Local PGA hero Lehman recalls his U golfing roots

Ben Goessling

Tom Lehman left Minnesota more than 15 years ago to make Scottsdale, Ariz., his home. To the casual observer, Lehman had but a distant connection with the state he returned to for last week’s Professional Golfers’ Association of America Championship in Chaska.

But a close look at the 1996 British Open champion’s golf bag shows Goldy Gopher protecting his 3-wood from the elements that pounded Hazeltine National Golf Club last week, where Rich Beem won the championship Sunday with a 10-under 278 for the four-day tournament.

Ask Lehman about his Minnesota roots – from growing up in Alexandria to earning All-American honors at the University in 1981 and 1982 – and the stories come flowing out quicker than the four inches of rain that drenched the

course Friday.

Lehman, who will be inducted into the “M Club” Hall of Fame in September, bragged last week about his alma mater’s NCAA men’s golf championship this year and is spearheading the cause to ensure the team’s survival.

“We (Lehman and the Gophers golf team) had some stuff we did together during my charity golf tournament earlier this summer,” Lehman said. “It’s a very incredible story, and it’s something that I’m very proud of.”

Lehman and his brother Jim are members of Save Gopher Sports, the committee formed in April to prevent the elimination of the University’s men’s and women’s golf teams and men’s gymnastics team.

More than $900,000 has been raised to keep the teams in existence through next season and the group is nearing the requisite $2.7 million that must be raised by Feb. 1 to preserve the teams through 2005.

The committee organized a $250-per-person tournament and banquet at Cragun’s golf resort in Brainerd on Aug. 11, and a $2,000-per-person round on Saturday with one of the tour pros who missed the cut at the PGA Championship.

That event was held at the Tournament Players Club of the Twin Cities, the new home of Minnesota’s men’s golf team and a course Lehman designed in conjunction with fellow golfer Arnold Palmer.

When Lehman is inducted into the “M Club” Hall of Fame, he will use the opportunity to host a $500-per-person golf clinic to raise money for Minnesota’s endangered teams.

Support from world’s best

Others around the PGA have noticed the Gophers’ plight. Tiger Woods, who took second place Sunday, spoke last week of his admiration for the Minnesota program.

“It just goes to show you what can happen if you get some guys believing in a cause and coming together,” Woods said. “College sports are a great environment for that to happen. (Minnesota) proved it.”

Phil Mickelson, currently the second-ranked golfer in the world and a former two-time national champion at Arizona State University, said the Gophers’ national championship came as a pleasant surprise for those on the PGA Tour, which Mickelson said was united in support of Minnesota.

“Everybody was pulling for Minnesota,” he said. “Personally, I enjoyed seeing them win. I thought that was really cool.”

But it is likely that Lehman, the only former Gopher on tour, had the most excited reaction when hearing the news.

“I asked my caddie that Saturday who won the NCAA championship,” said Lehman. “When he told me Minnesota won, I thought he was joking. Who would have ever dreamed Minnesota would win?”

More than two months later, Lehman’s face still lights up when talking about the Gophers’ victory, which was the first NCAA title by a northern team since Ohio State University’s win in 1979.

School days

During his press conference at the PGA Championship last Tuesday, Woods talked at length about his college days at Stanford University. The eight-time major champion and 1996 NCAA champion credited the experience as one of the biggest factors in his rise to heights no one else in the game has ever seen.

“It’s a time of my life I will never forget,” he said. “If I didn’t have the college experience, there’s no way I would have ever been successful on tour. It was probably the coolest time of my life.

“I had to learn time management skills you need to have in college. If I didn’t learn that, I personally couldn’t have been successful out here.”

In a sport where the NCAA is just one of several means to prepare for a professional career, both Mickelson and Lehman said their success in college was the primary factor in their choice to pursue a career on the PGA Tour.

“It was probably the reason I turned pro,” Lehman said. “There’s a lot to be said for becoming the best player in your state, the best player in your region, which is what I did at Minnesota. It gave me the confidence to turn pro.”

Lehman snuck onto the leaderboard briefly at the PGA Championship, reaching two-under-par before fading on Saturday. While most people followed Woods’ every move for the majority of the week, the galleries around Lehman gradually deepened early Saturday afternoon.

As Lehman crossed the walkway to the par-5 seventh hole Saturday, throngs of people pressed against the ropes to cheer the hometown favorite who tied for 29th place at the tournament’s end.

The Goldy Gopher headcover peeked out from Lehman’s bag, giving fans a small but vivid symbol of the pride the Minnesotan still carries so deeply.