The note was waiting in Tom Lehman's locker at Congressional Country Club, and he read it as he prepared to leave the grounds for the final time, having just finished trying to explain to reporters, and maybe to himself, why the U.S. Open trophy was not leaving with him. Again. For the third straight year Lehman had led the Open after 54 holes, a feat matched only by Bobby Jones. Also for the third straight year, Lehman had played a solid final round. Yet once again he would be bitterly disappointed, this time due to a fat seven-iron shot hit into a water hazard on the 71st hole while the whole world watched. Ernie Els won America's Open on that Sunday a year ago. All that was left for Lehman was America's sympathy.
Then he read the note. He has forgotten the exact words, but not the message: You're a great player. You deserve to win. Be patient, your time will come. The note was signed by Jeff Maggert, an expert on close calls who had played the final, wrenching 18 with Lehman. Maggert had suffered his own disappointment that day, three-putting twice on the last six holes to lose his shot at the title, yet was thoughtful enough to leave the note. "It's unusual for a player to do that," Lehman says. "It was very special."
June has always been special for Lehman, and even though he pretty much dropped off golf's radar screen after Congressional, winning only once, in the Loch Lomond World Invitational in Glasgow, Scotland, last July, he appears to be ready to make another run at the Open this week in San Francisco at the Olympic Club. The clues were evident at Westchester Country Club, site of last week's rain-shortened Buick Classic. Lehman shot a final-round 65, despite missing four birdie putts inside of 12 feet, to finish third, three strokes out of a playoff in which 32-year-old journeyman J.P. Hayes beat Jim Furyk on the first extra hole. Furyk gamely eagled the 54th and final hole of regulation to tie Hayes, who then birdied the same hole in the playoff for his only Tour win. "This will be the first time in nine years that I won't have to fill out an application for the Q school," said Hayes, a native of Wisconsin who attended Texas-El Paso before turning pro in 1989.
Lehman's rush up the leader board on Sunday, though, had everyone thinking ahead to the Open. "I wasn't paying a lot of attention to the board until I saw Tom's name," said Brad Faxon. "I thought, There's a guy who's been right there in the Open but hasn't played that well this year. This course is similar to a U.S. Open layout—you've got to be steady. I'm sure he'll be a factor at Olympic."
To look at Lehman, not much has changed. He's 39, but that familiar, dogged determination is still there. An all-day rain wiped out play last Friday yet didn't stop Lehman from practicing. He was the last man left on the practice green, working on his chipping and putting in the downpour. Even Vijay Singh, an inveterate practicer, gave up and went in before Lehman. "Yeah, but he probably came out here three hours before I did," Lehman said.
The closing 65 was an obvious good sign. Lift, clean and place rules were in effect, and the soggy greens were nothing like the trampolines seen in the opening round, before the rain arrived, but the round nevertheless boosted Lehman's confidence going into the Open. "It was kind of like Furyk's 63 in the second round—it was easy," Lehman said. "Today was the best I've felt on a golf course in a long time."
Lehman's patience has been thoroughly tested since Loch Lomond, after which a post-Congressional funk set in. "I had every emotion about the Open," Lehman says. "I could be proud. I could be upset. I could be hacked off. I could be sad. At the time, I didn't think it affected me, but after Loch Lomond I played steadily worse." He began to struggle with his swing and couldn't get to the root of the problem until a few weeks ago, when, with the help of his coach, Jim Flick, Lehman determined that he wasn't turning his right hip properly on the backswing, which led to a kind of reverse pivot on his forward swing and caused him to yank shots to the left. "The pulled shot is one that I've never had," Lehman says. (He hit one last Thursday on the 15th hole and then tried to slam the offending five-iron against his bag but missed and hit his umbrella, bending the club's shaft.) "That's the shot that drives me crazy. I know why I do it, but correcting it is easier said than done."
Until last week Lehman's putter hadn't been cooperating either. He switched putters earlier this season, during the Tour's West Coast swing, but not for long. The replacement club didn't make it through two tournaments before being deposited in a pond at Valencia Country Club during the Nissan Open. "I've been rolling it pretty well this year, but the ball isn't hunting the hole," Lehman says. "I've either hit it great and putted terrible or hit it terrible and putted great. It would be nice to do both at the same time—and I don't mean hit it terrible and putt terrible."
Even an attempt to improve himself physically seemed to have backfired. Lehman dropped 25 pounds last winter. Instead of becoming stronger, though, the power hitter who ranked 55th in driving distance in '97 wasn't among the top 80 when he got to Westchester. Worse, he was 133rd on Tour in scoring on par-5s, a telltale stat among the pros. "I've seen a number of guys gain or lose weight, and it has always had an effect," says Lehman's caddie, Andy Martinez. "It can throw off your timing."
Timing seemed to be Lehman's biggest problem back in January '97, when, coming off the best year of his career, he lost a playoff to Tiger Woods in the season-opening Mercedes Championships by dumping his first shot into a pond. "I think [Tom's troubles] started with that playoff at La Costa," Martinez says. "That's a golfing trauma. Here you are, player of the year, Arnold Palmer Award and Vardon Trophy winner, and all of a sudden it's Tiger this and Tiger that, and everyone has forgotten about you." Still, for one week last April, Lehman reached No. 1 in the World Ranking. Then came June and the crash at Congressional.