Tom Lehman: The Rewards of Golf
By Jayne Thurber-Smith
Tom Lehman has played in almost 500 Professional Golf Association events, ranks twenty-seventh in career earnings on the PGA tour and at the age of 52 shows no sign of slowing down.
In April 2009 Tom graduated to the Champions Tour and won his debut tournament. In May of 2010 he won the Senior PGA Championship, his first Champions Tour major. This year he has already won three times, including his second major on May 8, the Regions Tradition.
Tom was also the 2010 recipient of the Payne Stewart Award, an award given to the player who shows respect for the traditions of the game, commitment to uphold the game's heritage of charitable support and meticulous presentation of himself and the sport through his conduct.
“The most satisfying accomplishment for me was winning the British Open in 1996,” Tom says, looking back over his lustrous career. “But the most rewarding times were the times on the mini tours.”
When he uses the word “rewarding” in reference to mini tours he’s not talking about wealth or fame. Tom knows that the important things in life are far removed from both those things.
As a teenager Tom had no career aspirations of celebrity. Although he had played golf in high school, his home state of Minnesota wasn’t known for producing golfers. He had planned on attending St John’s University to become a businessman. Two days before school was going to start he got a surprise call.
“I had played in a tournament with the captain of the University of Minnesota’s golf team,” he recalls, “and he thought I was good. He called his coach and the coach called me and recruited me. A five-minute phone call changed my life.”
After graduating from university he earned his PGA Tour card and played from 1983 to 1985, then dropped down to the mini tours. After years of hard work and focus that Tom now remembers as so rewarding, he was back on the PGA tour by 1992. He says the turning point in his career came when he decided he wasn’t into golf for the money.
“In the very beginning,” he says, “I started playing golf because I wanted to be good. After awhile you have to come to a decision of ‘am I good enough or not?’ If you say ‘yes’ then it’s a simple step towards deciding to be as good as you can be. Playing good golf will take care of everything else.”
Tom notes that golf has many lessons to teach.
“You have to learn to overcome disappointment,” he states. “You lose way more than you win. Even when you play well, bad things can happen. You are forced to deal with the negatives and the frustrations that go along with them.”
Tom also credits his faith in God for helping him through the ups and downs of life. Faith gives him the framework to make decisions on how he’s going to handle what comes his way.
“To have faith doesn’t mean you get any less frustrated when you don’t do your best,” he says, “but you know that it’s not life and death. Take what you’re given and when you continue to work hard you will see results. That will give you the confidence you need to keep going.”
Tom’s faith was placed under the microscope in July of 2001, when he had to drive his five-months’ pregnant wife, Melissa, to the hospital. Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly recorded what transpired:
“Twenty-five hours later Samuel Edward Lehman was delivered stillborn. Tom sat in a rocking chair and held Samuel as though he were alive. He held the 10-inch-long baby in his big hands for two hours, rocking and touching and weeping worse than any infant in that maternity wing.”
In his sorrow, Tom determined to learn from his suffering.
“I’ve never doubted that God is good,” he says. “I will never have all the answers but I’m convinced that there is a bigger picture than what I see. We were given an amazing gift from Samuel: the ability to become stronger as a family and to have closer communication.”
Tom also notes that this closer communication made his marriage better. He and Melissa have been married for twenty-three years. He acknowledges that it takes hard work, becoming a servant and putting the other first.
“For starters it helps that you marry the right person,” he shares. “I was smart enough to marry the person God had for me. Melissa and I are very different personality-wise. We want each other to be who we are, because that makes life interesting. My life is significantly better because of Melissa.”
While it certainly isn’t any time soon, whenever his golf game does come to an end Tom would like to devote his life to coaching.
“The two professions with the most influence are teachers and coaches,” he says. “A good one makes a great impact on a kid. You don’t do those kinds of jobs for the money, you do them for the positive way you can impact someone.”
Tom has discovered that the best rewards aren’t monetary. He will share that rare belief with the kids he coaches someday.
“The best thing about golf is the challenge and sense of satisfaction you get when you’ve done something you know to be good,” he says. “It’s something as simple as making the cut or making a putt when the pressure is on. It’s the pride in achieving your potential. Focus on being the best you can be and then believe in your ability.”
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