PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Tom Lehman said that the first three months of 1997 have gone pretty much the way they did for him last year, which should sound an alarm for everyone else on the PGA Tour.
Money-leader Mark O'Meara is averaging better than $100,000 per start. Last week, Phil Mickelson got his 10th tour win at age 26, and the only man to reach that milestone at a younger age was Jack Nicklaus. Mickelson, nonetheless, remains a distant second in the category of phenom to Tiger Woods.
Lehman, however, was the best player in the world in 1996. He began to move in that direction yesterday as part of the gang of five stalking Steve Elkington, who took a one-stroke lead with
TC 6-under 66 in the first round of The Players Championship at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass.
Elkington, the 1991 Players champion, opened with four birdies and finished with another from 12 feet to take the first-round lead over a historic field -- the top 50 players are entered in the same tournament for the first time since the world rankings were instituted in 1986.
Along with Mark Calcavecchia, Russ Cochran, David Edwards and Fuzzy Zoeller, Lehman was in the group at 67, one stroke back.
Lehman had 13 top-10 finishes in 22 events last year, but by his reckoning he didn't really get rolling until the middle of the season. There was an excruciating one-stroke loss to Steve Jones at the U.S. Open, when his Sunday drive on No. 18 was too strong, but a month later, he finally earned a major at the British Open.
Lehman, 38, took the season-ending Tour championship, finished with a record $1.78 million in earnings and won assorted player of the year honors.
"This season actually started out very similar to the way last year did," Lehman said. "I think I missed a few opportunities and haven't really played my best. Last year, I really started to click into gear the beginning of June. I feel a little impatient in all honesty that I am not playing a little better."
Thus far this season, Lehman is best known for a shot he didn't execute. The final round of the Mercedes Championship was rained out, and Lehman and Woods decided the title in a one-hole playoff. Lehman hooked his tee shot on the par-3 into the water, and added his name to the list of those already vanquished by Woods.
In five tournaments since that splash at Mercedes, Lehman earned only $110,301, and he even missed the cut at Bay Hill last week.
Starting at No. 10 yesterday, Lehman had seven birdies and just one lapse, a double bogey on No. 12.
"Hit a bad drive, bad second [shot], bad third, bad fourth, bad fifth and tapped it in for a bad sixth," Lehman said. "Usually my bad shots aren't all that bad, but today I just hit some really lousy ones. That is the way I have been playing for the last few weeks, so I need to kind of iron that out."
Like Lehman, Elkington missed the cut at Bay Hill last week. He would like March to end the way it began, as he opened the month with a victory in the Doral/Ryder Open. That was his first win on the Tour since he took the 1995 PGA Championship at Riviera.
Between those victories, Elkington misplaced two sets of clubs, as his favorite bag was stolen by a burglar in Houston, and another set was lost en route from Pebble Beach to Thailand in February.
"I've got plenty of sets now, so if you feel like stealing them, be my guest," said Elkington, who had eight birdies and a double bogey.
Calcavecchia had a 31 on the back nine, and didn't have a par on the last eight holes, as he came in with five birdies, two bogeys and an eagle. The 1989 British Open champion had some unflattering things to say about the rough.
"The course is in such awesome shape, but it is a little thick for my taste," Calcavecchia said. "I know they want to put a premium, like the USGA [U.S. Open], on driving the ball in the fairway. But I wouldn't be surprised if somebody blows their back or their shoulder out this week trying to lash it out of that stuff. It is no fun, really."
Speaking of ailing backs, Zoeller took off five weeks between Pebble Beach and the Honda Classic to rest his. In his own words, Zoeller recuperated on "Advil and vodka." He didn't golf much, but did tape a month's worth of fishing shows.
Woods, smarting from a Gentleman's Quarterly cover story that makes him sound like a 21-year-old, of all things, shot a 1-under 71.
Mickelson's ugly 77 started with a double bogey and ended with quadruple bogey.
Steve Elkington 32-34-66
...and selected followers
M. Calcavecchia 36-31-67
Fuzzy Zoeller 33-34-67
Tom Lehman 32-35-67
David Edwards 35-32-67
Russ Cochran 33-34-67
Fred Couples 38-33-71
Greg Norman 37-34-71
Tiger Woods 37-34-71
Mark O'Meara 35-38-73
Pub Date: 3/28/97