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Lehman Picture-Perfect Champ

Thu., July 17, 1997

If you walk into the best Italian restaurant in this golf-loving town, the first thing you notice on the wall is a signed photograph of Tom Lehman kissing the old claret jug and reveling in his first and only major championship.

How that photograph ended up on that wall says a lot about Lehman.

It happened last October. Lehman, who won last year’s British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, had flown here to scout the Royal Troon course, where he will begin his defense of the title today. When he dined at Aldo Cecchini’s restaurant, the proprietor recognized him and asked to take his picture. Lehman agreed, but said he had a photograph at the hotel that Cecchini might like better.

Cecchini offered to send someone to retrieve it. Lehman said that would not be necessary, and 15 minutes after he left, the signed photograph was delivered to the restaurant’s door. By Lehman.

“How many sports stars would do that?” Cecchini asked.

Lehman is not a typical sports star. He acts more like a typical, thoughtful person, which helps explain why one year after turning to the crowd and beginning his victory speech with a heartfelt “Wow!” he is the most popular American champion in Britain since another Midwestern Tom with a smooth baritone voice - Watson - won five Opens from 1975 to 1983.

“Tom Lehman has great manners and great respect for others,” Watson said Wednesday, the final day of practice. “He has a fine touch, and I’m sure the people over here are responding to that.”

In the last 11 Grand Slam events, there have been 11 different winners, which means the odds are long on Lehman’s becoming the first man since Watson in 1983 to defend a British Open title. But like so many of golf’s other major figures, he arrived in Troon in fine fettle, having beaten an excellent field in nearby Loch Lomond last week by five strokes.

“I think the best thing about winning a big championship like the Open is that it gives you a lot of confidence that you can win more big tournaments,” he said.

Loch Lomond was more than just a routine victory. It was compelling evidence that Lehman had recovered psychologically from his latest disappointment at the U.S. Open, where he has led after 54 holes each of the last three years and faltered.

After finishing third this year behind Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie, this deeply Christian fellow surprised a few people by admitting he felt like “punching someone.” One month later, he is back in character.

“It took me a couple of days to get over it,” he said. “I don’t really sulk for too long. I learned some lessons: that I tend to get too aggressive. My game plan all week was basically to remain par, and then when I get in with a chance to win, I start tending to think I have to knock the pin out of the hole. Then I make a bogey.”

Lehman made a habit of making bogeys early in his professional career. He won less than $40,000 during his initial three-year stretch on the PGA Tour, from 1983 to 1985, and promptly descended into professional golf’s lower reaches, where the tours have names like Space Coast, Golden State and Dakotas.

“I was no Tiger Woods, that’s for sure,” he said.

But after a long, hard comparison of himself and his college friends at that telltale age of 30 - in which he found himself sadly wanting - he pushed on with an empty bank account and the full support of his wife, Melissa.

He returned to the tour full time in 1992 and has never left, except for surgery on his colon in 1995 to remove polyps that turned out to be precancerous.

“It made me realize how much I wanted to live, to see my kids grow up, to see them married and have their own kids,” he said.

Big payoff due

The strength of the pound against the dollar coupled with a healthy increase in prize money means that any American who wins this week’s British Open will collect $108,000 more than Lehman did last year.

At Lytham, Lehman pocketed a check worth $312,000 when the exchange rate was 1.56 dollars to the pound. The prize has gone up by 25 percent this year and the rate now is 1.68 to the pound.

So if Lehman, Tiger Woods or any American wins at Troon on Sunday, he will collect 250,000 pounds ($420,000).

The last four times the Open came to Troon, Americans won the title - Arnold Palmer in 1962, Tom Weiskopf in ‘73, Tom Watson in ‘82 and Mark Calcavecchia in ‘89.

Putter, come home

Nick Faldo won back-to-back Masters titles and a British Open in two years using a putter that then went into retirement. Now it’s back.

After a lackluster season by his standards, Faldo has returned to the putter that helped him win those majors in 1989-90.

“It has won three majors and there’s still a little bit of magic,” he said on the eve of the British Open.

“It was in the bag in ‘89 and ‘90 and sort of been on and off. It has been loitering. The last two weeks I have been toying with it and it’s in right now.”

Faldo, who also won the 1992 Open and ‘96 Masters without the putter, thinks it can help him regain his titlewinning putting touch.

“I’m starting to hole medium to long putts,” he said. “I holed a couple last week and a couple on Sunday in a fun game.”

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