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\‘Homeboy\’ Lehman may learn from PGA

By BILL HUFFMAN
           Tom Lehman could have been the golf coach at the University of Minnesota. Instead, he’s a 50-year-old PGA Tour veteran with five wins who is playing in perhaps his last major championship – in Minnesota, at least.
            “Played here a few times,’’ said the former Golden Gopher star on Wednesday in reference to the site of this week’s 91st PGA Championship – Hazeltine National Golf Club in the Minneapolis suburb of Chaska.
            “Not a huge number of times. But being a Gopher and University of Minnesota graduate, we played here occasionally in the springs. So I’ve seen the course change over the years, no doubt.’’
            Lehman, a long-time Scottsdale resident, still clings to his Minnesota past, like most of us do when it comes to the early days of our lives.
           “I enjoy it,’’ he said of his return to the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,’’ the biggest this week being Lake Hazeltine. “You never lose your roots. Your roots are what they are and Minnesota is always going to be home.
            “I’ve lived in Arizona for 20 years, so I now have two lives, really. One where I’ve planted roots and raised our family in Arizona, and the other where Minnesota is still home.
            “I actually feel like I’ve got two homes and the fans make me feel like that. They’ve been very gracious and supportive through my practice rounds. And you can tell that they really are pulling for me and for anybody else who has any connection to the state to do well.’’
         Lehman, who listed himself from “Scottsdale’’ on his official PGA entry form, is heading what is believed to be the smallest delegation of Arizona-based golfers to a major in recent memory. Even the small town of Chaska is slightly larger than the 10 guys who will represent the Valley of the Sun.
        Seriously, it’s difficult to remember the last time Arizona wasn’t well into double digits in terms of entries for a major. The first three majors were packed with 45 Arizona-based guys, but this time around for the PGA we’re missing a notable few, like Billy Mayfair, Mark Calcavecchia, Ryan Moore, Jeff Quinney and Chez Reavie, who all were here at the PGA last year but failed to qualify this time around.
        Plus, there’s no Ricky Barnes, the big Scottsdale kid who was the surprise of the U.S. Open. And we don’t have an Arizona-based PGA club pro among the 20 who made the field by qualifying at the National Club Pro Championship last month.
       So who is here from Arizona besides Minnesota’s native son Tom Lehman? Well, one guy is his fellow Champions Tour rookie Michael Allen, who got in with his stunning win in May at the Senior PGA Championship at Canterbury Country Club in Ohio. Like Lehman, who won his Champions debut in the Legends of Golf with partner Bernhard Langer, Allen shocked the golf world by making a senior major his first win after going zero-for-334 on the PGA Tour.
      Others include Scottsdale’s Pat Perez, Kevin Streelman and Bubba Watson, as well as Valley part-timers Aaron Baddeley, Tim Clark, Mathew Goggin, Geoff Ogilvy and Paul Casey — IF Casey, the No. 3-ranked player in the world, recovers from a chest-muscle injury before his starting time.
      One thing is for certain, those who take on the gargantuan, 7,674-yard Hazeltine National will need all there strength, as the Robert Trent Jones-Rees Jones collabortation (through the years) is the longest test in major championship history.
       Even though Lehman only played it occasionally as a college student, he also had a chance to assess it at the 2002 PGA, where Rich Beem took down Tiger Woods. Of course, that came after he failed to qualify for the 1991 U.S. Open won here by Payne Stewart but long before Hazeltine added another 319 yards coming into this week.
      “It’s tough. It’s long,’’ said Lehman, who once upon a time when he was struggling as a young man was offered the golf coach job at the UofM but turned it down because it also included running the driving range, which became a sledding/skiing operation in the winter.
       “As the course dries out (from a weekend downpour that dumped five to six inches of rain), it’s becoming less long. But there’s some really, really difficult holes, holes where par is going to be a good score no matter who you are or how far you hit it.’’
        Funny thing about Hazeltine in that Dave Hill called it a “cow pasture” when it held its first U.S. Open in 1970, the one where Tony Jacklin made Hill a runner-up by seven shots.
         Actually, the way the conversation went was something like this: Hill criticized the course and when someone asked what RTJ’s original version was lacking, Hill shot back: “Eighty acres and a few cows. . . . Somebody ruined a good farm.’’
        Today, most people wonder if the extreme length, which probably won’t be played to the full 7,674 yards, also has “ruined a good farm.’’ It’s a good question, Lehman noted.
        “To simply make a course longer where it only benefits one person, the person who is really long, to me is going in the wrong direction,’’ said Lehman, who is an architect of over a dozen courses himself, including several in both Arizona and Minnesota.
       “To make it longer but also change the angle, to make it so that length is always a reward but you’ve got to hit it long and straight, now you’ve got something. The idea of just making it longer just to get the yardage does not. . . .
       “The British Open (is a good example). It forces you to take the right line on the shot. If you don’t take the right line you get punished. Whether you hit it short or long, there’s a line for you. And hitting it on that line is rewarded, and that’s what needs to happen here.’’
        Lehman said the 12th through 15th holes at Hazeltine National will be the toughest stretch for the PGA field to navigate. That gauntlet includes a 518-yard par 4 at the 12th, a 248-yard par 3 at the13th, and a 642-yard par 5 15th. The 14th hole only sets up as a 352-yard par 4, but the winds there make it difficult, Lehman added.
       And while Lehman called his game “solid’’ he said being back in Minnesota has been better than ever even if it has been “hectic.’’ A week of fun with family and friends in Alexandria, which included a round of golf with his son Thomas – who saw the sign at the entrance of the club that read: “Home to Tom Lehman’’ — has given way to a quick weekend back home in Scottsdale to send his oldest daughter Rachael off to college, and then back to the PGA on Tuesday.
      “The thing about sending a kid to college – I’m a sap! Plain and simple’’ he said of the experience. “I’m a sentimental fool. If there are any parts of a movie that make you cry, I cry.
        “When I see my daughter go off to college and her new phase of life beginning, it tugs on my heart strings. There’s a part (of me) that’s excitement knowing that she’s in for a great period of her life. But there’s also the sadness knowing that things are probably going to be a little different.’’
     Lehman knows his career also is on a teeter-totter, too. He has played somewhat below average on the PGA Tour, where his $416,000 in earnings in 13 tries rank him No. 141 on the money. Meanwhile, he was won over $300,000 on the Champions in just four tries. His last two outings, a tie for 60th at the British Open and a tie for eighth at the U.S. Senior Open, add fuel to the fire.
     “You look at the Champions Tour and all the things that come with playing well there, well, it takes a full commitment,’’ he said. “So I really don’t see the flip-flopping back and forth lasting very long.
      “I think at some point it’s going to be a decision that either I stick with the PGA Tour for another year and go fulltime, or I stick with the Champions Tour full-time and give it my full effort.’’
       The answer could come this week before the home crowd, and hopefully it won’t be cruel. They say it’s hard to go home, but it’s even worse if you don’t play well.