Tom Lehman: 'Our team have been scared to death, but we must have fun'

Americans' lauded leader insists his men do possess team spirit. James Corrigan hears a plea for players to rise to the thrill of it all
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The Independent Online

There are so many credited as being "the man who saved the Ryder Cup" it is a wonder that the poor old tournament has any heart left at all, so often must it have been pumped furiously back into operation. There are Tony Jacklin, Seve Ballesteros, Sam Ryder himself and any number of other players, captains officials and benefactors all deemed worthy of golf's ultimate accolade. But never an American - until now.

Step forward Tom Lehman, as the captain entrusted with turning his 12 individuals into something resembling a team at the K Club near Dublin next week and so forging a competitive match from the wreckage of the Hal Sutton golf-buggy crash two years ago. And Lee Marvin thought he had his work cut out with his Dirty Dozen.

Lehman laughs when you put his challenge to him, just as anyone would who recognises the cyclical nature of sport, never mind the extraordinary talents of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, David Toms, Chris DiMarco... If that lot need any guidance on a golf course then you might as well put a SatNav in Michael Schumacher's Ferrari. But what the 47-year-old does not make light of is what he sees as his Mission On The Liffey. It is to make America's golfers "enjoy" the Ryder Cup.

"I am not just on about winning," he said, as he watched the eyes glaze over at the simplicity of it all - i.e., win it and they will enjoy it. "The competition itself is supposed to be fun, and if it isn't then you won't be winning it. You are supposed to enjoy what you are doing, but it seems like our team are scared to death once they go between the ropes at the Ryder Cup.

"It's not that our guys don't have fun, they do. They have a great time in the team room and hanging out together. But what about on the golf course - '16th hole, seven-iron, am I going to enjoy that shot or am I going to be afraid of it?' As a kid you grow up dreaming about that shot, and that is what I am talking about. The fun, the thrill of actually hitting it."

Everything that Lehman has done in his two years as captain so far has been with this in mind. His preparations have been as well-charted as Ian Woosnam's have been slaughtered, although Lehman believes that his aim in this most energetic of captaincy build-ups in the Cup's history has been misinterpreted.

The countless phone calls, the barbecues, the notes in lockers, the unprecedented squad trip to the K Club recently, the conversion of Tiger Woods into team leader... all had not been done for the one obvious reason everybody thought they had.

"Look, it's not been about 'building' team spirit, as we already have it," he said. "It's been about letting it grow. I don't go along that America were not a 'team'. We were just a team who got beat, that's all."

Indeed, Lehman has never been one for accepting widely held truths, and as a golfer who reached the big-time green going up the wrong fairway he under-stands more than anyone that there any many ways to skin a cat, a Tiger even. Nevertheless, his lauded leadership has been characterised by the advice he has sought.

"I have always been a player, never a coach," he said. "So it seemed natural to me to go chasing the expertise of those who have been doing it for years. Take John Wooden, who at 95 is still the most famous coach in American sport. He coached at UCLA basketball, had an incredible record, and when you mention his name in the US, people, like, bow.

"Well, I spent a good while with him and John asked me what I felt our team needed to do to be better, and I said it needed to have more fun. His response was that the foundational component of any successful person or team is their willingness to work hard and to love it. If you don't love it you might as well not even do it, and if you don't work hard you won't love it. I took it from there."

Where Lehman took it was back to his own experiences. As a struggling professional who almost gave up the game to take a job as a coach at a college - "they passed me over for someone else" - he did what he had done as a child when his father purposefully expressed doubts.

"My dad was a great motivator for me and he would say, 'Why don't you just quit, just go leave, you're done', and, of course, that was exactly what I had to hear because then I would prove to him that I wasn't done," he remembered.

"It's something I never forgot when I grew up, when I finally understood what making sacrifices was all about. When you do something that goes above and beyond expectation or duty it makes you feel way better about your preparation, about your commitment, about every-thing. It was like when all 12 of my team went to the K Club for the two-day trip. It wasn't all about seeing the course, getting to know each other or any of that. It wouldn't have mattered if we had gone over there and just spent 48 hours drinking Guinness. It would have been worth it, because everybody knew that everyone else had made the effort to be there, had made sacrifices, given their commitment, and that made it priceless for the team."

By extension, Lehman seems priceless to this team, and is aware of his own merits in this regard. "One of my strengths," he said, abandoning for a second his natural modesty, "is that I am very open with who I am and what I believe. I think I am very good at conveying my passion to other people and letting them understand it and catch on to it."

An obsession with certain figures of history has no doubt helped. "I must admit that I do study leaders and how they find a way to bring out the best in people. My passion is the [American] Civil War. Abe Lincoln was the man, so strong as a president, in my opinion probably the best ever. One of his quotations I have been telling the guys was where he said that if he had eight hours to cut down a tree he would take two hours chopping it and the other six hours sharpening his axe.

"It has helped me get over to them that the Ryder Cup is just one of their goals, like winning majors is, like being No 1 is, like this is, like that is. Of course the Ryder Cup, because of its significance, needs to be a huge goal. But it's not been their only one, it's one of many, and as they march through them so they have been sharpening their axe."

Lehman agrees that time after time, every two years, America have arrived with blades sparkling only for them to go strangely blunt by tee-off. How does he intend to get the most out of his would-be executioners? "It's that question," he said with a smile. "How do you make your stars play like stars? Let's take Phil Mickelson. Phil needs to be free to be Phil - period. Put him with somebody who hits it all over the park and forces him to play conservatively then that's not Phil. He is a gambler, he takes risks and is at his best when he's able to go for it.

"Now put him with a steady guy like David Toms and Phil is free. Toms is the set-up guy and Phil throws the punchline. I really believe in that. Every great team has a guy who takes charge and the other guy supports him. Of course, it is very often that the guy in the supporting role kills you."

The last point is what gives him hope about the four rookies in his line-up whose greenness has been pilloried in every corner. "I am of the opinion that experience is overrated," he said. "I have always felt that. Good experience helps, there is no question about that, but if your experience has been a bad experience then it hurts so much that sometimes having no experience is better. I am much more concerned with heart. The reason I like our young guys is that all their coaches say that's their strongest asset. Matchplay is a matter of the heart more than anything else."

And in Tiger Woods he sees his pulse. "He's my team leader, I have been unequivocal about that and I have no doubts about him whatsoever," he said. "Colin Montgomerie is so important to Europe because of how vocal he is about how much he loves it; plain and simple. He is a leader among the players because he is so strong in his beliefs about it. Tiger is a much more private person, he is not the same personality as Monty, but that doesn't mean that behind closed doors he can't be that kind of a leader."

For now, Lehman can be sure only of what kind he himself will be. Over the months he has understood what power the role carries and he will never again join the chorus who downplay its importance. "Sure, people keep saying it's the players that count as they're the ones who are hitting the shots," he said. "But doesn't the captain set the table for them? Doesn't he let them go and eat?" Lehman lets the big dogs eat. Or in this case, perhaps, the big cat.

Life & Times

NAME: Thomas Edward Lehman.

BORN: 7 March 1959, Austin, Minnesota.

VITAL STATS: 6ft 2in, 14st 9lb.

EARLY DOORS: Turned pro 1982. PGA Tour '83-85. Topped Ben Hogan Tour money list in '91 after winning Reflection Ridge Open '90, Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic, South Carolina Classic, Santa Rosa Open '91. Regained PGA card '92.

HIGHLIGHTS: PGA Player of the Year '96. Topped PGA money list '96. Won British Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes '96. Also won Memorial '94, Colonial '95, PGA Tour Championship '96, Phoenix Open 2000. World No 1, April '97.

RYDER CUP: '95, '97, '99; played 10, won 5, lost 3, halved 2; won all three singles. US captain 2006.