Lehman out to refill British cup Golf: Last year's title validated his status as one of the game's best, but Tom Lehman has a bit more to overcome in his bid to repeat.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tom Lehman's home in Arizona will be minus one of its prized possessions this week. It was taken right before Lehman and his family packed up for their trip to Scotland. Taken right off the mantel in the living room.

"I could see it every time I walked in the front door," Lehman said last month.

Actually, Lehman took it.

And Lehman hopes to bring it back when he and the family return next week.

It is a claret jug. Lehman brought it home to Scottsdale after winning last year's British Open. Having recently returned it to the folks at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, Lehman would like to borrow it for another year.

"It's really neat to see your name on there with some of the players who are now considered legends," said Lehman, 38. "You also know how hard you've worked to get there."

Lehman will have to work even harder to bring back the original jug rather than the replica that's on order from the R&A.; Lehman will try to become the first player to win back-to-back British Opens since fellow American Tom Watson did it in 1982 and 1983 when play in the 126th Open begins Thursday at Royal Troon.

The reigning British Open champion took a step in that direction yesterday, when he ran away from an elite field at the Gulfstream World Invitational in Loch Lomond, Scotland to win by five shots. It was Lehman's first victory of what had been a financially rewarding but less than satisfying year, with earnings of $905,171 to push him over $5 million for his career.

Asked before last month's U.S. Open if he was starting to feel the pressure to match last season's performance, Lehman said, "The pressure would come if you have a couple of great years and you think you've played over your head. If you feel there's room for improvement, that takes some of the pressure off."

Few have worked harder or longer than Lehman to find success. For six years after losing his card in 1985 -- he had earned a shade under $40,000 in three previous years -- Lehman played the PGA de-Tour. It included time spent on obscure mini-tours all over this country as well as in Asia and South Africa.

It also included turning down a coaching job at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, after finding out that renting ski equipment during the winter would be part of his duties. During that stretch, Lehman failed to make it through tour qualifying school a couple of times, once when he called a penalty of himself.

"I always heard, 'The talent is there,' and guys I played with kept telling me it was just a matter of time," said Lehman, who regained his card for the 1992 season. "I could never get the

results to match the ability, but [the results] finally caught up with my game."

After finishing a respectable 24th in his first year back, Lehman quietly began to get noticed. He finished tied for third in the Masters in 1993, then lost a back-nine shootout with Jose Maria Olazabal at Augusta the next year. A little more than a month later, he won his first PGA event by blowing away the field in the Memorial Tournament. He finished fourth on the money list with more than $1 million in earnings.

A medical scare early in the 1995 season -- he had a malignant polyp removed from his colon -- put his career on hold and his life in perspective.

"I always knew that my family and my faith were important," he said shortly after returning to the tour, "but that reinforced it even more."

In one of the more inspirational stories in recent years, Lehman came back a month after surgery to win the Colonial with a long birdie putt on the final hole. He then took the lead into the final round of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, the first of three straight years in which Lehman held the lead going into Sunday. He would finish third.

His frustrations in the Open continued last year, when Lehman bogeyed the final hole to finish tied for second, a stroke behind Steve Jones at Oakland Hills. This year, after leading by two shots following the rain-delayed third round, Lehman bogeyed two of the last three holes to finish two shots behind Ernie Els.

His two-shot victory over Els last year at Royal St. Lytham and St. Annes came after Lehman's third-round 64 opened a six-shot lead. During the final round, Lehman got a bit fired up after a couple of fans jokingly referred to him as "Greg," obviously inferring that Lehman would gag the way Greg Norman did at the Masters.

"My great fear was to have on my gravestone, 'Tom Lehman, he couldn't win the big one,' " Lehman said after becoming the first American since the legendary Bobby Jones to win there.

Aside from the British Open, Lehman won two other tournaments last year, including nearly lapping the field at the Tour Championship in Tulsa. He finished the year with a tour record $1,780,159, won the prestigious Vardon Trophy for having the tour's lowest scoring average and was named the tour's Player of the Year.

Although Tiger Woods has again taken some of the pressure off Lehman by winning recently at the Western Open, and two-time British Open champion Norman will be given serious consideration after his own slump-busting victory at the St. Jude Classic, Lehman will try to defend at Troon.

"I believe I can win any tournament I play in, no matter who else is in the field," said Lehman, who beat a field at Loch Lomond that included Els, Norman, Colin Montgomerie and Nick Faldo.

Beneath the down-to-earth personality and blue-collar work ethic that has made Lehman something of a people's choice among fans, as well as the player voted "best husband and best father" in an informal poll taken of PGA Tour wives, there is the growing confidence of a man who earlier this year saw his name at the top of the world rankings. If only for a week.

But he's never too far removed from the player who struggled even to make it back onto the tour. The player who drove around the country with his wife Melissa and their baby daughter in a beat-up Volvo with more than 100,000 miles and no air-conditioning.

When his daughter Rachel, now 7, noticed that her father wasn't ranked first in the world, having been displaced at the time by Norman, she asked if he will be ranked at the top again.

"Well I can be," he said.

"So I guess that means you're taking turns," she said.

That could happen should Lehman, who came into last week ranked sixth in the world, win at Troon. More importantly, he could take the claret jug home with him to Arizona for another year.

British Open facts

What: 126th British Open

When: Thursday-next Sunday

Where: Troon, Scotland

Course: Royal Troon Golf Club, par-71, 7,079 yards

Defending champion: Tom Lehman

Lehman's career

Year Earnings Rank

1983, $9,413, 182

1984, $9,382, 184

1985, $20,232, 158

1992, $579,093, 24

1993, $422,761, 33

1994, $1,031,144, 4

1995, $830,231, 15

1996, $1,780,159, 1

1997, $905,171, 13

Totals $5,362,260

Pub Date: 7/13/97

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