Lehman learns to face his fears

Updated: September 20, 2006, 12:27 PM ET
By Jaime Diaz | Golf Digest

It's a code of pro golf: Keep your angst between you and yourself (or your sport psychologist). Pressure wears on everybody, but a player talking openly about its toll will clear a tour locker room faster than a bad buffet. It's just too personal.

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman has never been totally down with the code. In one notable departure, he loosened up a tight Steve Jones with a Bible verse ("Be strong and of good courage") as they battled down the stretch of the 1996 U.S. Open. Jones won, but Lehman professes no regrets.

"I still feel good about saying that to Steve," he says. "We were both nervous. It was a way of encouraging him and myself."

Tom Lehman
Warren Little/Getty Images"To me, a team is a bunch of relationships," says Lehman.

This fall at The K Club, Lehman hopes to violate the code again.

"I think our Ryder Cup teams have been playing with a lot of tension, a lot of anxiety," he says. "It'll be good for our team to talk through all that at some point before the matches. Just sort of lay it all out there and be candid about the Ryder Cup."

It's a decidedly different style than Hal Sutton's bravura or Curtis Strange's smoldering intensity, although there's a hint of the mysticism of Ben Crenshaw, the U.S. captain in 1999, the last time Lehman played against Europe.

Actually, Lehman's most instructive lesson on the subject came in his first Ryder Cup match, in 1995 at Oak Hill. Paired with Corey Pavin and locked in a tense alternate-shot match against Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, Lehman felt the pressure and confessed as much to Pavin, then the reigning U.S. Open champion and the best clutch player in golf.

"Get committed and swing," Pavin told him. "Wherever the ball goes, it goes."

On the last hole, a more relaxed Lehman muscled a 5-iron from the rough onto the green to ensure a 1-up victory.

"I had no problem with Tom saying how he was feeling,'' says Pavin, now one of Lehman's assistant captains. "It wasn't a negative thing, because it was the Ryder Cup. It was a neat moment, and it built quite a bond between us."

"Relationships work because people are honest with each other," Lehman says. "That's the only way they work. And to me, a team is a bunch of relationships."

It's Lehman's big picture: Lower the protective walls that normally separate fellow competitors, help each other face the fear, and otherwise bond in the way that players often say is the reason they want to play in the Ryder Cup. Pointing to the Europeans' ability to hole crucial putts as the difference between the two teams, he traces good putting to freedom that comes from the right team chemistry.

"You don't putt well when you play not to lose," says Loren Roberts, Lehman's other assistant captain. "Tom's goal is to get the team to play to win."

That might become easier now that the role of favorite has deservedly shifted to Europe. But Lehman still wants a bull session on pressure, even though he's prepared to face awkward silence. If that means the subject will be best addressed one on one, he can handle that.

"If I have a gift that God has given me, one of them is that I'm willing to be open enough about who I am so that I can get in touch with other folks," Lehman says. "When that happens, I'm very able to communicate in a way that can really motivate."

His players appear receptive.

"We have to figure out a way to go out there and have some fun and enjoy it," Jim Furyk says. "Good players thrive on being in positions when the pressure is multiplied. And we have to look at that as a positive rather than playing tight."

"No good player wants to admit his weaknesses to another player, but if there was ever a player you could confide in, Tom would be the one," Roberts says.

Such new age-y leadership might not appeal to those who get wistful thinking about Payne Stewart, who before his death was projected as the 2006 captain. Stewart's style was blasting "Born in the USA" for teammates.

Undeniably, Lehman was strong in three Ryder Cups, 5-3-2 overall and undefeated in singles, taking down Seve Ballesteros at Oak Hill, Ignacio Garrido at Valderrama and Lee Westwood at Brookline. A late bloomer who was burnished by Q schools and the bushes of Asia, South Africa and the original Hogan Tour before getting on the PGA Tour to stay in 1992, Lehman in 1996 won the British Open and was PGA Tour Player of the Year. The next year, he reached No. 1 on the World Golf Ranking.

But Lehman has won only five times, joining Chick Harbert (6), Jerry Barber (6), Jay Hebert (5) and Dave Marr (3) as the only U.S. captains with single-digit career victories. Because of the PGA of America's current preference for captains between 46 and 50, Lehman, 47, benefited from a temporarily shallow list of candidates. Despite that, he exudes reliability.

"Even when he was struggling in the '80s, there was always a surety about Tom," says tour winner David Ogrin, who chose Lehman as the best man in his wedding.

Crenshaw felt the same way when he picked Lehman to lead off the Sunday singles in 1999.

"I put my hand on his chest, and I said, 'Big Tom, we put you in this position because we believe in you,'" Crenshaw told Golf Digest in 2001. "With no hesitation he looked at me, and as confident as you could be, he says, 'I can do the job.'"

Lehman has done enough leading to know the best intentions can go awry. Although he spoke movingly in memory of Stewart at the 1999 Tour Championship, Lehman regrets his decision to have plus fours available for the field to wear in Stewart's honor.

"It made guys feel like they had to wear them or people would say, 'What a jerk,'" Lehman says. "It helped me realize that at sensitive times people do things differently, and they don't want to be forced."

But Lehman is firm that there will be "no wiggle room" on his edict that all the Americans practice together. He even has hopes that the team will play part of a practice round as a 12-some.

As captain, Lehman has exercised his diplomatic muscles by initiating a meeting with Tiger Woods, who had openly endorsed his friend Mark O'Meara for the captain's job.

"It was important for me to let Tiger know I have no problem with his feeling about Mark," Lehman says.

"We talked last year; it was fine," Woods says. "It's not about Tom. The PGA of America picked the captain. They picked Tom, and Tom is going to be a great captain. He's a good guy. I'm ready to play."

Lehman's leadership will be closely scrutinized by the Europeans. Despite video evidence to the contrary, he is widely believed to have led the charge across the 17th green at Brookline in 1999 after Justin Leonard holed his putt.

"I'm emotional, and I can be impulsive, so I have to think about situations," Lehman says. "Especially because I'm not playing, it's a fine line between the right emotion and too much."

Jaime Diaz is a senior writer for Golf Digest magazine