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Second Nature
Ivan Maisel
June 21, 1999
On the eve of the U.S. Open, perennial bridesmaid Tom Lehman is ready for another run at the title
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June 21, 1999

Second Nature

On the eve of the U.S. Open, perennial bridesmaid Tom Lehman is ready for another run at the title

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Since Tom Lehman and Hal Sutton know all about the virtues of perseverance, it came as no surprise that on Monday the two of them were still in the thick of things at the rain-delayed FedEx St. Jude Classic, which took so long to deliver a winner that next year's sponsor should be the Pony Express. Assuming that the tournament ends before the U.S. Open begins—actually, Ted Tryba won it by two strokes over Lehman and Tim Herron on Monday afternoon—Lehman and Sutton appeared ready to contend for their first Open and second major championship title.

But first they had to cope with the effects of a deluge of almost two inches in only 30 minutes early on Sunday afternoon that suspended play and made the TPC at Southwind look like the set of Waterworld. Several cars in a parking lot close to the clubhouse were half-submerged. The groundskeepers couldn't get the course ready before 7 p.m., which meant that the 52 players who hadn't finished their round would have had one hour to play before darkness. Tour officials decided it would be better to postpone play until the next morning. "That way you don't interrupt the round twice," Sutton said on Sunday evening. "Not going back out today was a good decision."

The 54-hole tournament, former commissioner Deane Beman's favorite solution for inclement weather, may be officially declared dead. If the players' desire to get to Pinehurst for this week's U.S. Open was not enough to force the cancellation of a round, nothing is. The players, the majority of whom did not agree with Beman, established a Tour policy before the 1997 season that made playing 72 holes a top priority. They wanted to avoid fiascoes such as the 36-hole Byron Nelson Classic in 1994, the so-called Half Nelson, which ended on a Sunday with a six-man playoff. One of the losers in that shoot-out, David Ogrin, was in Memphis on Monday morning to finish the six holes left on his final round. (He wound up 42nd.) "You've got to keep the sanctity of 72 holes," he said. "I benefited from the Half Nelson, but it wasn't a complete tournament."

When the fourth round resumed at 7:30 a.m. on Monday, not a single player had withdrawn. The 32-year-old Tryba shot his age on the back side to finish with a 66 and a 19-under total of 265. After winning the Anheuser-Busch Classic at Kings-mill in 1995, Tryba worried that he might become a one-hit wonder. "Everybody wins one tournament," he said on Monday. "I won the first one when I was 28. Maybe some people chalked it up as a fluke. I felt like I was a solid player. This one felt good because I didn't back into it."

The victory took on added significance because he won coming off the disabled list. On the Monday before the Players Championship, in March, Tryba separated ribs from his sternum while trying to lift some cinder blocks that were in eight feet of water beneath the dock at his home in Orlando. "I was trying to hold my breath," he said. "My feet went down [in the mud], my body went up."

There was no way Tryba was going to bail out of Memphis, but as a rule, asking golfers, who are the hyper-organized sort, to alter their travel plans is like asking them to play without their caddies. Nevertheless, a chartered jet bound for Pinehurst, arranged months ago, left town on Sunday night with lots of moms and kids but only a few dads. "I'm not sure I wanted to see Pinehurst one extra day anyway," said Fred Funk. "The less I see of those greens, the better."

Lehman, who was fighting a heavy cold, would have preferred to wrap things up on Sunday. The most famous also-ran since Alydar, Lehman, 40, has become as much a part of the Open as the photo op of the winner hoisting the Havemayer Trophy, which is why his tie for second in Memphis made the stomachs of sympathetic fans churn. Lehman has spent the last four Opens in the final twosome watching someone else win, and his good play in the St. Jude Classic only heightened expectations for Pinehurst.

Although he's quick to say, "There's way more to life than the U.S. Open," the unfortunate fact that he's better known for his annual near misses than he is for winning the 1996 British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Anne's bugs Lehman. "I was watching TV," he says, "and they were talking about a guy who had made some bonehead play that had cost his team the World Series or something. That's not fair. Only the diehard fanatics will remember that." (O.K., so he's not a Red Sox fan.) Almost as an afterthought Lehman adds, "I think my Open record is pretty good."

Before Lehman, no one, not even Jack Nicklaus, had finished in the top five in four consecutive Opens since Ben Hogan did it from 1950 to '53. "Certain golfers excel when it comes to dire conditions," Lehman says. "Personally, I'm at my best when it's hard, firm and fast. You can always count on getting the bounce. You can go into a difficult shot with a real commitment."

Mr. Lehman, meet Mr. Ross. Danger looms around the greens at Pinehurst No. 2, the masterwork of Donald Ross, the transplanted Scot who designed more than 400 courses in the U.S. in the first half of the century. Unless a shot lands precisely on the flat areas of No. 2's turtleback greens, the ball might run left, right or over. Lehman has a plan. "There's a way to play that course, and it's not aggressively," he says. He learned that lesson in the '92 Tour Championship, the last time the pros played Pinehurst. "On the 1st hole in the pro-am I missed the pin by a fraction to the right," he says. "My ball rolled off the green into a swale, and I made bogey. After the 2nd hole my caddie [Andy Martinez] bet me that I couldn't hit more than 13 of the last 16 greens. If he won, I had to give him the really nice money clip they gave us that week. If I won, he had to babysit my kids for two nights. I aimed at the middle of every green and hit 15 of the last 16. Andy pressed me on 18, and I hit that green, too. He ended up owing me four nights, which he never paid."

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