Lehman a serious golfer for a serious golf town

Tom Lehman was born in Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota.
John Biever/SI

MINNEAPOLIS — Forget Myrtle Beach and Orlando and Phoenix. Forget Chicago and New York and Philadelphia. This is the golf capital of the world. A village — 10,000 people with good teeth and nice smiles and Mary Tyler Moore’s voice — are moving with Tiger Woods as he goes from hole to hole. The valet kid in front of my hotel here can give you a list of a dozen local courses you have to play. If you can work Tom Lehman’s name into any grillroom chitchat, you’re golden. They love their native sons here. If Jesse Ventura could become governor and Al Franken a U.S. Senator, what could Lehman run for? Something really important, like president of the Minnesota Golf Association.

Lehman is 51 and he’s playing in the PGA, and, oh gee, the natives are so delighted for him and his family. Lehman’s got a lot of things going for him here, and one of those is that he loves golf and works hard at it.

Last year, at the first FedEx Cup event, the Barclays at the Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., I was leaving late on Tuesday afternoon, walking across the player parking lot. Lehman was packing up his car with his caddie, Andy Martinez. Lehman wasn’t in the field for the Wednesday pro-am, and he was wondering where he should go on his day off. By that he meant, as a budding golf course architect, what course should he play?

I was almost speechless, as the list of golfing gems in the vicinity of greater New York City is overwhelming, but for some reason I mentioned two on Long Island: the National Golf Links of America, in Southampton, about 100 miles from Paramus, and Piping Rock, in Locust Valley, about 50 miles away. Both courses have the stamp of Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor. They’re pure golf and hard to get on. Lehman took some notes with a scorecard pencil.

When I next saw Lehman, he said, “Thanks for those tips. Loved it.”

“Which one?”

“Both of them.”

At age 50, on a rare day off, having set up nothing, he went on a long drive on some of the most congested highways in the world and played the two courses, trying to make himself a better architect.

I have a friend named Irv Fish who is the treasurer of the USGA. He came to Minnesota to play college hockey about 40 years ago and stayed for the golf. Well, that’s not exactly right; some other things kept him here. But over time, Minnesota golf became a bigger and bigger part of the draw. When he found out I was coming to Minneapolis for the PGA Championship, he invited me to play his home course, Windsong Farm. I asked who designed it. Tom Lehman, he said, with John Fought.

What a place. It’s Minnesota golf, through and through — simple, unpretentious, fairly open, rolling farm course, with mostly playable rough, puttable greens and many nods to Wales and Ireland. The architects made one good decision after another, starting with the fact that it’s a good walking course. Water comes into play here and there — you’re not in Kansas anymore — and the architects are in your head time and time again. It’s like they know how you think, and where your eye goes.

The club’s founders made a bunch of good calls, too. The balls on the driving range are in an actual wooden bucket, the scorecard is a flimsy little thing, the dinner menu is a couple of sandwiches and the soup of the day. Tom Lehman’s brother, Jim, is here and there in the clubhouse, for winning this and that. And, oh gee, the people are so nice, with their good teeth and their nice smiles and their Mary Tyler Moore voices.

The next day, I met up with Irv Fish again, at an old-line, hard-to-find Minneapolis hangout for the coat-and-tie crowd called Woodhill Country Club. You know what they say: if you see Lake Minnetonka, you’ve gone too far. Anyway, it’s an old Donald Ross course and Lehman has played it a bunch and Tim Herron worked there growing up. Phil Reith, the longtime pro — in this case that means getting on a half-century — gave Herron his nickname, Lumpy. Woodhill has those swales and wild curves and table-top greens from a day when one of the goals was to make a golf course charming, and Woodhill is rich in charm.

At some point, Irv and I were with a little group, late on Friday afternoon, and he told the story of how Tom Lehman was so broke in his 20s, trying to make it as a professional golfer, that he considered a job as a golf coach but turned it down when he learned he would have to rent cross-country skis out of the pro shop in the long offseason. Irv urged me to tell the assembled golf nuts what Lehman told me on Sunday of this year’s British Open.

I’ve used it before, so forgive me for that. Quickly: Lehman, an Open champion himself, finished his Sunday round at Turnberry and came out to watch Tom Watson go all the way around. On nine, Watson’s drive was heading straight for some traps, but he just stood there, suffering in silence until the ball finally stopped short of one of those day-ruining pot bunkers. I’m describing the scene to the Woodhillers: “Lehman says, ‘That’s Watson. He’s going to hit it, accept it, chase it, hit it again.'”

Somebody said, “Oh, yeah. Accept it. That’s good.”

It is. That’s big, right there, in golf and elsewhere. Accept it. Figure out where you are and go do something about it. I have a feeling they get that more in Minnesota than most other places, but maybe I’m wrong.

Anyway, the TV showed Lehman at two over. He was going to make the cut easily, in a major, on a monster-long course, at age 51. Somebody said, “Oh, that’s nice for Tom.” Nice for Tom and his whole family.

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