-9½ debacle led to all kinds of speculation that the PGA of America needed to change its thinking.

The choice of Lehman, 45, certainly had some negatives: He owns just five PGA Tour victories and never won the PGA Championship. But the PGA certainly looked at his record of 5-3-2 in three Ryder Cups and his win at the 1996 British Open as positives. He will have the tough task of trying to rally a U.S. squad that has lost four of the last five Ryder Cups and can't seem to muster the team unity displayed by the Europeans.

Like Sutton, Lehman will be passionate about the Ryder Cup; unlike Sutton, he will not bring a football-coach mentality to the position. A more casual, laid-back approach is now viewed as the way to bring out the best in Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk and the other top Americans.

In picking Lehman, the PGA of America bypassed Mark O'Meara, Fred Couples and Corey Pavin, players who also fit the mold of mid-40s, past major winners.

But the door had also been opened for Larry Nelson, 57, a three-time major champion. With Sutton and Curtis Strange each finding little success in the past two Ryder Cups, there had been a movement to go away from the mold of picking 40-something captains who are still active on the PGA Tour.

"It's not a formula for success," Paul Azinger said last week when revealing that he had taken himself out of the running for the captaincy in 2006 at The K Club in Ireland.

Azinger, 44, is considered a lock to become the captain at some point, but had thrown his support behind Nelson, whose 9-3-1 overall Ryder Cup record -- including 5-0 in 1979 -- made him an obvious candidate.

"I think they could right a wrong," Azinger said of Nelson, who was passed over for Tom Kite in 1997. "I mean, he's the perfect guy. He's as deserving as anybody to be the captain -- two-time PGA, one-time U.S. Open champion, and he's got a great demeanor."

So does Lehman, whose appointment may be ill-received in Europe, where the actions of American team members in 1999 at the Country Club is still a hot topic. Lehman was among the players who charged onto the 17th green in celebration of the 45-foot birdie putt made by Justin Leonard that eventually clinched the Cup.

Lehman has had plenty of practice, however, dealing with adversity.

There was the time spent on all of those tours. He worked as an assistant pro at a club in California. There were journeys to Africa and Asia and a very modest lifestyle.

By 1989, after a brief stint on the PGA Tour and lots of golf in foreign lands, Lehman considered getting a real job. He inquired about becoming the golf coach at the University of Minnesota, his alma mater, for $39,000 per year. Lehman seriously considered the offer, but something turned him off.

"They wanted me to rent cross-country skis out of the pro shop in the winter," Lehman once said. "I knew I wasn't going to take the job."

Now he's got one much better ... and much more demanding.

Five Things To Bank On
1. The announcement of Tom Lehman as U.S. Ryder Cup team captain is a big topic at the Tour Championship, and it is not going over well among the PGA Tour brass, who wonder why this had to be disclosed on the eve of the season-ending event.

2. Vijay Singh will make a strong run at his 10th victory of the year. He won the Tour Championship at East Lake two years ago, finished second in 2000 and lost in a playoff in 1998.

3. Padraig Harrington can mess up a lot of plans if he wins the Tour Championship. The Irishman is the 31st player in the field because he is a special temporary member of the tour and would have earned enough to qualify if he were a regular member. If he wins, he automatically becomes a PGA Tour member, and his earnings count on the money list. That would bump the 40th player, Jesper Parnevik, out of the Masters, and the 125th player, Tad Ridings, from fully exempt status.

4. Tiger Woods returns to the PGA Tour for the first time since the American Express Championship in early October. He got married soon after and has been on his honeymoon ever since. Although Woods should be fresh, don't expect him to be at his best.

5. If last week was any indication, Phil Mickelson has already put it on cruise control. He admitted it is difficult for him to get up for tournaments after the PGA Championship. Mickelson missed the cut at the Chrysler Championship last week and has played poorly since the PGA.


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.