Lehman takes largest lead since '73 Leader shoots 6-under 64 for nine-stroke advantage in Tour Championship

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TULSA, Okla. -- Has anyone told Tom Lehman that he wasn't supposed to steal the spotlight at this year's $3 million Tour Championship? Has anyone reminded Lehman that this is Southern Hills and not some local muni? One more question: Has any golfer in the field seen Lehman lately?

The rest of this elite field here began losing touch with Lehman on Friday, when the reigning British Open champion birdied four straight holes to start the back nine and take a four-shot lead. Lehman was long gone by the time he finished yesterday, shooting a 6-under-par 64 and building his margin to seemingly insurmountable proportions.

With a three-round total of 13-under 197, Lehman leads Vijay Singh and Brad Faxon by nine shots. That's three more than Lehman, with a similar performance, took into the final round at Royal Lytham & St. Annes this summer. It also ties the largest 54-hole PGA Tour lead since Jack Nicklaus led the Ohio Kings Island Open in 1973.

"One thing you've got to do is stick with your game plan," Lehman, 37, said after finishing one shot off Ray Floyd's course record set during the 1982 PGA. "You can't afford to back off at all. You've got to keep moving forward. It's sometimes difficult to do with a big lead to get into an aggressive mind-set. But I would say I'm an aggressive player. For me to play cautiously is probably unwise."

A victory today would be worth $540,000 to Lehman and would catapult him from third to first on this year's money list unless the current leader, Phil Mickelson, finishes third here. Mickelson is tied with two others for third at even-par, but there are five players separating him from Lehman.

Lehman has all but wrapped up the prestigious Vardon Trophy for the tour's lowest scoring average and a victory here -- in

particular a one-sided victory -- could make it an interesting vote for the tour's Player of the Year award. Mickelson, with four victories, is still considered the favorite.

"I'd be lying if I said they didn't [motivate me]," said Lehman, who is in his second stint on tour after losing his card in 1985 and not getting it back until 1992. "As I've said, you think about those things and then you try to forget about them as soon as you've got everything in perspective. I knew what I had to do coming into the week that I had to play well."

Lehman is playing the same game that Nick Price played here during the 1994 PGA Championship. Which means he's playing on a different level than everyone else. Price, who also won the British Open that year, was 11-under 269 to win by six shots.

History is on Lehman's side. Of the six major championships and one previous Tour Championship played at Southern Hills, the third-round leader has won each time. The player who held or shared the first-round lead, as Lehman did with Singh after an opening 66, has won all but once.

"Obviously he's never been in this position [of leading by nine] and I've never been nine shots behind in second place," said Faxon, who shot a 4-under 66 and still managed to lose two shots to Lehman. "You can't say it's impossible to catch. We've seen some pretty weird things happen this year. But I certainly don't think it's the most probable thing I've ever seen."

Said Singh, who shot 1-under 69, "I don't think there's much of a chance to catch him if he keeps playing the way he's doing. I don't know what the weather forecast is, that's the only hope we've got left. Even then we've got to play good golf in bad weather. For me to win tomorrow, I've got to shoot 62, and hopefully Tom doesn't play like he did today."

The round Lehman played yesterday was reminiscent of his best rounds at both this year's British Open and U.S. Open as well as last year's U.S. Open. Interestingly, all three came during the third round of those respective tournaments.

"Those are all probably the best rounds I've ever played and this one is right up there with them," he said.

Though the forecast of an afternoon thunderstorm made tour officials push up today's starting times by about five hours -- Lehman will tee off at 8: 30 a.m. -- it seems unlikely that Lehman will blow his lead. After Singh moved to within five shots at 5-under-par, Lehman birdied three of the next four holes, beginning with a 30-footer on the par-3 14th.

While this tournament was supposed to be the coronation of Tiger Woods as golf's newest superstar, it has turned into Lehman's private stage. With his father still in a local hospital after being admitted early Friday with chest pains, Woods followed a second- round 78 with a 72 yesterday.

"I kind of let it slip away at the end on the back nine," he said. He finished with a double-bogey at 18 after chipping through the green and 30 yards back down the fairway from the back fringe.

"It could have been a lot better," he said. "But it's Southern Hills and it reaches up and bites you if you're not careful."

It has reached up and took a chunk out of everybody but Lehman.

It's hard to catch someone you can't see.

Pub Date: 10/27/96

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