Tom Lehman stood at the front of the dew-draped 15th green, his Scotty Cameron putter tucked under his left arm.
For three minutes Wednesday morning, he studied the contours, scribbling his little pencil on a black-and-white Omaha Country Club yardage book. He shaded the steepest parts of the green, where even the USGA wouldn’t put a pin. He drew arrows to signify the falloffs.
“I’m a very visual person, so when I draw it myself, I remember it.”
In the distance, Lehman heard workers erecting bleachers behind the 14th green — the Senior U.S. Open begins in three weeks and he badly wants to win. In his mind, the former No. 1 player in the world envisioned the pins he can attack and the ones he can’t, the places he wants to chip from and the places he doesn’t.
Then Lehman, wearing a maroon and gold Minnesota hat, moved to the back of the 15th green and studied another few minutes, scribbling more.
He arrived in Omaha on Tuesday afternoon, laid eyes on OCC for the first time and spent three hours walking the front nine, just putting. Wednesday morning — after a late night watching his Spurs lose — he returned for the back nine. Again, no clubs, just a flatstick.
“You can get a lot of knowledge absorbed in six hours out here, walking it, not hitting,” said Lehman, the 1996 British Open champion. “When you’re hitting shots, you can get distracted when you hit a bad shot. You drop another ball and you start hitting and pretty soon you’re just working on your swing. The idea is to be learning the course.”
What he doesn’t like is showing up the week of a big tournament and cramming alongside 150 competitors. The more he learns now — without distraction — the better he can focus on polishing his game during official practice rounds.
Lehman, 54, isn’t far from his golfing prime — he nearly qualified for the 2006 Ryder Cup team he captained. In 2011, he was Champions Tour player of the year. But he’s best known for his near-misses at the U.S. Open. Four years in a row, 1995-98, he played in the final group. He went 0 for 4. In other words, he knows how Phil Mickelson feels.
“I do know that pain,” Lehman said. “I’ve been there before.”
At first glance, he thinks Omaha Country Club could be the place that delivers his first USGA championship. Walking up to the 15th green, Lehman shook a maintenance worker’s hand.
“You’ve got a beautiful course,” he said. “I love it.”
OCC plays to Lehman’s strengths. He drives the ball well and was once the best iron player on the PGA Tour. The past two days, he noticed numerous uphill second shots, a steady diet of downhill par 3s and thick cabbage flanking the fairways.
“The rough, unless they cut it, is way higher than I’ve ever seen for a U.S. Senior Open,” Lehman said.
Players will have to decide whether to lay back on flatter spots in the fairway and approach with longer irons or attack with driver and try to get a wedge in their hands, knowing that an errant tee ball means a likely bogey.
With courses as difficult as OCC, Lehman said, everybody will make mistakes — “It’s just who does it less.”
Kind of like ... Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Lehman showed up Wednesday morning a little later than he planned. It’s not easy to sleep when your team loses a five-point lead in the final 30 seconds.
“I thought the referees really blew the last two calls,” he said. “That no-call on (Manu) Ginobili was just pitiful. Then when a guy takes a 3 and gets knocked into the bleachers, you gotta call that.
“But they shouldn’t have ever gotten there. The little things they did all series long, they didn’t do last night down the stretch.”
Then Lehman was off with his putter and his yardage book, first to finish the back nine, then to fly to Chicago for a Champions Tour stop, where Thursday night he’ll carve out a few hours to study Game 7, hoping the old guys can shove aside past disappointment and find a way — finally — to close the deal.
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