When we last saw Tom Lehman, in mid-August, he was a sympathetic figure. He had missed the cut at the PGA Championship, the third straight tournament in which he had failed to advance to the weekend. He was still grieving over the loss of his son Samuel, whom his wife, Melissa, had delivered stillborn in July, and despite being a three-time Ryder Cupper who'd finished 11th in the U.S. standings, Lehman had been passed over by Curtis Strange, who used his two captain's picks to select Paul Azinger and Scott Verplank.
Little wonder, then, that the modest galleries last week at the Invensys Classic at Las Vegas adopted Lehman, 42. He did his best not to disappoint them. Rested and refocused after seven weeks away from the Tour, Lehman equaled his best showing of the year, tying Rory Sabbatini for second at 29 under par, a shot behind Bob Estes. In a week marked by ridiculously low scores, Lehman tied the Tour's 36-hole scoring record with a 19-under 125, which gave him a two-stroke lead after the first two rounds of this five-day event, and on Sunday he remained even with Estes until the 16th hole at the TPC at Summerlin, a 560-yard par-5 that all the players were reaching in two. Lehman missed his chance at birdie or better when he skulled his four-iron second shot into the water hazard guarding the green. Nonetheless, the second-place money ($396,000) lifted Lehman from 36th to 20th on the money list and into next week's Tour Championship, for which only the top 30 qualify.
"I felt real relaxed all week," he said. "Not making the Ryder Cup team definitely hurt, but it also helped crystallize what I want to get out of the next few years. I'll tell you this: There's no way they're keeping me off that team the next time around."
Would that Las Vegas could recapture its mojo as quickly. The city has been reeling in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and although the major hotels were reporting close-to-normal occupancy levels last week, they were attracting more bargain hunters than high rollers. The money drain has had a debilitating effect on the area's golf economy, which was sputtering before Sept. 11.
"We've had to lay off about 50 people, and I've never had to do that in 30 years in this business," says Joe Kelly, vice president at Walters Golf, which owns six high-end public courses in Clark County. "We're directly tied in with the hotels. When they're down, we're down."
The PGA Fall Expo, the second-largest golf trade show in the U.S., would have provided a much-needed lift, but it was canceled three days before it was to commence on Sept. 24, costing Las Vegas more than $30 million in nongambling revenue. In the days that followed, Invensys Classic chairman Charlie Baron put to rest several rumors that his tournament was going to be scuttled as well. The Invensys's fiscal success depends largely on the 400-plus amateurs who pay $7,500 each to play three rounds with a Tour pro, and while Baron replaced the dozen or so amateurs who dropped out after Sept. 11, he said he could not make up the $50,000 lost when two corporate sponsors—an airline and a business with offices on Wall Street—failed to meet their commitments for hospitality tents.
Still, Baron said attendance at the Invensys was up from a year ago, which was surprising considering how infertile the Vegas desert has been for pro golf. Within the last two years, the city has lost the Senior tour's Las Vegas Classic and the LPGA's Tour Championship. One of Vegas's biggest assets—its all-you-can-eat buffet of entertainment options—is also one of its greatest hindrances when it comes to staging sports events. Says Kevin Krisle, assistant director of the LPGA's Tour Championship, "Anytime you do something in Vegas, you know you're not the only game in town."
Although the quality and the quantity of courses in Las Vegas compares favorably with traditional golf destinations like Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Phoenix, only 2% of Las Vegas's visitors play golf, according to Bill Walters, president and CEO of Walters Golf, and they pay some of the highest greens fees in the country. "You can play a course in Myrtle Beach for $50, but you can't do that here," says Bob May, a resident of Las Vegas who finished 20th at the Invensys. "Maybe the problems we're having now will get the greens fees lower so the locals can play. We need to get the regular guy more involved."
If Vegas wants to market itself to the regular guy, it should make Lehman its spokesman. His receding hairline and rumpled clothes might not make him the ideal wingman on the Strip, but he's definitely someone you'd want on your team if you were playing for a $10 Nassau, which is how he spent much of the last two months back home in Scottsdale, Ariz. He even shot a 60 one day at DC Ranch Golf Club (though he somehow lost money). "It's a lot of fun when you get five or six presses going on a nine, and if a guy misses a three-footer, you're riding him like crazy," Lehman says. "You may lose only 40 bucks if you play lousy, but at least you're playing for something and you're having a great time. That's the way golf is meant to be."
Lehman has also decided to scale back on endorsements and corporate outings. "It's not worth crowding your life to make a few extra bucks," he says. Last month he resigned from the Tour's policy board. A lighter schedule will mean more time at home, which isn't all good news for his three children—Rachael, 11; Holly, 9; and Thomas, 6. "Our kids would rather have fun than study hard, so Tom spent a ton of time last month getting them in line," says Melissa. "They'd come home from school, and he'd ask, 'How did I do on my social studies test?' "