Lehman gives Champions a (chest) bump
By BILL HUFFMAN
Tom Lehman is the perfect fit for the Champions Tour, and quite frankly the kind of player that the 50-and-over gang needs more of as they search frantically for fans who are interested in age-group golf.
The Scottsdale pro, who became a golden oldie on March 7, joins a “rookie class’’ in 2009 that includes (or will include), Bob Tway, Fred Couples, Olin Browne, Tom Pernice, David Frost and Tommy Armour III. You could add Phoenix’s Steve Jones to that group, as he turned 50 in December, but “Jonesy’’ has yet to declare his intentions due to health considerations.
Lehman, who became the 13th player in Champions Tour history to win in his debut Sunday when he teamed up with Bernhard Langer to claim the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, will definitely stoke the fires along with Couples, who like Lehman still plans to play part-time on the PGA Tour. But Tway and the rest of the aforementioned are just more or less pension-seekers who won’t do much for senior golf’s paltry TV ratings.
That Lehman got off to the perfect start by teaming up with Langer to defeat Craig Stadler and Jeff Sluman in sudden death was not surprising. You pick the perfect partner in Langer, the Champion Tour’s best player, and that can happen. But Lehman certainly pulled his weight, too, with jump-start birdies on three of the first four holes Sunday and the winning putt from four feet on the second playoff hole.
“It was REALLY perfect,’’ said Langer, who was both the Champions player of the year and rookie of the year in 2008 and already has won for the second time this year.
“For me, team sport is just a lot of fun because we play so many individual events. To be able to have a partner and have conversations and enjoy yourself and pull for each other and talk about strategy and this and that has always been tremendous fun for me.’’
That’s probably the best quote I’ve ever heard from Bernhard, and I was there when he won his second Masters in 1993. But, hey, isn’t that how most of us play golf, and why most of us find the dog-eat-dog PGA Tour way too serious unless, of course, Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson are playing?
Watching Lehman and Langer attempt – and botch! — a chest bump when Langer rolled in a 45-foot birdie on the first playoff hole was good stuff and terrific TV. Even better for Lehman and Langer, it extended the playoff when Stadler answered with a birdie from about the same distance a moment later.
Just like the good ol’ days when Jack, Arnie and Lee were playing age-group golf and holding court afterward, the chest bump antic brought up a nostalgic moment for Lehman.
“You know, I used to play every year with Duffy Waldorf in that thing at the end of the season (the Diner’s Club Matches), and we did the chest bump whenever something really unique or great would happen,’’ Lehman recalled. “At the time I was probably about 205 (pounds) and Duffy was 240. So it really hurt.
“The attempted chest bump today, we got up there with the intention of bumping, but you know, when I was in mid-flight, which wasn’t all that high, all I could think of was we’re going to come down on top of Stadler’s ball mark and he’s going to be really upset. It was like, ‘Whoa!’ What do we do? We shouldn’t be doing this.’ . . . But it was fun.’’
Yeah, the chest bump that went awry had nothing to do with white men can’t jump, especially when they’re senior citizens. But it did remind everyone who follows golf that once upon a time Lehman got ripped by European Ryder Cup captain Mark James for supposedly trampling Jose Maria Olazabal’s putting path in a critical match with Justin Leonard.
That incident, which slightly tarnished America’s miracle comeback at the 1999 Ryder Cup near Boston, was about the only negative in Lehman’s 20-some-year career. And TV replays later proved Lehman’s celebratory act was more accusation than fact.
But there’s the beauty of “Major Tom,’’ in that he does have a personality, as well as a burning spot in his heart for his country and the game he grew up playing as a kid in Minnesota. He has served admirably in a losing role as Ryder Cup captain in 2006, posted a 5-3-2 record as a Ryder Cup player, and has some darn good stories to tell like winning the British Open and losing the U.S. Open(s), where he took the lead into the final round three straight years (1995-97) and fell coming down the stretch.
And unlike some big-name players who spurn the Champions Tour these days for various reasons, Lehman has come to play.
“Turning 50 has its ups and downs and one of the true bright spots is being able to have a chance to come out here on the Champions Tour,’’ said the 2000 Phoenix Open champ whose resume also includes the 1994 Memorial Tournament, ’95 Colonial Invitational, and the ’96 British Open and Tour Championship, the season he was PGA Tour player of the year.
That 1996 season eventually led him to the top of the mountain of his profession, and in April of ’97 he became the No. 1 player in the world — for one week! Most people have forgotten that oddity, but many remember who took over the No. 1 spot — a kid named Tiger.The rest, as they say, is history.
Give Lehman his due, as he’s such a respected player and a good guy to boot. Sure, he’s not heading into the Golf Hall of Fame with five wins and a pioneering role in the Nationwide Tour, but Tom was terrific and among the best of them during his day.
Langer knew it, which is why he asked Lehman to be his partner in the Legends. The two were already tight through their deep faith and the fact that their kids are about the same age (both have two sons and two daughters). Most importantly, Langer knew that Lehman would be considered a young stud in this older crowd.
“A year ago is when Bernhard asked me to be his partner in the Legends. He said, ‘Well, Tom, when do you turn 50?’ ’’ Lehman deadpanned, emulating Langer’s German accent, which sounds a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.
“I said, ‘Absolutely I can play wity you. Count me in.’ For him to ask me to play and get to kind of ride him like a thoroughbred, it was all good for me.’’
The only downside to this new beginning is that Lehman still plans to play mostly on the PGA Tour, and even on the Nationwide, where he will serve as the playing chairman at the Wichita Open, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. It is fitting, as Lehman’s first professional win of note came at the inaugural 1990 Ben Hogan Reflection Ridge Open in Wichita, one of three wins on the Ben Hogan-Nike-Nationwide Tour.
At the same time, no one knows for sure how long guys who still “got game’’ like Lehman will hang with the young and the restless. Lehman has been in the mix a couple of times this season, recording a tie for eighth at the Transitions Championship and a tie for 21st at the recent Verizon Heritage. And while he has made four straight cuts after missing four in a row to start ’09, it’s hard to argue, intelligently, with the $225,000 he made in one start on the Champions compared to the $240,000 and change he’s picked up in eight events on the PGA Tour.
In fact, that cold reality already is creeping in. Asked after winning the Legends whether he would rather win on the Champions or just contend on the PGA, Lehman never hesitated.
“It’s nice to play well, but it’s even nicer to win,’’ he said. “I would rather win out here than contend out there.’’
Yeah, Lehman gets it. Along the way he has been a great representative of this community, winning our Phoenix Open while being a pillar for various charities. More recently he has designed wonderful golf courses like the Raven at Verrado in the West Valley and Encanterra in the East Valley, as well as the North Course at The Gallery in Tucson.
That he remains physcially fit and vibrant at age 50 is why I say that it is no stretch of the imagination to see Lehman as one of the new stalwarts of the Champions Tour. In every way he has all the tools to become the next best “old guy’’ from the Valley since Scottsdale’s John Jacobs won five times on the Champions a few years back.
Certainly a strong Lehman presence on that tour could do wonders. But one thing is for certain, Lehman is not taking his smashing success too seriously. He knows he won’t have Langer to lean on the next time around.
“You get the same song and dance from everyone out here: A bunch of old guys that can’t play anymore and, please, ‘just take it easy on us!’ ’’ Lehman said with a laugh. “That’s like being set up on the first tee, giving me two and two and the guy shoots 66.
“But I find it very, very enjoyable to kind of hear that song and dance, because these guys, they are having fun, but they are still competitive and can really play and they can still make putts and know how to win. . . . It’s a set up.’’
Which is exactly why Tom Lehman is the perfect fit for the Champions Tour — he knows how to play that game.