Tom Lehman knew his golf, but for years he struggled with self confidence and belief he could win the big one in the game of golf. Being under par is a goal and an accomplishment, not so the game of life. Tom recounts the years of missing and messing up, of being not up to par. When he finally won the British Open, many thought he had burst from nowhere, hardly recognizing his name. But Tom Lehman had spent years on the road chipping and putting and missing the big and little ones for years. Here Tom tells his story. A story of a man who refused to throw in the clubs and through it all found the true meaning of life. Here to tell his own story is Tom Lehman.
It’s great to be here. I wish my wife could have been here tonight. Some of you might know her. She’s a great lady. She’s very strong and dynamic. She’s never met a stranger in her entire life. She’s the kind of gal that I can never get one over her at all. She’s a lot smarter than me and she’s a lot better looking than me. I’m fortunate to be married to her.
Just a few weeks ago we were having a conversation as married couples do and I said the wrong thing as husbands often do and I said to her, “That’s the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard you say.” That didn’t make her very happy and she said, “Why do you think God made me so beautiful?” “Well,” I said, “that’s obvious, so I would be attracted to you.” And then she said, “Why do you think God made me so stupid?” And I go, “I don’t know.” She said, “So I’d be attracted to you.”
It wasn’t long ago that we were playing in an alternate shot contest. My wife plays very little golf, almost none. We thought we’d give it a whirl. In alternate shot, I’d hit a shot and she’d hit a shot and it would go on from there. We get on the first tee and I hit a drive about 270 down the middle. It’s her turn to hit and she just shanks it about 50 yards over into the weeds. I grumble a bit and go into the weeds and hit a 9 iron about 8 feet from the pin. She gets up with the putter and knocks it 20 ft. by. I knocked the put in and we’re walking to the next tee and I’m kind of grumbling. She said, “What’s wrong with you?” I go, “We made a five in the whole.” She said, “It’s not my fault. You swung three times I only hit it twice.”
I grew up in Minnesota in a little town called Alexandria, population 7000. Graduated from high school in 1977 and at that time I wanted to be a hockey player. Minnesota is a hockey state. It’s not a golf state. Even though it’s not Canada they still love to hockey back there. My hero back then was Bobby Or. I wanted to be like Bobby Or but unfortunately I couldn’t skate so I played basketball. Golf was my best sport and I played through high school and had success in high school but not enough to get any major college attention. I was going to go to a small school called St. Johns which is in Minnesota. I was just going to go there and be a student and get some kind of degree and be a businessman and go on with my life. At the last minute, two days before school was going to start, the coach of the University of Minnesota called up and said, “How would you like to be a golfer?” “Well,” I said, “that sounds pretty great.” He said, “OK, well, school starts in two weeks we’ll see you then.” That was the end of my recruiting .
I went to the University of Minnesota and played golf there for four years. I was All-American for three years. Along the way I decided that I might want to try this professional golf. There wasn’t very many golfers coming out of Minnesota but I felt like I was good enough to at least get my card. I’m going to go for it. I’m going to turn pro. I’m going to get my card and try to get on the PGA tour. That was my goal.
I went to the tour school in 1982 and I got my card. I was so excited and ready to set the world on fire in professional golf. I remember getting to my first tournament and the thing that impressed me most was the caddies. The caddies were like vultures kind of soaring around fresh meat and I was one of the fresh meat. I realized very quickly that these guys didn’t have names, they only had nicknames. There was a guy named Down Wind Vick. He was one of the first guys I met. The name is quite obvious, you don’t want to stand down wind of him. There was a guy that caddied for me called Special Ed. He was a special kind of guy. He was a great guy, actually. His name was Ed Francis Goney. I nicknamed him Special Ed because he was special to me and the name kind of stuck. There was all kind of other guys named, Fluff, Gypsy, Creamy, Gorgeous George, Bambi, and my favorite was a guy named Boomer. My wife like I said has never met a stranger and she hears this guy called Boomer and suddenly there best friends. She doesn’t know that Boomer hates his nickname and so she sees him and says, “Boomer, Boomer, how are you doing?” Boomer is like Aaahh! and we all are like Ooohh! because the reason he’s called Boomer is for Boomerang. If you try to get rid of it and it keeps coming back. She was calling him that and he didn’t care much for that.
My favorite story about caddies had to do with a guy named Juan. Juan was a PhD in Physics. He went to Cal Tech and got his degree there. He’s a super genius type and a 180 IQ guy. He caddied for me in a Hogan tour event. As is the case with a lot of geniuses he had a lot of brains but no common sense. We got to the tenth whole of this particular tournament and I said, “Look Juan, the tee is way up on top of the hill. Why don’t you just give me my driver and you walk to the bottom of the hill, shore the pond, you can kind of spot where the drives go and I’ll meet you down there where the ball’s at.” It’s a par 5 about 550 yards so I drive down about 290 to the bottom of the hill, short of the pond and then there’s water for about 150-200 yards and then there’s the fairway and the greens way up there. So I hit my drive and I’m walking down the hill where my drive is and I see him go across the bridge over the pond and he’s walking up about 485 yards off the tee.
This guy is a PhD in physics. He works for NASA. He works in the space program for NASA. He’s 485 yards off the tee and we’re all yelling at him to come back here. He finally gets the idea that he’s walked too far and he comes back. Well it just so happens that at this tour there’s a lot of girlfriends and wives caddying and a friend of mine is coming on the opposite fairway. You got to remember now what this guy does for a living. It’s a very important part of the story. This guy is on the opposite fairway and his girlfriend is caddying for him and they look over and see what’s going on and they see that he’s way off the beaten track and they’re laughing. She says to him, “You know what? You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to caddy out here, do ya?” That’s a true story and that man is my father-in-law. That makes it even better.
The years 1983 to 1985 were real lessons in humility for me. I traveled with a guy named David Olgren. Olgie and I traveled together in his car across the country and we collected so much junk. We go to tournaments like the Bob Hope and they give you all kinds of stuff for playing. You go out to practice tees and they give you all these clubs and you collect golf balls. You collect all kinds of stuff. You load it all in this car and you keep going. Every once in a while we’d get back to Illinois where he lived and drop off all this stuff at his mom’s house. By the end of the year I had a U-haul van loaded full of stuff at his mama’s house. In the meantime I realized she had a garage sale and she sold it all. I know I made about $9000 on tour that year and she made more than that on that garage sale.
I lost my card three straight years. 83, 84, & 85. It was very humiliating and very frustrating. I remember playing in Memphis. I had a terrible year going for the third straight year. I had got to the sixteenth hole this one particular day. This was the second round and I needed to make the cut to make a check. I needed to make a birdie on this par 5 16th. On my last good chance for a birdie I knocked it down in two, about 20 ft. I was thinking I was for sure going to two putt for a birdie and I three putted for par. I was just steaming. All the three years of frustration were boiling inside of me and I was walking off the green. The marshall took the rope down that leads you to the next tee and at the end of the rope there’s a little loop. I kicked at it and got my foot tangled up in the loop. Here’s a guy who was frustrated and incredibly angry and now his foot’s caught in the loop and people are starting to laugh. My next target was a garbage can. So I hauled off and kicked the garbage can and stuck my foot right through it and then I couldn’t get it out again. It kind of summed up my whole story. I couldn’t even get getting mad right that year. It was unbelievable.
I thought about my motivation for playing golf at that time and it was to make money. I realize now that that was definitely the wrong motivation. The only good thing that happened in those three years that I can think of was on the 31st of January in 1984 when I met my future wife on a blind date. Loren Roberts and his wife Kim set us up. Kim said, “I’ve got this great gal for you to go out with. She’s really nice. She’s a Christian and you’re going to love her.” I sent Loren on a scouting mission. I said, “Loren you got to go check out this girl for me.” He came back and he said, “I’ll tell you what, she’s got great legs. So let’s go.”
By the end of 85 we had been dating for about a year and a half. I had lost my card at the end of 85 and was really depressed. It was probably the low time of my career up to that time. I had lost my card. I had lost all my confidence. I had lost all my money and by the end of a two years of struggling at a long distance relationship, I lost my girlfriend, too. Melissa and I had broken up and I was told I never want to see you again. I was heartbroken. It was a really difficult time.
I didn’t see her for three or four months and I was trying to decide what to so with my life. I decided I ‘m going to continue with golf and I hit the mini tours. I started playing mini tours in 1986. The checks were bouncing and the cars were breaking down. We were playing in these unbelievable backwoods places across the country for no money. I was absolutely miserable. The only bright spot was that along the way I started talking to Melissa again. We started communicating. We started going out a little bit. By the end of the year we had pretty much decided we wanted to get back together and this could be the real thing. I decided to quit golf and take a job at Wood Ranch Golf Club. I decided that if I was going to lose my career at least I wasn’t going to lose the girl. I think I made the right decision there. I worked for a year as a club pro. We kind of dated. She lived just down the street. We had a normal life and got married on the 27th of June, 1987.
In 1987, the only tournament I played was the US open. When you’re a club pro working the shop, selling golf balls and giving lessons and then you get thrown to the wolves in the US Open, your chances are pretty slim. As luck would have it, I probably played the best golf I’d played in five or six years. I missed the cut by a shot but it was a lot better than I had ever done before and it got my enthusiasm for golf going again. At the end of 87 Melissa and I decided we’re going to hit the road and we’re going to start playing golf again.
I went to the tour school but missed for the second or third year in a row. At this point the only thing to do was to go over seas and play so I went and played in South Africa, I played in Asia, I played all over the United States on mini tours. Places like Waterloo, Iowa, Dovin, Alabama, Garden City, Kansas, some places you’ve never heard of. At the same time I was looking at all the guys I used to play golf with in college, all the guys I grew up with playing in amateur circuits and junior circuits. Guys like Paul Azinger and Paine Stewart and Hal Sutton and Bobby Clampet, Bob Tway, Fred Cupples, and Cory Pavin. They’re all on the tour and they’re winning tournaments, they’re winning majors, they’re having success, they’re getting rich, they’re buying nice big houses. They’re doing all the things that every person dreams of doing and I was stuck in the mini tours, flat busted, no savings, living in an apartment because we couldn’t afford a house and really frustrated.
However at that point I think a real turning point came with me because I realized that I wanted to play golf not for the money anymore but I wanted to play golf because I wanted to be good. I think that if anybody playing golf or any kind of a sport your motivation has to be that you want to be the best you could possibly be. The money should never play a part of it. I came to the point playing mini tours where I couldn’t make any money I decided I wanted to be good. I started playing golf because I wanted to be good. I started working hard and practicing.