The turning point really came at the tour school in 1990. I had missed in 88 and 89. Going into 1990 I had improved enough that I felt like I really had a good chance of getting my card. I really wanted to get my card and felt like I was ready to play the tour. Everything leading up to that point was in the right direction. I’d won on the Hogan Tour. I had won state opens. I was starting to win tournaments.
I got to tour school playing on a high, playing really well and proceeded to shoot 78 in the first round. Shooting 78 in the first round is nearly the kiss of death. Not quite, but you can hear the bell ringing back there somewhere. But the second day, I pared the first hole. That was a good start. On the second hole I had a 10 inch tap for par and the ball moved and it was a stroke penalty. I was mad. Next one I three putted from 8 feet and had another bogey. Before you no it after 25 holes into this tournament I was 9 or 10 over par. It was going to take an even par just to make the four day cut. I had to play the next 45 holes 10 under par. It was a tough golf course and it seemed like an impossible thing. Especially someone like me who has always struggled with self-confidence. My confidence has always been low. Up to that point I virtually had no confidence.
I had a caddy named Deli Logan who was telling me the whole time, “You’re a champion you got to play like a champion.” I didn’t feel like a champion but slowly things started to turn around. I started making some birdies and as the course of the next 45 holes went on I was playing 9 under par golf until I got to the 72nd hole. I needed to make a birdie on the 72nd hole of this tournament just to make the four day cut. I had a good drive. A 150 to the pin, back right, 8 iron, little cut shot to the back where I pin hitted about to 2 feet and made birdie. That one shot changed my whole golf career. I had always struggled like I said with confidence and with self doubt, feeling like I didn’t have the mental toughness it took to play competitive golf. I don’t know where I got it but it was just excess baggage that I was dragging around for a long time. With that one shot I realized my caddy’s right. I am a champion. I do have what it takes. I do have the game that can win on the tour.
I felt like I was on my way. I’ve got two more rounds to get my card and I’ve got this new self confidence and I went out and played 4 under par the next two days and ended up missing my card by a shot. I remembered I cried. I walked off the 18th green just in tears thinking, “How could this be God? How could this be. I’ve worked so hard. I feel like I’ve been faithful to you and here I missed by a shot again.” I was crushed. I was devastated. But God had a better plan. He got me on the Hogan tour instead of the regular tour. I had a chance to develop this new found confidence, a place to develop my game. I ended up being the Hogan tour player of the year that year. Not only did it give me a decent living for the first time ever, but it gave me the number one exempt spot on the PGA Tour for the next year for the tour school. That meant I was going to get into every tournament that I wanted to play in, which is a big advantage.
I went out into the tour in 1992. The start of my second career on the tour with a new attitude and a new golf game. The first year back in 1992 I finished 24th. I was satisfied with that. I think the really big thing that happened came in the 1993 Masters. First round in the Masters I shot 67. I was tied with Cory Pavin and Jack Nickelson for the lead. I’ll never forget looking at the scoreboard and I see three names up there -Nickelson, Pavin, and Lehman. The chances of me playing with Jack the second round were 50%. I’m thinking, “You know what God? If you are a loving God, you’ll pair me with Cory tomorrow.” And He did!
It came to Sunday and I’ll never forget Sunday because it was Easter Sunday. Bernhard Langer went on to win the tournament but Roy Firestone on the TV in the locker was interviewing Reggie White. He said to Reggie, “How do you want people to look at you down the road? How do you want fans to see you? How do you want your family to see you as a player or a person”? Reggie said, ” I want people to see me as a man of God. I want my kids to see me as a man of God. In fact, I want the fact that I’m a man of God to be so overpowering that they’ll forget that I ever played football”. To me that was an unbelievable statement. Here’s one of the greatest players ever in NFL football saying that being a man of God was more important him than being remembered as a great football player. I was so pumped up that Sunday that I went out on the first nine and shot 31. I ended up finishing third. It was a real inspiration for me to here someone say that being a man of God was his most important goal in life. Bernhard Langer won that tournament but at least I was in the hunt for the first time.
1994 Masters came along and I was really feeling good about that. I was playing well and shot 70 the first two rounds and was 2 shots back. I got paired with Greg Norman that Saturday. I think everybody and their brother was out there to watch Greg that day. Greg is the kind of guy who’s been so close in the majors so often and here he was again right near the hunt in the Masters. Everybody was out there cheering, “Go Greg go.” It was a real tough day. The greens were rock hard. The fairways were firm. By the fifth or sixth hole it was obvious that Greg was going way south and I was going the other direction. I’ll never forget the fifth hole. It was a dog-leg left and if you hit a little cut off the tee you get no distance at all. If you hit a draw you can knock it way down for a wedge to the green. I outdrove him by 90 yards at that hole. That was the kind of day we were having. He shot 76 and I shot 69. He faded back in the pack and I had a one shot lead. Suddenly it was “Who is this Tom Lehman guy?” He’s leading in the Master’s going into Sunday. I was paired with Jose Marieolathalo. It was really amazing because Jose hit it so crooked on Sunday. His short game was absolutely incredible also. He hit it all over the park but he chipped and putted like none I’ve ever seen and he won. At that point I was so disappointed. On the one hand I had lost the Masters but on the other hand I didn’t fold up under the pressure. I had handled myself pretty well under the heat. Second wasn’t all bad so I felt pretty good about that.
Just a little while later I was at Memorial and I won Memorial. I shot 67 four days in a row. That was probably a direct result of almost winning the Masters. It was my first win and it was a big deal. About a year later I went to the Masters having finished third and second the two previous years. There was all this pressure to win. Three, two, one. Three, two, one. He finished third. He finished second. Now he’s going to win. Everybody’s talking about winning the Masters.
I got to the Masters that year and realized on the Wednesday of that week that I had a health problem. I went to the doctor and he said I had some problems and I better get home quickly and see a doctor. I played that tournament that week wondering what was wrong with me. I couldn’t really concentrate and finished fortieth. I was thinking that I could die. He said it could be cancer. This is a problem that I had to get a look at. The end result was that I didn’t die, which was nice but it was a scare. Anytime you have a health problem it’s reason to worry and you realize very quickly what things are important and what things are not. When things turned out to be ok it was a big relief to me.
I went out the very next week and I won the Colonial. I buried the last two holes to win. The last hole was a 30 footer for birdie and it went into the hole. I look at the replay later and you know how you always picture yourself when you do something special. I remember jumping up into the air and running around the green. I thought I probably looked like Michael Jordan, just soaring through the air. I saw the replay and I realized that all I was, was a big fat white guy who’s overweight and can’t jump. It was a great experience to win. It was a different kind of win.
The US Open the following year was a close call. I feel like I could have won, but I didn’t. I think one of the top memories for me was the Rider Cup. The thing about it is the comaraderie with the players you are with. The guys you’re with for a week straight, Peter Jacobson, Curtis Strange, Davis Love. One of my favorite guys is Phil Mickelson. Phil was a real confident kind of a guy. He’s fun to be around. I’ll never forget one of the conversations during one of the dinners. Everybody gave Phil a hard time the whole week long because he’s the kind of guy you can give a hard time to and he’ll give it right back to you. Lannie was teasing him. Lannie was all over him the whole week long and Phil would give it right back to him. Lannie finally said, “Phil I wish we would have been 25 together. We would have been something.” Phil said,” Lannie, If we would have been 25 together you wouldn’t have been the captain.” That’s typical Phil Mickelson.
Cory Pavin is another one of my good friends, a tough competitor. He and I played the first match against Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomery. I learned a big lesson from him about being committed. We got to the last hole against Montgomery and Faldo and we were tied. The rain was coming down sideways. It was dark. It was windy. It was miserable. We were playing one of the two best players in the world at that time. I had a five iron to the green and he said, “Tom, all you got to do is get committed and swing.” That’s putting it pretty simply but that’s what golf is all about, just get committed and swing. I said, “Alright.” I took a five iron out of the rough, got committed from 205 yards up and swung and knocked it on the green. Had about a 35 or 40 footer for birdie and it was alternate shot and it was Cory’s putt. If we make a par we’re going to win the match. I remember thinking, “Cory, just roll it up there close so I don’t have to putt again. Please!” But the little turkey knocked it up there about 4 ft. short and made me have to putt it, but it went in. It was a great experience seeing the crowd react to that.
The 96 season has been a pretty special one. It started out with a lot of frustration. I remember finishing third at Hawaii. I three putted the last hole to finish third. It was a par 5 and I would have made an eagle on the last hole. I could have gotten into the playoff but I three putted. Couple weeks later at Los Angeles I birdied sixteen to get one shot back and then on seventeenth par 5 I knocked it out on 2 although it was a ninety footer. I could have made a birdie on 2 but I three putted and ended up losing by two. It was the kind of thing where I was playing really well but couldn’t win. I was really frustrated. I remember talking to my caddy and we both said, “You know what? I think we’re going to save up for a big one. We’re just going to use all of our good luck and use it in one tournament.”
We both thought it was the US Open. It just seemed like the whole week long it was my week. I got to the last hole and had the momentum on my side. Steve Jones had just bogied seventeen and I had the honor on the tee. In fact if I just put it on the fairway I could probably win this tournament. I hit a good drive but it went through the fairway into a bunker and I lost. It was a big, big disappointment. I don’t think I was ever so crushed as I was at that point. My coached cried. My wife cried. My brother cried. Everybody cried except me. They really wanted me to win. I thought it was a great story that Steve won being as he was hurt and everything but I always dreaded when people would say Tom Lehman can’t win the big one. He can’t finish it off when he gets a chance.
But I also felt more confident that I could win a major. I remember saying to my wife that one of these days I’m going to get so far ahead that they can’t catch me. It wasn’t all that much longer after a couple of 67’s and a 64 at Lithoton that I had a six shot lead going into Sunday. The first thing they talked about in the press room was Augusta. About Greg Norman having a six shot lead and losing. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. It was kind of the reality of the situation. Everybody was putting this mystical thing on Nick being six back and coming back and winning. I’ve been asked a million times, “What’s it like playing with Nick Faldo?” I think David Faraday probably said it best when he said, “Well, it’s like playing alone only add 3 hours.” Nick is very intimidating, his whole presence. He’s like Sevy. Their body language says, “If you don’t watch me make the next shot you’re going to miss the greatest shot ever hit.” If you pay too much attention to them they can be very intimidating. Faldo is such a perfectionist. He hits the ball so well all the time. It makes you feel inferior. If you get wrapped up in his game it’s easy to see how he can intimidate you.
I made a decision to not watch him play at all on Sunday. I think the turning point for him is when he missed a three footer for birdie on the sixth hole. It was a big miss for him. He needed to make that birdie and he missed. For me it was the twelfth hole. I made a birdie on the twelfth to get back to even par for the day and to kind of get my feet back on the ground after struggling the first six or seven holes. From that point on I felt pretty comfortable that I was going to win. It really wasn’t till the eighteenth green where I had a two shot lead and I said to myself, “If you can keep yourself out of the bunker and keep out of the bunker on your second shot, out of the crowd on the green somewhere, you can win this thing.”