Photo courtesy of AP/Amy Sancetta
Tom Lehman’s emotions during the 1999 Ryder Cup made him an unlikely villain.
Brookline, Massachusetts. September 26, 1999. Justin Leonard stands over a 45-foot birdie putt. He’s on the 17th green and is all square in his match with Spaniard José María Olazábal. It’s the second to last match of the final day of the 33rd Ryder Cup, the biennial tournament that pits the 12 best players in Europe against the 12 best in the United States for three days of match-play golf. The U.S. team has clawed back from a 10–6 deficit and now leads Europe 14–12. Match ties earn a team a half-point and wins earn a whole, so Leonard just needs a tie to get the U.S. to the magic number of 14.5—and the biggest comeback in tournament history. He slowly draws his putter back, then smoothly forward. At that length, he’s just trying to leave it close, but as the putt scuttles up and over a ridge, it’s clear that the ball has grander aspirations, eventually piercing the cup dead-center. Leonard’s eyes widen, his arms raise in shock, and his teammates storm the edge of the green. Captain Ben Crenshaw kisses the ground. Olazábal, however, still has a putt to tie. He misses, ensuring the U.S. victory. Intense emotion is common at the Ryder Cup, but after the tournament, Europe’s vice captain Sam Torrance calls the Americans’ premature celebration “about the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” And then he directs his fury at an unlikely recipient: Tom Lehman. Earlier in the day, Lehman sank a 15-footer to take a lead over Lee Westwood. It was a critical moment, and the typically cool Lehman celebrated with a jogging roundhouse punch. “It was disgusting,” Torrance says. “And Tom Lehman calls himself a man of God.” Europe would go on to win the next three Ryder Cups, using the loss at Brookline as one of its chief motivators. Lehman might be remembered as the greatest Minnesota golfer ever, though he will never forget Torrance’s remarks.
I walk into a strip mall Caribou Coffee in Alexandria a little after 9 am. It's three days before the Fourth of July and the place is packed. With the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National right around the corner, I’m here to meet U.S. vice captain and three-time Ryder team member Tom Lehman. The plan is to tag along with the 57-year-old former number-one golfer in the world on a rare day off in his hometown.
When the 1996 British Open Champion arrives, the only one who seems to notice is me. Lehman’s wearing a sweatshirt and—as I would overhear him admit to his old high school principal “Dr. Swish” (because “he never misses”) later that day—hasn’t shaved because his wife isn’t in town yet. He left Alexandria in the late ‘70s and, though his mom still lives there and his family visits every summer, until his recent purchase of a cabin on Darling Lake, hasn’t “lived” there since. He played college golf for the Gophers, then spent most of the next decade struggling on mid-level tours. By the time he found his game in the early ’90s and ascended to the top of the golf world, he’d married a southern California girl, Melissa, and was raising his family—two daughters and two sons—in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Lehman’s an everyman. Next to some of the great American players of his generation like Davis Love III, Payne Stewart, and Fred Couples, he's an outsider; more Alexandria Golf Club than Augusta National. Powerful in the dull sort of way of a guy as comfortable swinging an axe or fishing pole as a golf club, his on-course persona is lumbering and stoic but with a palpable twinge of emotion bubbling just beneath the surface. In person, you’d think he was just another Alexandria resorter if it wasn’t for the trademark forehead farmers tan of a man who gets paid to wear a golf hat.
I’d suggested we meet somewhere small-towny where the waitresses call you “hon,” but Lehman insisted on Caribou. “Even though I only come up like one week every summer, the baristas know exactly what I order. I like that,” he says. “Every morning I come here at 6 am. I sit in the corner right over there, and I answer my e-mails. I like routine, so I like doing that.”
Over coffee Lehman covers everything: Beating some of the greatest Ryder Cup players ever (“Your Ryder Cup career can be defined in a lot of ways, but a lot of it’s, ‘Who have you played, and who have you beaten?’ So when you get a chance to beat a Seve Ballesteros or a Nick Faldo or a Colin Montgomerie, that carries a lot of weight.”), watching his PGA tour buddies find fame and fortune in the ‘80s while he struggled to make rent (“All of your friends are living in million dollar homes and flying privately on NetJets. As a husband and as a man I was frustrated I couldn’t do that for my wife and as a competitor I was frustrated I wasn’t at that level as a player.”), and the unparallelled greatness of his fellow Ryder Cup vice-captain Tiger Woods (“He was beyond human. Do you ever remember him missing one when he had to make it? I can’t.”).
By the time we hop into his pick-up truck, I wonder if there’s even anything left.
The truck is dusty. It’s well traveled and full of golf miscellany thanks to his dual gigs as golf course designer and Champions Tour player. There are tees in the cup holder, random clubs in the back seat. We’re en route to the recycling center to get rid of some cardboard boxes in the truck bed. “I haven’t had a day like today back home in Arizona in I don’t know how long,” he says. “Where there’s really nothing I have to do. . . .It’s really nice. Really nice.” Repeating a thought is something he does a lot. It’s the verbal equivalent of taking a practice stroke. Once to think it, the other to mean it.
He points out the tiny blue bungalow his family lived in when they moved to town when he was in fifth grade. He turns the corner and we pass the park where he used to play pond hockey. “There was an open area right where this house is on the corner, none of these homes were here. So we built a baseball field right there, and then one day we come and they’ve got bulldozers and somebody starts to build a house on our baseball field, and we’re all pissed off.” He slows the truck way down. “Well, it’s that house right there on the corner, and my mom and dad bought it a year or two later. So that’s really where I grew up.”
He’s a good storyteller. Folksy. And as I listen, it’s tough to convince myself that the guy I’m breaking down boxes with defeated the likes of Faldo and Seve, or was cast as the villain at Brookline in ’99.
“I remember the day the McDonald’s opened,” he says. “I was in junior high and they had nickel hamburgers. My best friend’s mom and dad took like 16 of us. And you can imagine, you know, ‘We’ll have 97 hamburgers.’”
We stop at the new place, a modest fixer-upper just a few miles north of town, so Lehman can change and then head to lunch at Alexandria Golf Club, where I make a joke about my intentional avoidance of ordering his namesake chicken sandwich from the lunch menu. “Yeah, don’t do that,” he says. “You already have an Arnold Palmer, so stay on the top.”
His oldest son Thomas Jr., who plays golf at TCU, is eating with us. Lehman caddied for him in the Minnesota State Amateur qualifier the day before. It’s why they’re in town before the rest of the fam. After his son qualified, Lehman, the 1981 champion, quipped, “You know, the last time a Tom Lehman played in the State Am, he won.”
Lehman's been a fixture at this course since he was a kid, and the longtime regulars are as used to seeing him today as they were in the early 1970s. A staffer walks up and asks if he’s all moved into the new place. “We’ve got dog poop in the yard, dogs barking, and clubs laying everywhere,” he grins. “So, yeah, I’m right at home.” And he still knows everyone. “There is a whole generation of adults who are my parents’ friends who are still here: ‘Mr. Atherton, Mrs. Atherton. Mr. Elton, Mrs. Elton,’” he laughs. “And they’re all hoping for Ryder Cup tickets.”
Lehman puts lunch on his tab. He forgets his member number, but the waitress knows it. After, Thomas hits the course with an Alexandria buddy, the son of one of Lehman’s oldest friends. But his dad has his sights set on bigger conquests. Namely an anniversary/welcome home gift for his wife. He knows exactly which antiques store to hit and scours it mercilessly, hemming and hawing over the craftsmanship of hutches, all the while lamenting not buying an industrial luggage cart when they’d been at this store last summer.
We don’t find anything that moves him, but not for lack of effort. Then, on the way to the truck, Lehman spots a red nutting cart in the front window. It’s not the cart that got away, but it’s close. In a jiffy he’s back in the store and standing up in the window display arranging potential décor on the cart. “Get a couple nice pots and a couple plants and this may be a winner.” He works a deal and arranges to pick it up later.
“My mom was an English teacher forever, but when she finally retired, she and her buddies started a shoe store called Feet First, and it was in that building right there.” He points to a stone building that was a Farmers National in another life, then shrugs. “My mom likes shoes.”
Back at the course, we catch up with Thomas on 12. Lehman asks if I want to play. “You can use my clubs,” he says, but I chicken out. In the cart, we get back to golf stories. Lehman talks about Brookline in ’99 with the wariness of a combat vet. He’s still mystified by Europe’s vilification of him.
“I caught a lot of grief,” he says. “I asked them, ‘What was so wrong about that? I watched Sergio Garcia dancing across the green and I watched you, and you having a great time. So what made that OK for you and not OK for me?’ And the answer was, ‘Well, it’s so out of character for you,’” Lehman chuckles. “If that’s what you think, you don’t know me very well.”
He offers an alternate take on America’s sportsmanship at Brookline, one that shows a bit of restraint. “Payne Stewart had this red, white, and blue top hat on Saturday night in the team room and said he was going to put it in his bag and wear it walking down the fairway on Sunday if we were winning. He ended up being the last match on the course—the tournament was over, we’d won—and yet he didn’t put the hat on. I said, ‘You had the hat in your bag, why didn’t you put it on?’ And he said, ‘You know, I couldn’t do it to Monty.’”
Eventually, well after 5 pm, Lehman will drop me back off at my car. He’ll get out and shake my hand and thank me for the great day. But first we head out for one last errand: the grocery store. He walks down all the normal aisles buying the normal things. He’s cordial to people who say hi or just stare, always saying, “Hi. How are you?”—and always saying it with conviction.
It’s not until he’s pushing his cart through the produce aisle that I realize Tom Lehman still has his golf shoes on and his golf glove sticking out of his back pocket.
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