Shoulder surgery has Tom Lehman mulling his future
A hot tub and a cold beer can make a philosopher out of anyone, so it was no surprise that last Saturday evening Tom Lehman dropped his Midwestern reserve and mused about everything from Zippergate (impeach Clinton) to college football (who's really No. 1?) to criminals' rights (they have too many), with more than a little golf mixed in.
Lehman had much to reflect on. Earlier that day he had grabbed five skins, worth $150,000, during the first nine holes of the Skins Game at Rancho La Quinta Country Club, near Palm Springs, Calif. After the round he had gone for a dip in the hotel Jacuzzi with his wife, Melissa. Now Lehman, his hair still slick from the tub, sat relaxing in his suite, sipping from a bottle of microbrew labeled Mulligans. "People can forget you out here on Tour," he said. "You can be yesterday's news in a hurry."
What made the 1996 player of the year so pensive was the operation he had scheduled for less than 48 hours later.
At 8:30 on Monday morning, Lehman underwent surgery to repair his right shoulder, which he had separated while horsing around with his kids at the British Open. His injury is thought to be less severe than the one suffered by fellow Skinsman Greg Norman, whose bum shoulder put him on the shelf for seven months, but Lehman will miss up to three months, and at 39 he feels that his career may have reached a crossroads. It has been two years since his last official victory, the '96 Tour Championship, which along with his British Open triumph that summer at Royal Lytham and St. Annes made Lehman a star of the first magnitude. But he has finished 19th and 25th on the money list in the past two seasons. His invitation to this year's Skins Game came only because his mediocre '97 ended with a Skins win and the defending champ gets an automatic invite.
Still, he outlasted Fred Couples in a six-hole playoff on Sunday to pick up two skins worth $270,000, boosting his two-day total to $420,000. That was $10,000 shy of Mark O'Meara's take but more than twice what Couples earned and infinitely more than Norman, who got shut out. Not bad for a guy who bounced around mini-tours on three continents for almost a decade before finally winning on Tour in 1994, at age 35.
Lehman's recent slide into the ranks of the merely good may be traceable to his crowning moment. "I've always had trouble saying no, and after the '96 British Open, I said yes way too much," he said last weekend. The grind of endorsements, corporate outings, interviews and autographs wore him down until this year, when he cut back on the extracurriculars and regained his passion for the game. He tied for second at the Players Championship last March. He finished third at the Buick Classic the week before the U.S. Open, peaking as usual for the event that is coming to define him. At the Olympic Club he played bravely, earning a spot in the final twosome on Sunday, but labored to a 75 and tied for fifth. It was his fourth straight bitter disappointment at the Open.
A month later, on the Tuesday of British Open week, Lehman took Melissa and their three kids—Rachael, 8; Holly, 6; and Thomas, 3—to an amusement park near Royal Birkdale and suffered the oddball injury of the year. He was upside down, clowning around on an anti-gravity machine, when his feet slipped and he dropped with a thud onto his shoulder. "My first thought was, This is no bruise, it's the real McCoy," he says.
He missed the cut that week. An MRI revealed the separation, which doctors said would heal with time and rest. Lehman limited himself to six tournaments the rest of the year, but the shoulder got worse. There was nothing to do but go under the knife.
"Tom's been awesome about it," said Melissa on Saturday, slipping into a terry-cloth robe and into the surfer talk of her California college days. "When the second diagnosis came, he was like, 'Party down, let's get this thing done.' "