By Bob Denney, The PGA of America
Tom Lehman will visit Valhalla Golf Club for the third time in his competitive playing career, but this time as the defending champion in the 72nd Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid on May 24-29. This native Minnesotan is riding a crest of confidence that harkens back to the 1990s when he rolled up his sleeves and built an enviable career after remembering one key swing thought -- do not forget the lessons of the past.
The 52-year-old Lehman continues a 21-year student-coach relationship with Jim Flick, the 1988 PGA Teacher of the Year and who this fall will be inducted into the PGA Golf Professional Hall of Fame.
When Lehman called upon Flick in 1990, it was after a third failed attempt to secure a Tour card. Lehman would regain full Tour playing privileges in 1992 after dominating the former Ben Hogan (now Nationwide) Tour.
"I put my trust in Jim," says Lehman. "I have enjoyed Jim's friendship, and he has my best intentions at heart. He is a good observer and is knowledgeable about cause and effect. He understands my swing and will listen to me. I have seen him four times already this year, but it is more to ensure that I have the proper tune-up."
A year ago, in the rarefied air of the Rocky Mountains, Lehman was steady when it counted while capturing the Senior PGA Championship in a one-hole playoff at Colorado Golf Club with Fred Couples and David Frost. Lehman lifted the 30- pound Alfred S. Bourne Trophy with ease and looked like a man entrenched for a career extension.
"Winning a major always is a big deal," says Lehman. "To win last year was a very significant step. Once you have felt what it is like to be on top, you want to move to the next stage and keep yourself playing at your best. It meant a lot to me to beat a good field and in a Championship like that. It is a big deal."
This season, Lehman prepared for his week in Louisville by winning the Mississippi Resort Gulf Classic, his third victory as a member of the Champions Tour.
"I'm not doing anything differently, just playing pretty well. My flexibility is pretty good," says Lehman. "I don't work out a great deal."
Flick said that there is no reason not to believe that Lehman, the 1996 Open Champion and leader in charitable endeavors off the course, will someday pave his own path to the World Golf Hall of Fame. Golfers, especially the combination of role models as well as prime time performers, are "Hall-worthy."
"Tom does not need a lot of guidance," says Flick. "He knows his golf swing. I serve as an extra set of eyes for him. I have known him long enough to know how he keeps his swing and body in rhythm and everything stays in harmony.
"When he lost his Tour card three times (1986, '87, and '90), and then came back a few years later to earn the No. 1 ranking in the world (1997), I wouldn't doubt what is in a person's heart."
The 72nd Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid is the second visit by golf 's legendary and world-class 50-and-older contingent to Valhalla Golf Club. In 2004, Hale Irwin captured his fourth Senior PGA Championship after a rain-delayed week. Valhalla played to 6,990 yards seven years ago, and will be set up at 7,297 yards this month.
Lehman, who will be joined by 25 other major champions in the 156-player field, competed on the Jack Nicklaus-designed layout in the 1996 and 2000 PGA Championship. He shared 14th in his first appearance and withdrew in 2000 after one round with an 82, the effect of having had knee surgery just before the Championship.
"I don't remember much about Valhalla, and I know things have changed over the years," says Lehman. "I'm looking forward to playing and defending my championship. I have been focusing on my play and I think that I'm in a really good position."
A review of Lehman's performances in major championships over his career shows that he has competed in 65 major championships between 1986 and 2010, with 12 top-10 performances. After two complete Champions Tour seasons, he has recorded four top-10 finishes in eight major championships.
"I played well in the majors last year, and besides the Senior PGA Championship, I thought it could have been better."
Lehman has not mixed any complex messages into his game. "I simplified things, and have used the draw that I have hit naturally and taken the mystery out of golfing," Lehman says. "I used to try to hit fades to pins that were not easy to reach and I stopped doing that. As a result, I am making fewer bogeys."
As simplified as it may be, Lehman is wary of the competition that he faces weekly at another age bracket.
"There are 25 guys now who are capable of winning at any time," Lehman says. "A lot of players were solid for 30 years and then find themselves after age 50 and come into their own. That is what makes it fun and challenging."