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Lehman's remarkable resilience leads to unprecedented POY triple

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Lehman is first to earn best-player honors on all three tours: Nationwide, PGA and Champions. (Getty Images)  
Lehman is first to earn best-player honors on all three tours: Nationwide, PGA and Champions. (Getty Images)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- For much of his career, during which he's been singled out by an army of wannabes and hard-heads as their beacon of hope, Tom Lehman has been characterized as a late bloomer.

Fair enough. Which isn't to say he was a late starter.

For all his incredible success after turning 30, he played three consecutive seasons on the PGA Tour in his mid-20s, providing precious little inkling of any sort of distinguished career in the offing. Or any career at all, really.

From 1983-85, Lehman made 74 starts as a full-timer on the PGA Tour and earned $39,027, which would have driven most guys into the poor house, the life insurance business or onto the used golf cart lot.

Small wonder then, now that he's razing the senior circuit, he's plying his trade with impressive frequency. In fact, Lehman made 29 starts in various locales this season, and while most of his graybeard brethren were home with their shoes kicked off and their bunions elevated, Lehman, 52, was winning a European Senior Tour event in Mauritius on Dec. 12.

"As a competitor, one of the goals is always to just keep on improving and keep on working, to see if I can play better and better and better as each season goes on," Lehman said. "We'll see where that takes me."

His passport has the stamps to prove what an unusual journey it has been, sort of like his resume.

When Lehman last week was named the Champions Tour's top player, it didn't get much traction. However short golf's offseason might be, we're squarely in the midst of it. The same week, world No. 1 Luke Donald was being heralded as the top player on the PGA and European tours, so most eyeballs were directed thataway. So, sorry to say most people flat whiffed on an accomplishment last week that merits more than a few lines in the back of the weekly golf magazines.

Lehman became the first man selected as player of the year on all three of the country's primary circuits -- the Nationwide, PGA Tour and Champions. In fact, nobody else has been voted the top player on the first two circuits before, much less all three.

It's tribute and testament to a guy who very rightly -- and in fact, quite prudently -- might have bailed after those three miserable seasons in the mid-1980s. Thankfully for Lehman and several developing professionals who have used him as their inspiration to keep on plugging, he never quit.

After Lehman spent three years on the mini-tours, the PGA Tour in 1990 started the developmental circuit then known as the Hogan Tour. In 1991, Lehman, at the rather advanced age of 32, topped the Hogan money list and was named the Player of the Year. It was a lifeline he used to maximum effectiveness.

"I was getting pretty close obviously to having to make a choice," he said about his uncertain future at that age. "I was on the Hogan Tour at 31, getting ready to turn 32. There is a point where it seems you can get stuck. If you don't make a switch, you wake up one day in your 40s and you're still kind of chasing that dream.

"I certainly didn't want to be in that position. Somewhere in my early 30s there, age 31, it seemed like something had to happen, something had to change, and change quickly, in order for me to keep on going. That Hogan Tour was such a godsend. [Former commissioner] Deane Beman will always be one of my favorite people for having the vision to put that together because it certainly gave me a second chance."

Lehman made only four starts on the PGA Tour from 1986-90 and couldn't get over the hump at Qualifying School. It was like he had an athletic form of test anxiety.

"The big thing about the Hogan Tour was, if you look at players who were not on the PGA Tour, who were playing on the mini-tours, I was one of the top players," Lehman said. "It's just that one week of the year, tour school for me was such an obstacle.

"Having 30 weeks to prove myself vs. one week was an incredible opportunity. I really believed, given a full year of play, I could prove myself to be one of the top players. That's why it was such a good thing. It took the pressure off of that one week and put it on the whole season."

Now he's on his third professional iteration, trading shots and laughs with guys like John Cook, Fred Couples, Nick Price, Corey Pavin and the other 50-somethings.

In the 20 decorated years since he was the Hogan Tour's top player, it's impressive what the near-washout has accomplished. He has been ranked No. 1 in the world, served as a Ryder Cup captain, won a major championship, not to mention topped the money list and been voted top player on all three tours.

Not to cruelly single out anybody in particular, but for all his gifts, Phil Mickelson has never been ranked No. 1 in the world, led the PGA Tour in earnings or been named its top player.

Late bloomer or not, after two decades of playing catchup, there's seemingly not much left for Lehman to accomplish. After winning three times this year on the Champions, and topping the money list every week since the second event, Lehman said the Player of the Year honor was at least as meaningful as those he claimed on two other tours. By any measure, it's quite the Treble Crown.

"I think it's every bit as significant simply because it's a goal that I set," he said. "I think anytime you set a goal that's a lofty goal -- and this one was lofty because no one had done it before -- and I was aware of that, that one of my goals was to win Player of the Year on all three tours. Because of that reason, it's significant.

"It's the culmination of a journey, a journey that's been a lot of fun. There are no guarantees."

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