AUGUSTA, Ga. -- All those years of living out of his car (or maybe it was a golf bag), staying in something less than first-rate motels and checking the right side of the menu so he wouldn't order something he couldn't afford prepared Tom Lehman for a momentous experience he will never forget.
The story line, had it been authored by a pulp magazine writer, would have had Lehman standing in the spotlight of the Augusta National Golf Club and accepting the trophy, coat and check for winning the Masters Championship.
But it didn't turn out that way. Most real-life adventures rarely do. Let it be said, without reason for contradiction, that Lehman qualifies as one of the most gracious second-place finishers this classic tournament has had in its eventful 58-year history.
He tipped his cap with a sincere tribute to the winner, Jose-Maria Olazabal, no less a gentleman, who won by two strokes as the title is carried overseas for the fourth time in the past five years.
But Lehman set himself apart by the way he carried himself, the content of what he said and, of course, by the intensity of the battle he waged against the smooth-swinging Spaniard, who is more accomplished in that he has recorded 18 tournament triumphs worldwide.
Lehman recognized the vast ability of his lithe rival and said, with genuine concern, "I feel he won the tournament but I also feel I could have won it, too."
How true. The gods of golf have been known to play different trumpets.
Lehman only wanted the chance after coming up the hard way. He spent most of his golfing years on the minor-league circuit after coming out of Austin, Minn., a town located 99 miles south of Minneapolis, near the Cedar River, where winter golf as a lad was out of the question since the courses were covered with snow and the water holes were solid chances to go ice fishing.
Lehman now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., where the sun shines most of the time, and golfers can refine their games 12 months of the year without fighting adverse weather. "I lost by two strokes, but I know in my heart I played better than that," Lehman said.
The tough part for Lehman was the eagle Jose threw at him on the 500-yard 15th hole, where he nearly had the same for himself -- but the ball refused to drop.
Yesterday morning, Lehman went to a worship service in a Methodist church and told the congregation about his born-again belief in the supreme being.
"I'm not a Christian for what God can do for me," he explained. "I feel, win or lose, God cares the same about me. Maybe I'm not ready to win. God loves me regardless of what I do. He gives me a lot of peace and joy."
Lehman isn't going around the country preaching on street corners, locker rooms or caddy shacks. He steadfastly carries himself with humility and offers civility and kindness to others. Maybe he's not entirely satisfied with his golf skills, but he must know that his expressions of faith and the example he sets count far more than the numbers on a scorecard.
The odyssey of Lehman has been a constant struggle, marked by one-man perseverance and a determination not to quit. He has gone to all parts of the universe, travelling almost as much as the Harlem Globetrotters, engaging in an unending list of mini-tours -- just any place he could tee it up to eke out a livelihood.
To have won the Masters would have been the perfect conclusion to the kind of rags-to-riches tale that causes America's pulse to quicken. But it wasn't to be.
He carried the fight in the fashion of a spirited warrior but the putting sword of Olazabal was much too sharp. The 15th hole was climactic. It was there, this 500-yard target to a green fronted by an ominous pond, that Lehman literally fell to his knees.
The 15-foot putt he made for an eagle "washed" the cup. It was as close to going in as the next two ticks of the clock but it wasn't to be. Olazabal got his to go in for an eagle-3, which pushed him to a two-stroke lead. They played the last three holes with each recording the same number of shots so there was no catching the lethal Spanish golfer.
As he packs to leave Augusta National as the runner-up (he was third a year ago), Lehman can tell himself with considerable pride that he led the Masters after three rounds. "That's the thought I'll take away," was the consoling way he viewed the loss.
In a sports society going mad for dollars, Lehman's attitude is honest and refreshing for its profound basic values.
He played Cobra-manufactured golf clubs instead of the Cleveland equipment he used in the past. "But I told my wife I wouldn't do this for money -- only if I felt I could play better with them," he said.
That's a switch in itself since most pro golfers would use a rake and a hoe if they were going to be paid a premium.
Lehman praised the victor for his great short game, the chipping and putting which meant the difference. Olazabal, born in a house next to a golf course, said the reason he's adept close-up is because as a youngster he wasn't long off the tee so he had to compensate by developing the finesse shots.
With the Spaniard's success, another Masters myth explodes. That's the contention, promulgated by Lee Trevino, that a golfer has to hit the ball high to score at Augusta. Not so. Olazabal fires most all his shots on a line, with little trajectory, but with amazing accuracy.
After Lehman's missed putt dropped him two behind the eventual winner on the 15th and took him crestfallen to his knees, he was to describe the feeling as "like a stab in the heart."
Maybe so. But the 1994 Masters Championship will be remembered as an event where Jose-Maria Olazabal put his name in the record book but it was Tom Lehman, whose grit and grind-it-out pursuit, won respect and acclaim for what he exemplifies in humility and competitive qualities.