The Volvo sped through the darkness, across Interstate 40 in Texas and through New Mexico on an all-night trip home to central California. It was the fall of 1990, and just short of the Arizona border Tom Lehman could no longer stand himself. He had left Amarillo seven hours earlier, his hair matted with sweat after a day on the golf course. The rain had started slowly, but now it was pouring. Through the blur of the windshield wipers Lehman saw a Holiday Inn at the next exit. He pulled into the back of the parking lot, as far from the lobby as possible, and stripped down to his underwear.
Reaching into the backseat, Lehman grabbed his shaving kit and pulled out a tube of shampoo and a bar of soap. He dug through his bags for a towel but couldn't find one. At this point it didn't matter. He climbed out of his car and into the rain, showering in a Holiday Inn parking lot next to the railroad tracks in Gallup, N.Mex.
"I just reeked, but I didn't want to stop and get a hotel room because I didn't want to spend 30 or 40 bucks," Lehman says. "I couldn't afford to fly home, either. So I'm in my car busting my buns to go 1,000 miles in 12 hours. That pretty much sums it up, where I was just four years ago."
Lehman couldn't help but think back to that evening as he pulled up to the White House last month for a state dinner hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton to honor the two Presidents Cup teams. Violinists played before the main course was served, and afterward Lehman danced with his wife, Melissa, to a Marine Corps band in the East Wing. If Bill and Hillary only knew where Lehman had been and where he's going. He is truly an American success story—a man whose sheer determination has taken him at least as far as his talent has.
This year Lehman has earned close to $1 million on the Tour and established himself as one of the best golfers in the world. In April he came within inches of winning the Masters. In May he destroyed the field at the Memorial, setting the tournament record of 20 under par at Muirfield Village. He helped the U.S. to victory at the first Presidents Cup and enters this week's Tour Championship with nine top-10 finishes. At age 35 he is the highest-ranking American on the Tour's money list, trailing Greg Norman and Nick Price. But in 1990 Lehman was no more than a marginally accomplished touring pro who defined the word journeyman. He had traveled the world in pursuit of competition, making trip after trip to South Africa and Asia and to all the podunk towns in the U.S. where mini-tour events are played.
In the summer of 1990 the Lehmans drove the entire length of Interstate 10 twice—every mile from California to Florida and then back again. Halfway through the trip the car's air conditioner broke, and they didn't have the $800 to replace the compressor. So they drove on. Their daughter. Rachael, born that May. rode along with them in the stifling heat with the windows open. "That was the summer it was 100 degrees everywhere," Lehman remembers.
In the space of five years the Lehmans put 170,000 miles on that car. They ale in it, slept in it and changed Rachael's diapers in it. It carried them around the Ben Hogan Tour in 1991, when Lehman began to blossom. He won twice that year, was named that circuit's player of the year and as a top-five finisher on the money list earned an exemption for the '92 PGA Tour. Only then could he afford airfare and hotels with room service.
Lehman had played three full seasons on the PGA Tour in the early 1980s. All three times he lost his card. In 74 events from 1983 to '85, he made 28 cuts and just under $40,000. From 1985 to 1990 he went to O school six times and failed to qualify. He tried being a club pro for about six months but didn't like that. In the winter of 1989 he nearly returned to his alma mater, Minnesota, to become the golf coach. Instead Lehman persevered.
"I know exactly what it is that kept driving me," Lehman says. "I just can't give up on something until I feel like I've done my best at it. That's in everything I do. whether it's raking the yard, shoveling snow, whatever. All those years on and off the Tour, I just couldn't quit like that."
He used the South African and Asian circuits to build his confidence. In hellish climates Lehman competed against Jeff Maggert, John Daly. Vijay Singh and Ernie Els. But there was more to those days than just golf. There was adventure, and the bond he developed with Melissa. After his first stint on those circuits, says Lehman, "we made a deal. If we couldn't afford to be together, I'd quit."