2 Down with 3 to Go, Lehman Rallies to Win in Tucson
March 19 2017
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Things were going in the wrong direction for Tom Lehman on Sunday afternoon as he reached the 16th tee at the Omni Tucson National's Catalina Course. He had been tied with Steve Stricker for the lead in the Tucson Conquistadores Classic after 12 holes, but now he was two behind.
Lehman got things going in the right direction with a birdie at the par-3 16th, made another birdie at the par-5 17th and then claimed his 10th victory on the PGA Tour Champions with a solid two-putt par at the 18th, one of the hardest holes on the 50-and-over circuit. That birdie-birdie-par finish capped off a 7-under-par 66 and gave the former University of Minnesota All-American a 54-hole total of 199, 20 under par.
The victory was worth $255,000, which elevated Lehman from No. 84 on the Champions money list to No. 4, with $258,040 in two events.
Stricker, who closed with a 70, finished second, one stroke behind at 200. He made $149,600.
Bernhard Langer shot a 65, and that moved him up into third place at 204. In addition to being the lowest score of the day, the 65 was noteworthy for the fact that it was the 32nd consecutive sub-par round for Langer, the three-time defending Charles Schwab Cup champion, and with that, he broke the old record of 31 consecutive rounds under par that Gil Morgan had established in 2000.
Another stroke back, at 205, there was a three-way tie for fourth -- Fred Couples (70), Billy Andrade (67) and Gene Sauers (69). Kirk Triplett, who matched Langer's 65, tied Kevin Sutherland for seventh at 206.
This was the Champions debut for Stricker, a 12-time winner on the PGA Tour who turned 50 on Feb. 23.
In the end, he was the one going the wrong direction, mainly because of his unfamiliarity with the 469-yard, par-4 18th hole at the Catalina Course, which has water to the right and to the left. His mistake was that he aimed his 3-wood (3-metal) tee shot too far left. After he hit it, someone in the crowd said: "Good shot." Stricker thought so, too. But the fairway on No. 18 is crowned, and slopes hard toward the water hazard on the left. His shot landed left of center, on the downslope, and the ball took off as if it were turbo-charged. It ran about 40 yards and hadn't slowed down all that much before it entered the water.
The one-stroke penalty that resulted was the difference between getting into a playoff with his good friend Lehman and being the runner-up.
"That drive on the last hole, I thought it was a good one," Stricker said afterward. "It was 300 yards to the water on that line, and I hit a 3-wood into the wind. So I don't know how far it went."
"He played quite well," Lehman added. "He has nothing to be ashamed of. I can assure you, he played outstanding golf, and I just made a couple more putts."
For the 58-yard-old Lehman, who won five times on the PGA Tour (including the 1996 British Open), this was the first Champions victory since the 2015 SAS Championship.
Lehman won five times as a senior and made more than $4 million during the 2011 and '12 seasons, and in each of those years he won the Charles Schwab Cup, a season-long competition to determine the Senior Tour's Player of the Year (for which the reward is a bonus of $1 million). Then he cut back his schedule. As an example, he skipped a couple of big Champions Tour (that's what it was called then) events in the fall of 2013 because his son was a senior and the quarterback for his high school football team, and Lehman didn't want to miss any games. (Lehman himself was a star quarterback for the Alexandria High School team in the mid-70's, and his father, Jim Lehman, Sr., was the legendary coach John Gagliardi's first All-American at St. John's University in the 1950's).
Even with the reduced schedule, Lehman remained a fixture in the top 30 on the money list. But he started 2017 on the Disabled List, after having surgery on his elbow in November. And in his first tournament back, the Chubb Classic in February, he shot 73-70-73--216, tied for 57th and made only $3,040. It wasn't exactly an auspicious start to the year.
Nevertheless, he was back in form for the first round in Tucson, shooting a 66, which had him tied for second place, one behind Couples. Stricker took the lead on Day 2, scorching the course with a 10-under 63, and he began the final round with a three-stroke advantage over Lehman.
Those three strokes disappeared pretty quickly. Stricker, who didn't make a bogey in either of the first two rounds, bogeyed the first hole (395 yards, par 4) on Sunday, and Lehman eagled the 535-yard, par-5 second to pull even. Lehman moved ahead with birdies the fifth (398, par 4) and sixth (425, par 4), but Stricker got one back with a birdie at the eighth (587, par 5).
It was a two-man race as they made the turn, and they both birdied No. 10 (404, par 4). That was the first of three birdies in a row for Stricker, but Lehman matched his birdie at the par-5 12th (610 yards), and they were tied with six holes remaining.
Lehman hit his approach at the 13th (428, par 4) into a bunker, and blassted his bunker shot just over the green onto the fringe. He needed to get up and down from there for a bogey, which dropped him one behind. Stricker expanded his lead to two strokes by hitting an 88-yard wedge shot to 3 feet for a birdie at the 525-yard, par-5 15th. Lehman hit an impressive 90-yard wedge shot at No. 15, but the ball spun back past the hole and he missed a 10-footer for his birdie.
The 16th hole at Catalina was listed as 183 yards for the Conquistadores Classic, but it played longer than that, and it was 195 yards to the back pin placement on Sunday. Stricker was fooled, and his 7-iron tee shot came up 50 feet short. Lehman hit a 6-iron to 25 feet, and after he converted the birdie putt, Stricker missed a 4-footer for par. It was a two-swing, and suddenly, the two of them were tied once again.
Tucson is roughly 2,400 feet above sea level; so a golf ball goes farther there than it does most other places. At the 511-yard 17th hole, Stricker hit his 3-wood nearly 300 yards, and Lehman was 23 yards ahead of him with a driver off the tee. Stricker's 4-iron second shot bounced over the green. Lehman pulled his 6-iron second about 60 feet left of the hole, but he was on the green, bnearly pin high. Both players made 4's, although Lehman's was more of an adventure. He rolled his first putt well past the cup, and had to make an 8-footer coming back for his two-putt. It was his sixth birdie of the day, to go with the eagle at No. 2. Stricker hit a clever little chip from 10 feet behind the green, and needed only a 2-footer for his birdie.
So they were both 20 under as they headed for the daunting final hole.
At the 18th, Lehman used a driver and hit it down the right side. He still had a 200-yard second shot -- 10 yards longer than his second at the par-5 17th -- but his 5-iron approach came to rest 30 feet left of the cup, leaving him a fairly simple two-putt. Stricker's third shot ended up in the front right fringe, 40 feet from the hole. He putted from there, and ran the ball 5 feet past. Lehman's first putt stopped 15 inches short of the cup, and that essentially concluded the matter.
"I've been working hard to get in shape," said Lehman, a former winner of both the Minnesota State Amateur (1981) and State Open (1989, '90). "Since I couldn't play golf (after the elbow surgery), I spent a lot of time just trying to get in better shape, and I think that really paid off this week. I feel much better over the golf ball. I hit a lot of good shots, made some putts and had a lot of energy."
PGA TOUR CHAMPIONS
Tucson Conquistadores Classic
At Omni Tucson National - Catalina Course
1. Tom Lehman $255,000 66-67-66--199
2. Steve Stricker $149,600 66-63-70--200
3. Bernhard Langer $122,400 71-68-65--204
T4. Billy Andrade $83,867 68-70-67--205
T4. Fred Couples $83,867 65-70-70--205
T4. Gene Sauers $83,867 70-66-69--205
T7. Kirk Triplet $57,800 72-69-65--206
T7. Kevin Sutherland $57,800 70-65-71--206
T9. Stephen Ames $42,500 67-73-67--207
T9. Steve Pate $42,500 70-68-69--207
T9. Jeff Maggert $42,500 66-70-71--207
T9. Duffy Waldorf $42,500 69-67-71--207