PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Tom Lehman’s right elbow hurt so much that he couldn’t take the club past his waist, a case of tendinitis so severe it kept him out for five months. When he returned to the PGA Tour, he missed the cut four times in a row.
“My game was in shambles,” he said. “It was making 50 look all the more appealing, quite frankly.”
He felt like his old self Saturday in the Transitions Championship.
Two weeks after celebrating his 50th birthday, and a month before he makes his Champions Tour debut, Lehman ran off four straight birdies on his way to a 3-under 68 and took a one-shot lead over Retief Goosen.
Lehman was at 8-under 205 and will try to become only the seventh player in this 50s to win on the PGA Tour.
But it doesn’t figure to be easy.
Right behind him was Goosen, who had a 69. Leading the group at 5-under 208 was Masters champion Trevor Immelman. And the toughest part might be the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook, among the toughest tracks on tour. The greens were so firm that the ball produced puffs of dry soil when it landed.
Goosen said it reminded him of Shinnecock Hills in 2004 when he won his second U.S. Open.
“Shinnecock changed overnight. Similar things have happened here,” he said. “They’re dead in places, and very tricky.”
Lehman has the experience, but it has been awhile.
He has not been atop the leaderboard going into the final round since the fog-delayed Buick Invitational four years ago. It has been nine years since his last PGA Tour victory at the Phoenix Open.
“I’m extremely motivated to play good golf,” Lehman said. “I don’t want to finish my career playing lousy.”
The highlight of his birdie streak came at the par-3 13th, a 6-iron over the water to inside a foot, the easiest birdie he had all day. He also made a sweeping 30-footer on the 14th, and another good putt from 15 feet on the 15th hole.
Equally important was a chip that was just off the 17th green, buried in the grass, with the brittle green running away from him. Lehman hit it a few feet and watched it trickle to tap-in range.
Told that NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller suggested the chip was an accidental chunk, Lehman was stunned.
“That’s one of the best shots I hit all week,” he said. “Gosh, that makes me mad.”
Immelman hit a terrific chip himself, knocking it in for eagle on the opening hole to get into contention. He stayed there most of the day, and was among eight players who had at least a share of the lead Saturday.
“You are going to lose some shots eventually,” Immelman said. “It’s just the nature of this course. Sometimes you don’t even have to hit a bad shot and you make a bogey.”
Joining him at 208 were Stuart Appleby (71), Jonathan Byrd (71) and Charles Howell III (71), an Augusta native suddenly presented with a chance to win and get into the Masters. The group at 4-under 209 included former PGA champions David Toms, Rich Beem and Steve Stricker, who had a 73 to end his 10 consecutive rounds at par or better.
Stricker and Nick Watney, tied for the lead going into the third round, both struggled.
Stricker took bogey on the par-5 fifth hole when he missed a 6-foot putt, and the man regarded among the best in golf with the short stick three-putted twice for bogey on the back nine.
Watney made a 35-foot birdie putt to escape trouble on the opening hole, and got out of another jam on the fifth when he bounced a chip below the branches of a bush, across the rough and onto the green to within 4 feet for birdie. But he missed it badly, took double bogey on the next hole and tumbled to a 74, leaving him at 3-under 210.
Even so, Watney was among 17 players who were within five shots of the lead. And making up ground on the leaders could be a matter of making pars if the conditions continue to stay dry.
Lehman, who has not won in nine years, figures that works in his favor.
“It’s not an easy golf course to go out and shoot 63, which means that for me, just keep on playing my game and be patient,” Lehman said. “I just turned 50. That actually works in my favor. You realize there’s a lot more important things in life than a golf tournament – although this is very important.”
Divots: Joe Durant and D.A. Points were the only two players to make the cut of the six players who earned a spot in the field through the opposite-field event in Puerto Rico last week. Durant was at 4-under 209. … Only one player in the top 14 on the leaderboard has won on the PGA Tour in the last year – Masters champion Immelman. … Ryo Ishikawa, the 17-year-old from Japan, shot a 75 and was 14 shots out of the lead.