Lehman Is Ready and Raring to Go

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So what's with Tom Lehman, anyway?

Last year on the PGA Tour, the sturdy Minnesota native won the British Open, won more money than anybody else, shot lower scores than anyone else and still looked strong enough to dig lake No. 10,001 using nothing but a sand wedge.

And there was Lehman on the first day of the first tournament of 1997, neatly tying the laces on his spikes at La Costa and then walking all over the place with an opening 66 Thursday that was worth a one-shot lead in the Mercedes Championships.

Somebody show this guy a calendar.

At least Lehman knew how to explain his six-under-par round that included a 31 on the back.

"I hit the ball adequately," he said.

Clearly a player who uses few words off the course and few strokes on it, Lehman produced a five-birdie back nine at rain-softened La Costa and found himself a step ahead of Paul Goydos and Jim Furyk.

Justin Leonard, Fred Couples and Guy Boros are three shots behind Lehman, and Tiger Woods is in a group of eight at 70, two under. Tom Watson, Corey Pavin and Steve Jones are also in that group.

Woods had a birdie on the front nine when he chipped in from 25 feet after missing the green on the par-three third hole, eagled the 12th when he persuaded a 35-foot putt to disappear into the hole, then bogeyed the par-four 15th when he three-putted.

David Ogrin, Woods' playing partner, was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. He failed to mark his ball properly on the 14th and should have had a penalty.

Other than that, it was sort of an uneventful round for Woods, if you don't count the usual crowd of doting fans or the phalanx of reporters who walked inside the ropes, within notebook-and-pen distance.

Woods was not perturbed by making 15 pars but by the clicking sound of a fan's camera during his backswing. As for his opening round, Woods felt all right about it.

"Well, I'm still in the game," he said. "I'm still in the tournament. For right now, this isn't bad."

Right now, it's not going too badly for Lehman either. He is virtually certain to be named PGA Tour player of the year when the award is announced tonight and that ought to go along nicely with the money title and the Vardon trophy he won for the scoring title.

He played 22 tour events last year and had 13 top-10 finishes.

Even when he wasn't officially playing, he still made lots of unofficial money, earning $710,000 in four off-season events.

He even tried a different approach to getting ready for the new season, using some reverse psychology.

"I didn't expect too much from myself," Lehman said. "That way, I didn't have a lot of pressure on myself to have to come out here and play well."

It worked. So did Lehman's method of putting, which produced five birdies on the back, four of them longer than 15 feet.

Those putts did just what Lehman expected them to do. One look at that golf ball and he just knew it was going to do the right thing. Which would be . . . ?

"Turning and dying into the hole," he said.

Leonard, who was paired with Lehman, kept the pressure on his playing partner. But Leonard couldn't resist telling Lehman a joke at the 15th hole.

"It was a clean joke," Leonard said. "It took me 15 holes to think of one."

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La Costa Leaders

$1.2-million Mercedes Championships

At La Costa Resort and Spa--Par 72

18-Hole Scores

Tom Lehman: 35-31--66 -6

Paul Goydos: 33-34--67 -5

Jim Furyk: 34-33--67 -5

Guy Boros: 35-34--69 -3

Justin Leonard: 33-36--69 -3

Fred Couples: 34-35--69 -3

Tiger Woods: 35-35--70 -2

John Cook: 33-37--70 -2

Steve Jones: 35-35--70 -2

Tom Watson: 36-34--70 -2

Corey Pavin: 36-34--70 -2

Paul Stankowski: 36-34--70 -2

Scott McCarron: 36-34--70 -2

Davis Love III: 35-35--70 -2

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