Two weeks ago Tom Lehman did something that Tour pros never do. He finished the final round of the Canon Greater Hartford Open, in which he came in 62nd, then hopped in his car and drove 115 miles so he could get in a second 18 before the sun went down. Last week just about everyone said that that dash to the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the site of next month's Ryder Cup, was Lehman's best drive of the year.
To a large degree that sentiment had to do with his timing. While David Duval and Tiger Woods, among others, were being barbecued for saying that the players deserved a bigger piece of the action at the Ryder Cup, Lehman was making like Ernie Banks and saying, Let's play two. He had gone to the Country Club by himself to get a look at the course just in case he was fortunate enough to make the U.S. team. There were no guarantees that he would. Lehman wasn't among the top 10 players on the points list, so he didn't have an automatic berth. He had played well in the last two Ryder Cups, but would Ben Crenshaw use one of his two captain's picks on a player who was coming off shoulder surgery last fall and hadn't won on Tour in almost three years? Didn't matter. "If I have to pay them to play in the Ryder Cup, I will," Lehman said. Put away your wallet, Tom.
Lehman didn't win last week's Buick Open at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club in Grand Blanc, Mich., but he did assure himself a spot on the Ryder Cup team. His eight-under-par 64 during a steady rain last Saturday was a vintage effort that proved that Lehman is back on his game. He faltered slightly in Sunday's finale and ended up in a tie for second with Ted Tryba and Bob Tway, one stroke in back of Tom Pernice Jr., who closed with a 65 for his first Tour win. A victory would've lifted Lehman into the top 10 on the Ryder Cup points list. Still, he moved up from 14th to 11th, and if he doesn't play his way into the top 10 this week at the PGA Championship, the final tournament at which points are at stake, he's a lock to be one of Crenshaw's wild-card selections for the Sept. 24-26 matches. That bodes well for the U.S.
"Anyone would want him on the team," says Jim Furyk, who was paired with Lehman at Valderrama in '97 and is currently No. 8 in the standings. "Guys respect him as a person and as a player. He's a leader. He's going to put his arm around you when you're not playing well and get you going. After my singles match against Nick Faldo in '97 [a 3-and-2 win by Furyk], the first person I saw was Tom. He looked me in the eye and said, 'Great job.' I knew he meant it."
A player like Lehman is precisely what the U.S. will need if it is to win the Cup after two successive losses. In addition to giving the team some heart, he also brings much-needed leadership. The player atop the U.S. points list, Duval, put himself in an awkward position by criticizing the Ryder Cup before he had actually played in one. At Valderrama, veteran Mark O'Meara, who is now fifth in the standings, didn't seem interested in taking charge, and neither did the Americans who had won majors in '97—Woods, Justin Leonard and Davis Love III. They went a combined 1-9-3. All three will be back at the Country Club. Woods is second in points, while Love is fourth and Leonard seventh.
A more mature Payne Stewart, who won his second U.S. Open in June and is third in the standings, could pick up the slack, but none of the other four players currently among the top 10—Furyk, No. 6 Hal Sutton, No. 9 Phil Mickelson or No. 10 Jeff Maggert—are likely to. That leaves Lehman, who has a 3-2-2 record in two Cup appearances. "It doesn't matter who he's playing or what the conditions are, you know he's going to do well," says Leonard. "He knows what's going on. There are a lot of guys you'd want on the team, but Tom, with his experience, is a huge asset."
Lehman showed what kind of Ryder Cup player he was in his first Cup, in 1995 at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., where he drew Seve Ballesteros in singles. Ballesteros, a master of gamesmanship, tried to distract Lehman during the match, but Lehman got in his face, and Seve backed down. Then Lehman stepped on Ballesteros's neck, beating him 4 and 3. In '97, when the U.S. was on the ropes at Valderrama, Lehman inspired a dramatic final-day rally by blasting Ignacio Garrido 7 and 6. Lehman, as they say on Tour, plays big.
Now this. He nearly wins the week before the Ryder Cup cutoff, after driving to the Country Club. "That renewed my motivation to get to the Ryder Cup," Lehman says. "It's the kind of course I love, U.S. Open-style golf, which is my favorite."
Lehman had considered visiting the Country Club earlier during the week of the Hartford event but couldn't fit in a trip until after the final round. He arrived at the club around 5 p.m. and started the round—on the 2nd hole—with an assistant pro. "We jumped ahead of some members on the 1st hole," Lehman says. "They were a 'That's a peach, hon,' type of group. You know, like in Caddyshack." Brendan Walsh, the head pro at the Country Club, joined Lehman's pairing for the last eight holes. "He played well all the way around," Walsh says. "He made six birdies and didn't even sniff a bogey. At 15 [a 432-yard par-4], he had 175 or 180 yards, and he hit a seven-iron to the center of the green and made a nice putt for birdie. Then he hit it about five feet at 18 for another birdie. Tom was such a gentleman. Some members walked along, and he spoke with them. Everybody loved having him here."
They finished around 8 o'clock. "I shot 61," says Lehman, "which is the truth. I just didn't play the 1st hole." Lehman had dinner, then arranged to spend the night in one of the club's five spartan guest rooms (phones but no TVs). When Walsh left to go home at 9:30, Lehman headed to bed so he could get up early to fly to the Buick Open.