BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICH. — BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -- Tom Lehman did not have a win on the PGA Tour in his resume two years ago, when he found himself with the lead heading into the fourth round at the Masters.
"I wanted to find the nearest bathroom, so I could throw up," Lehman recalls.
Late in that day, Lehman missed three straight putts on the short side, and finished third to Jose Maria Olazabal. He said he wasn't as nauseous last year, when he shared the lead heading into the final round of the U.S. Open, but he wasn't entirely at ease either, shooting a 74 that opened the door for Corey Pavin.
Another year on the calendar, another major, another fourth-round lead for Lehman, who tied the course record at vaunted Oakland Hills Country Club with a third-round 65 yesterday to vault over 26 players and into the lead. Will the third time be the charm for a golfer who is, if anything, patient?
"I think that every chance you get to win a tournament, especially a major, creates a new level of maturity," Lehman said. "I know I have gone through a lot in the last few years, a lot of pressure situations. The Masters, the U.S. Open, the Ryder Cup, a lot of things that help develop character, develop maturity.
"I was so nervous at Augusta [in 1994] it was pitiful, but I think the more often you are in that situation, the more able you are to deal with your nerves."
Lehman, who lost his PGA card a decade ago, finally won a Tour event a month after that debacle, when he took the Memorial. He was 35. A month before last year's Open disappointment, he won the Colonial. He'll learn if he has paid enough dues to earn a major championship today, when he plays in the final pairing with Steve Jones, whose 69 left him as the only other player below par, at 1-under.
While third-round leader Payne Stewart (76), 1994 champion Ernie Els (72) and the ubiquitous Greg Norman (74) played in the last two groups yesterday and had some adventures with the rough, ridged greens and water, Lehman posted a round that even Ben Hogan would admire.
Hogan's closing 67 to win the 1951 Open here is regarded as one of the greatest rounds ever, but Lehman became the eighth man to shoot 5-under par 65 at Oakland Hills.
Lehman was 3-over after rounds of 71 and 72, but had six birdies and found the "Monster" rather tame. After a gritty sand save from an wide stance on No. 18, Lehman said he was more impressed with the 3-under 67 he had in the third round at Shinnecock Hills last year.
"I think last year's [third round] may have been a little better than today's score," Lehman said. "Make no mistake, this was a superior round also, but the fairways and greens are receptive. Like Augusta, the creativity around the greens [it requires] is staggering.
"I played with him [Lehman] the first two rounds," Davis Love III said. "He was real close to playing good, and I think he just got mad. He had some motivation to make up some ground."
"The thing about this golf course is that you can make some birdies," Lehman said, "but it's just so hard to hang on to a good round."
He'll get no argument from Stewart and Els.
Stewart got to 4-under with birdies on the first two holes, but played the last five holes in 6-over and is four strokes over par for the tournament. Even before that comedy of errors, Els had the lead, but he also slumped in, taking a double-bogey on No. 16 and a bogey on 18.
Els, a South African and the 1994 champion, is the only foreigner to win the U.S. Open since 1981. He is also the only man among the first 10 names on the leader board with a major to his credit.
The list includes some of the top players on the PGA and European Tours, and several journeymen.
Three players are at even par. Local hero John Morse (68) is a native of Michigan who played on the Australasian Tour from 1989-92. New Zealander Frank Nobilo (70) is best known as the guy with pirates in his family tree. His late father was a golf pro, and Love (70) is considered the most accomplished American never to have won a major.
His counterpart in that category on the European Tour is Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, who used a 69 to become one of five players at 1-over. The others at that level are Jim Furyk, Sam Torrance, Buddy Austin and Els.
Most will not be able to deal with the circumstances. No one may finish at par or under, and the list of men who could force an 18-hole playoff tomorrow is deep.
Tom Watson, who ended a nine-year winless drought at the Memorial two weeks ago, is 2-over. Norman is 3-over. Lee Janzen, John Daly and Stewart are 4-over. Defending champion Pavin, and Masters winner Nick Faldo are 5-over, as is Jack Nicklaus.
Those eight have something Lehman doesn't. A major championship.
"I have gotten to the stage in my career that I know I'm capable of something at this level," Lehman said. "I know that I have the game that can win. There is definitely an intangible that great champions have that allows them to win.
"You gut it out and do your best, and the guy who has that resolve is the guy who wins."
U.S. Open The leader . . .
Tom Lehman 71-72-65-08
. . . and selected followers
Steve Jones 74-66-69-209
John Morse 68-74-68-210
Frank Nobilo 69-71-70-210
Davis Love III 71-69-70-210
Woody Austin 67-72-72-211
Ernie Els 72-67-72-211
Tom Watson 70-71-71-212
Greg Norman 73-66-74-213
John Daly 72-69-73-214
Payne Stewart 67-71-76-214
Nick Faldo 72-71-72-215
Jack Nicklaus 72-74-69-215
Complete scores, Page 14D
Pub Date: 6/16/96