Lehman shoots course record to win first major tournament, British Open

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England (AP) — The ovation built with each step as British Open champion Tom Lehman took toward the 18th green, a deafening roar filling his eyes with tears that washed away years of frustration.
Slowly, almost shyly, the Alexandria, Minn., native took off his hat and waved it, allowing a faint smile to cross his face.
After bouncing around on minor tours when he lost his PGA Tour card, after coming up short so many times in major championships, Lehman finally was a winner.
“Watching it on TV all those years — that walk up the 18th fairway at the British Open — and then having it happen to you is thrilling,” said Lehman, a former Gopher. “I had tears in my eyes.”
His gutsy 73 on Sunday for a total of 13-under-par 271 was two strokes better than Ernie Els and Mark McCumber and three in front of Nick Faldo.
And it ended forever any reference to him as a guy who couldn’t get the job done in the clutch.
For the fourth time, Lehman played in the final group at a major championship. For the first time, he won. It was a victory built on past defeats, another courageous finish finally rewarded.
Lehman’s triumph was crafted on Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Club, but its foundation was built at Augusta, Shinnecock and Oakland Hills, places where he had his chances in majors but lost out when good things happened to other people.
“That’s always been my fear, you know,” Lehman said. “To have it on my tombstone: `Tom Lehman — He couldn’t win the big one.'”
He won’t have to worry about that now.
As the final 3-foot putt fell, Lehman raised his arms in triumph, gave an emotional embrace to his caddy, Andy Martinez, blew two kisses to the crowd and gave a special hug to his father, Jim.
This time, Lehman stared down the pressure and won when he didn’t have his best game.
“There is no worse feeling than getting out there and not knowing where it is going to go,” he said. “That’s kind of the way I felt today. It was such a struggle. I didn’t have my rhythm, especially with my putting stroke. You just kind of grind it out.”
Lehman, 37, returned to the PGA Tour in 1992 after losing his card and playing for three years in Asia, South Africa, on various mini-tours and anywhere else he could get in a tournament.
“To come here and get that silver trophy makes it all worthwhile,” Lehman said. “It makes all the mini-tours, everything, worth it.”
Then he paused, ran his finger over his name engraved on the silver claret jug and said, “That’s pretty, isn’t it?”
Lehman’s determined effort came as he held up under relentless pressure from Faldo — his playing partner and perhaps the best head-to-head player in the world — and Els, who played two groups in front and shot a 67.
He also stood strong as the hugely pro-Faldo crowd carried their home-country hero along with thunderous applause on every green and constant shouts of “C’mon, Nick” and “Go on, Nick.”
At times, some of the shouts turned a little ruder, reminiscent of the partisan nationalistic cheering at a Ryder Cup.
On the seventh hole, a spectator shouted to Lehman: “Knock it in, Greg,” an apparent reference to Greg Norman and the big lead he blew in the Masters.
“He was kind of calling me a choker,” Lehman said. “It made me determined to play good golf and shut that guy up.”
That’s exactly what he did.
Playing the 18th with a two-stroke lead, Lehman drove into the left rough but played safely to the front of the green and two-putted from 60 feet.
“The last putt was 3 feet, and I was lagging,” Lehman said with a huge smile.
The only other American to win in the nine British Opens played at Royal Lytham was amateur Bobby Jones in 1926, the first time the Open was played here. Lehman’s 271 was the best score at Lytham in an Open, bettering Steve Ballesteros’ 1988 effort by two shots.
“He played well,” Faldo said of Lehman. “He played sensibly. He manages his game, and he had the nice cushion.”
Lehman didn’t make a putt of any length until he rolled in a 12-footer for a birdie on hole No. 12 to get back to 15-under, where he started the day.
“The turning point was the 12th hole,” Lehman said. “It was my best shot of the week, a 4-iron to 12 feet. At that point I felt I was in charge.”
Lehman made two bogeys coming in and never let anyone get closer than two strokes.
Lehman played well each of the three previous times he was in the last group on Sunday at a major championship, but someone always was better.
Lehman shot a 71 at the U.S. Open last month on a difficult Oakland Hills course, but Steve Jones slipped by him with a final-round 69.
At the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, Lehman was paired on the last day with Norman and finished third after Corey Pavin hit his spectacular 4-wood on the final hole to win.
And Lehman was runner-up when paired in the final group with winner Jose Maria Olazabal in the 1994 Masters.
“One of the biggest things was actually losing to Olazabal in 1994,” Lehman said. “I felt like I held up under the pressure.”
That pressure was duplicated by Lehman’s partner on Sunday.
Faldo cut the lead to four strokes with a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 4 but failed to take advantage of the easiest stretch of holes on the course — Nos. 6 through 11.
Lehman escaped disaster on the sixth hole when he drove way left into a stand of trees and was able to knock the ball out into the rough and then made a par from 147 yards out.
From there in he played 1-over par, good enough to win the British Open, good enough to put years of frustration behind him.