Golf: Lehman exploits void in pressure zone

Tim Glover on the unlikely triumph of a golfer who is no longer a runner-up

Tim Glover
Monday 22 July 1996 23:02

Nick Faldo predicted before the start of the 125th Open that a score as low as 14 under par would win the championship but even he could not have foreseen somebody scoring 73 in the final round to secure the old silver claret jug. Tom Lehman was allowed that luxury and in finishing at 13 under for the tournament he won by two strokes.

"In the last round, when the pressure was on, the leading players didn't score as low as you would have thought," Michael Bonallack, secretary of the Royal and Ancient, said. "I thought the course held up very well and the best players came to the top." When Lehman was joint second, behind Steve Jones, in the US Open at Oakland Hills last month, he was one under par.

Faldo, who was three strokes adrift of Lehman here following a 70, patted the American on the back at the 18th green and said: "You deserve it." He was speaking for many players who are familiar with Lehman's history. A regular at the US qualifying school, his slender CV included victories in mini tour events such as the Reflection Ride Open, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic and the Santa Rosa Open. In 1986, down to his last $1,000 (pounds 645) and without a tour card, he was forced to play in Asia and South Africa. "Lehman's a fierce competitor," Jack Nicklaus said. "He's got all the shots and he's tough as we saw in the Ryder Cup. He's not a natural so he's had to pay his dues and he has to work at it."

On Sunday Lehman won pounds 200,000, the reward for his first major triumph although he had come close in the US Open on three occasions and was runner- up to Jose Maria Olazabal in the Masters two years ago. At Oakland Hills, in Detroit, Lehman played in the last round with Steve Jones, another born-again Christian, and offered his opponent encouragement by quoting from the Bible. He did not see the need to quote from Joshua 1:9 to Faldo, his playing partner here on Sunday. "Faldo was an absolute gentleman and an absolute pleasure to play with," Lehman said. "He played awfully well but did not make any putts whatsoever. It's easy to see why he has won so many major championships. When he has that kind of swing it makes it hard to be in his company. I could tell Nick started losing confidence with his putter and did not stroke the ball well. If he had got his rhythm going with the putter it could have been a different scenario."

In the last round of the Masters at Augusta Faldo was six strokes behind Greg Norman and won by five. Although he generally outplayed Lehman here from tee to green he missed a string of putts. Lehman, who could hardly miss a putt in compiling a 64 in the third round, was also having problems on the greens. "The putter," he said, "felt like lead. I was able to get away with the mistakes I made."

Ernie Els got to 13 under par on the back nine but could not sustain the challenge. "I wanted Lehman to look at the leaderboard and put pressure on him but I just couldn't finish it," Els said. "I had everything going for me." He shot 67 to finish joint second with Mark McCumber.

The only American to have won at Royal Lytham was Bobby Jones in 1926 but on Sunday there were five in the top seven. With the links becalmed, Faldo had also predicted a good week for the Americans. As Faldo went head to head with Lehman on Sunday afternoon, the man from Scottsdale, Arizona, had to put up with a few uncharitable remarks from spectators not to mention a male streaker on the 18th fairway. "I thought the one at Wimbledon was a lot better," Lehman remarked. The streaker was collared by the Lancashire police and led away in handcuffs but he was later released without charge.

Bonallack acknowledged that spectators were generally better behaved at the Masters at Augusta National. "They have the ultimate sanction there. If anybody doesn't behave they ensure that he will never get a ticket again. We don't have that option. The Open is not an all-ticket affair and it would be very difficult to make it so."

The R & A said they would have no hesitation in bringing the Open back to Royal Lytham and estimated that the town would benefit to the tune of pounds 18m. They thought the pace of play was quicker than at St Andrews 12 months ago. Although several Americans chose not to play in the championship the most surprising absentee was Tony Jacklin, exempt from qualifying after winning the Open here in 1969. The attendance for the week was 171,000. When Seve Ballesteros won here in 1988, the attendance was 203,000 but play went to a fifth day because of torrential rain. Last week there was not a cloud on the horizon and barely the whisper of a breeze and that was the missing link.

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