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In Lehman’s Terms, He Comes Up Empty

The night before, he ate frozen pizza and watched “Independence Day.”

Two holes before, he marched into a small crowded corner of Congressional Country Club with his fists pumping and the crowd chanting, “U.S.A.”

Minutes before, he had stood in the middle of the 17th fairway with a chance for the birdie that would give him a tie for the lead in his country’s golf championship.

Tom Lehman was so excited, his stomach growled.

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“You know how sometimes you are so hungry you can’t stand it?” he asked. “And you see your favorite food on a platter in the distance? And everything about it makes your eyes water?”

Then an American dream reached its expiration date, turned rotten, left thousands sick.

Just like that. As quick as you can say “plop.” As quickly as easygoing Lehman can plunge his fist into a face.

“I want to punch someone,” he said quietly. “I want to wrap my seven-iron around a tree.”

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It is said that tournaments like the U.S. Open are often won with one defining moment.

This was lost with one.

That moment will be forever frozen in Tom Lehman’s dazed stare, a crowd’s loud wail, a ball’s roll into a little lake.

With a chance to tie Ernie Els and save himself from three consecutive final-day spills off the U.S. Open leader board, the delightfully average Lehman hit the one shot that everyone understands.

He dunked it.

In a matter of seconds, a simple 188-yard shot to the left side of a green became another imprint in the legend of a million-dollar golfer who cannot win the tournament he wants most.

The ball hit the front of the green and rolled into the lake. Lehman bogied 17.

Moments later, Els sank a par putt on 18 and raised his arms in triumph, a winner before the final bell, victorious by sudden knockout.

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“I would give anything in the world for a mulligan,” Lehman said afterward. Thousands would have given it to him.

The fans who crowded the hillside of Congressional’s spectacular 17th and 18th greens theater may not have known Lehman’s history or reputation.

They may not have realized that, despite his British Open championship and ranking as the PGA Tour’s leading money-winner last year, it took him years of playing in minor-league events from the Dakotas to the Carolinas to get to where he is.

They certainly couldn’t have known that those experiences have made the 39-year-old Lehman one of the most gracious men on tour.

No, they were probably just cheering wildly for him because he was a small-town Minnesotan in a battle with two foreigners, an American who needed a break.

In each of the previous two years, Lehman had seen final-day U.S. Open leads evaporate. Seven times he has led major tournaments, and only once has he won, last year in England.

“He’s a guy who is easy to identify with,” brother Jim said.

Like how he awakened at 5 a.m. Sunday, came to the course, finished the final five holes of his rain-delayed third round, then returned to his rented house to do a few chores.

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“I was leaving, so I wanted to clean it up for the owners,” he said.

He was back at Congressional early Sunday afternoon with a two-stroke lead over the rest of the field.

Poor putting led to bogeys on three of his first five holes, dropping him into a first-place tie with Els, Colin Montgomerie and partner Jeff Maggert.

From there, a four-day golf tournament turned into a four-man sprint, only the competitors were on adjoining tracks and instant results could only be heard.

If Els made a big putt ahead of him, Lehman would hear a birdie cheer. If Montgomerie missed a putt, Lehman would hear a bogey groan.

“It was really exciting, a war of attrition,” Lehman said. “I had to keep hanging in there, giving myself a chance.”

After nine holes, there was a four-way tie. After 11 holes, Els led by one shot. After 15, Els and Montgomerie and Lehman were tied again.

Then Lehman stumbled, hitting a seven-iron into the rough above the 16th hole and settling for a bogey.

But Els continued putting up pars, so Lehman had a chance to save himself.

Then he didn’t.

If not for the subtle urging of some marshals, he would still be standing in the 17th fairway, his hands on his head, despair stood still.

He said he hit the approach shot, “a hair fat.” In other words, he hit it badly.

On the grassy banks, thousands who threw up their arms knew that.

“I haven’t backed down, I haven’t wimped out, I haven’t choked my guts out,” Lehman said. “I’m just lacking something to get the job done.”

When he reached the 18th hole, despite cheers for a lead-tying hole-in-one, Lehman was so frazzled he didn’t even think about it at first.

“I’m ready to hit the ball, then I back off and realize, ‘Ernie’s four [under par] and I’m two. So why am I aiming 15 feet right of the hole then?’ ” he said.

He refocused and shot for the hole, but this was not a day for miracles, particularly not for the man who needed one most.

The tee shot landed in the fringe, where Tom Lehman will exist until further notice.


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