The journey is what distinguishes Tom Lehman, no less than the journey’s destination, and the destination at which he arrived after years of struggle and doubt is a place among golf’s best, and surely golf’s most persistent.
The journey took him across America and across the sea.
It took him through disappointment (five failures at qualifying school), and through disrespect (he was expected to rent cross-country skis at a course where he sought a club job).
It took him into rain forests and deserts and up against obstacles, physical and mental, which would have stymied anyone else.
But here he is at age 52, a British Open champion, a Masters runner-up and top dog in the 30-man field of the Champions Tour’s — nee Senior Tour’s — Charles Schwab Cup Championship, starting today at TPC Harding Park.
All because of what even now Lehman calls, “The shot that changed everything.”
It occurred in December 1990 in the California desert, at the final hole at La Quinta Hotel Dunes Course. It was the second stage of PGA Tour qualifying: 72 holes.
Get through that and you advance to what then was called the Hogan Tour, but now is the Nationwide Tour. Get through that and you also were in position to get your PGA Tour card.
He could survive without the card; But Lehman and wife Melissa, who had slept and eaten in their battered Volvo, would have a tough time surviving if he couldn’t qualify for the Hogan.
“You’re on the highway,” Lehman said, “looking for something to do for the year.”
Lehman, since his days at the University of Minnesota, thought he could make the Tour. As the years went by, however, the thinking changed.
“I’m another year older, 30,” he said of the negative possibility. “Do I want to keep on doing this? What would I do the rest of my life?”
He didn’t need to answer. “I hit a little 8-iron 2 feet from the pin, made birdie and made the cut,” Lehman said. “I think from that point on, I was a different player, not being afraid to hit shots under pressure.”
The previous winter, 1989-90, Lehman, almost out of desperation, applied to be golf coach at his alma mater, Minnesota.
“I asked, ‘What do I do in the winter? I’d like to play in South Africa or something like that.’ They said no, I had to stick around and rent skis out of the pro shop.”
Almost an insult. Certainly a spur.
Lehman has been named Player of the Year on the Hogan/Nationwide and PGA tours. Almost certainly this year he will be given the same honor for the Champions Tour, an unprecedented triple.
“I could have done more,” he said of a career which went from near poverty to produce millions of dollars — and captainship of the 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup team.
“I was awfully close a lot of different times,” he said. He led the U.S. Open three years going into the last day. “I played some really good golf under pressure on Sunday, but didn’t win.”
Lehman still plays the PGA Tour several times a year.
“I still believe I can compete against the young guys,” he said.
Old or young, it doesn’t matter for Lehman. Not after the shot that changed everything.
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Course: TPC Harding Park (6,743 yards, par 72)
Purse: $2.5 million; winner’s share: $440,000
TV: Golf Channel (Today-Sunday, 1:30-4 p.m.)
Last year: John Cook successfully defended his title in the season-ending event, while Bernhard Langer took his first season points title