One bad swing on Congressional’s 17th changed Tom Lehman’s career

June 11, 2011

It was late afternoon when Tom Lehman stepped in front of NBC camera number 37 on the penultimate hole of the U.S. Open at Congressional. His preshot routine was under way – a rolling of the shoulders, a half-circle walk from behind his ball, five quick glances at the target – on what would be the defining moment of a national championship that had coalesced around four men. For the third straight year Lehman had carried at least a share of the Open lead into the final round. He’d lost his grip on the title at Shinnecock Hills in 1995 and at Oakland Hills in ’96, so by this day, June 15, 1997, his tale was familiar to many. The U.S. Open had become his white whale.

On the 71st hole, trailing Ernie Els by a shot, Lehman faced a 189-yard downhill approach to a green framed by water back and left. Lehman would call the yardage “perfect” for his seven-iron, but that did not mitigate the difficulty of his task.

The 17th fairway was on a downward pitch, making the margin of error even smaller than normal. And though every big tournament is jammed with spectators, the end of the 17th hole looked like an amphitheater of humanity and water interrupted by a green the size of a TV tray. About 60 yards away, across the water from 17, stood the par-3 finishing hole, where another mass of bodies stirred. Even for the best golfers in the world, the scene was unlike anything many had ever witnessed.

“At the Open at Congressional the electricity in the air around 17 and 18 was like no other,” says Billy Andrade, who finished 13th. “I had never experienced that in golf. They packed in so many people on those last two holes, you knew it was special.”

Sunday’s pin on 17 was back and left, the ideal position for the draw that had won Lehman the claret jug in the British Open at Lytham the previous summer. He waggled his seven-iron one last time, settled in and sent his ball and a large divot airborne. In the distance two more NBC cameras – 27 and 17 – came to life.

The year 1997 was a boom time in golf, and Congressional was perfectly positioned to benefit from the new attention on the game in the greater realm of the sports world. In April, Tiger Woods won the Masters by 12 strokes. When U.S. Open entries closed in May, a record 7,013 players had signed up for a shot at Congressional, exceeding the previous mark set at the ’92 Open at Pebble Beach by more than 800. NBC and ESPN combined to show a record 28 hours of live coverage. President Bill Clinton, the latest avid golfer-in-chief, brought his daughter, Chelsea, to Sunday’s final round, during which the two watched approach shots into the 16th green.

The excitement around the championship was surpassed only by the play itself. At the end of the front nine on Sunday, Lehman had been joined at four under par by his playing partner, Jeff Maggert, a similarly straight driver. Maggert, who was 33 at the time, and Lehman, 38, had competed against each other on the mini-tours. Lehman was once so broke that he slept in his car in Bismarck, N.D., during an event called the K-Fire Open, sponsored by the local KFYR radio station. (“It was 98 degrees, and the mosquitoes were so bad that I had to keep the windows up,” Lehman said.) “We played a lot together back then,” Maggert says now. “Tom was in Asia one year when I was trying to play over there.”

They had been chattier as younger men. On the final day at Congressional, Maggert says, “we didn’t say much.”

One group ahead, Colin Montgomerie of Scotland was also at four under despite the intermittent heckling that was fast becoming the sound track to his appearances in the U.S. The 33-year-old Montgomerie had been educated in the States, but his prowess on the European Ryder Cup team and dour mien made him an easy target at Congressional. “Monty, in my opinion, brought this all on himself,” Andrade says. “Of all the Europeans to come over to the U.S., he was the most Americanized. He went to Houston Baptist University. He dated a girl whose father had a suite at the Astrodome. I always thought when I played with him, it was amazing that he was the one that let people get to him.”

If Montgomerie ran hot, his playing partner, the 27-year-old Els, was the opposite, at least outwardly. Els had taken down Montgomerie and Loren Roberts in a playoff at the 1994 Open at Oakmont. Three years later Els was trying to do it again, holing critical putts in the third round (which was completed early Sunday morning because of rain delays) and carrying the momentum into the final round.

“I hit some really key shots that morning,” Els says. “I birdied 17. I birdied the par-5 15th hole. I made a really good par save on the 14th hole. Those were really big saves I made, and they gave me a little bit of belief going into the final [round].”

On Sunday afternoon Els trailed the trio of Lehman, Maggert and Montgomerie by a shot as his ball rested short of the green on the par-4 10th. On the NBC broadcast Johnny Miller made a prescient call just as Els clipped the ball.

“Not a hard little pitch shot at all,” Miller said as the ball landed. “Makeable.”

The ball rolled into the left side of the cup. The battle was joined at four under.

“The four-way shootout,” Els says.

Tommy Roy, NBC’s lead producer, knew he was in the midst of a special Sunday by the timing of the shots hit by the four protagonists. During most tournament broadcasts, with players in contention spread throughout the pairings, it’s inevitable for many shots to end up shown on tape delay. “There are seven guys hitting at the same time, and it doesn’t have the same juice or electricity,” Roy says, “but on that day we were able to go to all of the guys live to hit their shots. It worked out where one group would be walking and the next group would be hitting, and I’m sure the tension for the audience at home was increased that much more. It was dumb luck.”

Dan Hicks was broadcasting from one of NBC’s outer towers at Congressional, and he sensed the excitement too. During a commercial break an NBC camera showed Clinton on the steps of one of the towers. Hicks decided to break the tension of a major-championship broadcast. “So I take it upon myself to provide some entertainment,” Hicks says. “I launch into a Clinton impression, which is slightly above lounge act. ‘Oh, it’s a great championship. It’s incredible. The U.S. Open is here,’ and I’m doing it for like five seconds until I hear this voice going in and out.”

It was Roy, fumbling with the buttons in the truck, trying to alert Hicks. “It was the only time I ever choked,” Roy says. “Finally I found the right button. ‘Dan, he can hear you!’ The network had given Clinton an IFB (interrupted feedback system) to monitor the broadcast, which included the byplay between announcers and the truck. Hicks hadn’t a clue.

“My heart starts pounding,” Hicks says. “As I saw [Clinton] on the monitor, he actually had a little smile on his face, as if to say, ‘There is some clown out there with NBC doing an impression of me.’ I was crestfallen that I had done this lame impression. We have had numerous chuckles about it since.”

Passing beneath Clinton on the 16th hole, Lehman and Maggert made matching bogeys, Maggert in the midst of a free fall that would end in a round of 74. “It was over for me at 16,” Maggert says.

Lehman trailed Els and Montgomerie by a shot as those two played 17, a 480-yard hole that Montgomerie had bogeyed the previous three rounds. Els went first, hitting a five-iron to 15 feet. Montgomerie, after a wayward six-iron right, chipped to five feet. Across the pond, by the nearby 18th, Montgomerie was disturbed by a ruckus in the crowd. Monty, of course, hears everything in Dolby Stereo. The sun-burned crowd grew boisterous. Montgomerie waited five minutes for a silence that never completely came before striking his putt.

“I asked Michael Bonallack [of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club] and the USGA official that was beside us, and also Ernie and his caddie, what the commotion was all about,” Montgomerie said after his round. “I felt I had to wait to hit the putt. I didn’t want to rush the most important putt of my life.”

Monty didn’t rush. He didn’t make the putt, either. He was so distraught after the round that he cried. Going to 18, Els held the lead alone. Lehman, on 17, was the last threat. A small group of players had gathered inside the Congressional locker room to watch the coverage. (“I was in no rush to leave,” Andrade says.)

As Lehman’s ball took flight, camera 27 captured him closing his eyes and looking away. Roger Maltbie assured viewers that the ball was on a great line – if it was long enough. But Lehman knew he had caught too much turf. From behind the 17th green, camera 17 picked up the ball in flight and followed its descent onto a bank short and left of the green. Lehman’s ball hesitated for second, then rolled into the water, where the still pond rippled. Cut back to camera 27, which showed Lehman in anguish, squeezing the back of his cap so that it tipped forward and covered his face. He held the pose for 17 seconds, until the hat came off completely. Lehman stared blankly and began a long walk to a bogey that would leave him two shots out of the lead in the championship he wanted most.

Minutes later Els would stand on the 18th green, thrusting his youthful arms into the air after a one-shot victory over Montgomerie. Each had shot a one-under 69. Montgomerie, believing the finishing holes were too close together, implored the USGA to change the championship finish should the Open ever return to Congressional. (This year the former 18th hole has been reversed and redesigned and is now number 10.) Els spoke of the gravity and honor of winning two majors by age 27, in no way knowing the heartbreak that would shadow him in majors in the coming years. Lehman, who had led by two shots going into the final round before shooting 73, was achingly honest about his latest brush with the Open.

“I would give anything in the world for a mulligan,” he said. “I had the perfect yardage, I thought, to a perfect pin. I knew it was my bread and butter, that shot, right to left, a little bit of a downhill, sidehill lie, which can help the ball turn. The only thing is, it’s easy to catch it a hair fat if you don’t watch out, and I did.”

Lehman retired to the locker room, which was fast clearing out. Maggert saw his competitor and old mini-tour pal seated with his caddie. Lehman’s head was down.

“You guys played your heart out,” Maggert remembers saying. “You deserved to win. You’ll get one soon.”

Maggert is 47, in the twilight of his PGA Tour career. “I wish I could turn back the hands of time 10 years now,” he says, “but I can’t.” Lehman is 52, a stalwart of the Champions tour. He never won the U.S. Open.