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Tom Lehman

Explore the World of Minnesota Golf with Tom Lehman

5 Lessons You Can Learn from Tom Lehman

There is little doubt that Minnesota lives up to its nickname as the “state of hockey” – the state has produced some of the best American hockey players in the history of the game. Many Minnesotans are practically born with a hockey stick in their hands and begin skating soon after they learn to walk. But it was in that same hockey-crazed culture that a kid from Alexandria, Minnesota crafted his skills with a different type of stick: a golf club.

Tom Lehman’s journey from a small Minnesota town of 6,000 to becoming the world’s No. 1 ranked golfer in 1997 might seem an unlikely one, but spend a day with him walking the iconic  Hazeltine National golf course in Chaska, Minnesota and you’ll learn just how deeply intertwined his home state is with his golf success. 

Here are five things to know about this Local Legend who is synonymous with the game of golf in Minnesota.

Respect your competition.

Lehman’s close friend, legendary pro golfer Payne Stewart, did many things well on the golf course, but the one thing that stood out to Lehman more than anything about Stewart was his sportsmanship, “It’s easy in a competition to let your emotions get the best of you, but he always understood the importance of a situation by respecting the game and respecting his competitors,” says Lehman. That sportsmanship was never more evident than during the Ryder Cup at Brookline in 1999, when Stewart had a chance to celebrate the United States’ victory as he finished the 18th hole. “He had a chance to put on this Uncle Sam hat, with stars and stripes, down the 18th fairway to wear it like a victory march, but he didn’t because he felt like it would be disrespectful to Colin Montgomery,” emphasizes Lehman. “That spoke volumes to me about competing the right way and who Payne Stewart was.”

The path to improvement can be unconventional.

Growing up, someone told Lehman that playing golf barefoot would help develop better balance in his swing, so he played without shoes every chance he got at his hometown course, Alexandria Country Club. He broke 70 for the first time as a barefoot 13-year-old.

You can learn more from failure than from success.

The road to becoming the No. 1 ranked golfer in 1997 was not always a smooth one for Lehman. After finishing up at the University of Minnesota, he got his pro card right away in 1983, only to lose it soon after. As a result, he and his wife moved back to Minnesota, and for a while he had no PGA status at all. He credits those failures for teaching him important lessons that led to his eventual success, “There’s no teacher like failure. When you fail enough times, you either learn or you quit,” he says. Even after reaching the pinnacle of the golf world in 1997 and winning five PGA Tour events, including the 1996 Open Championship, Lehman says success was often the most difficult thing to deal with, “The biggest test in my opinion has always been success,” he says. “There are great things that come with it, but there are also things that can make you far less of a person than you desire to be. So success can be tough.”

Rain or shine, keep your eye on the prize.

While most would consider Minnesota’s winter weather a drawback, Lehman actually credits it with his success. His early golf days in a state with limited months for the sport meant extra time spent adjusting his game.

For example, on one particular cold, rainy day during his time as a student at the University of Minnesota, Lehman went to practice at the driving range. To his surprise, his good friend Tom Barron from the U of M athletic department walked out onto driving range with an umbrella as Lehman was driving balls out into the rain. “He came up and just sat in the rain for about an hour, watching me hit drivers one after another, and didn’t say a word,” says Lehman. “Finally he said, ‘You know what? You’re going to make it,’ and then he walked away. It was one of those memories that always stands out because we were close enough we didn’t have to talk – he knew what I was doing, and I knew why he was there. He was there because he loved me and he knew that I was working hard to achieve my goal of becoming a professional golfer.

Don’t just hope for the best – do your research.

As one of four vice captains for the 2016 Ryder Cup, Lehman spent several months leading up to the event researching anything that might affect Team USA's play at Hazeltine National. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Lehman was Team USA's unofficial Minnesota expert, and the Minnesota native took his role seriously. He visited Hazeltine several times prior to the tournament to scout the course and check out potential accommodations for the team. More importantly, he read the Farmer's Almanac to predict what conditions would be like during the Ryder Cup. "The years I looked up -- over 30 years, it was -- it's going to have some breeze," he told the Star Tribune prior to the tournament. "You may get lucky and have one of those beautiful 80-degree, five-mile-per-hour weeks, but those are pretty rare," he said. "Blowing 10 to 17 (mph) was pretty normal, about 65 to 70 degrees was pretty normal. It will be cold in the morning, though."

It turns out that Lehman’s weather prediction was pretty spot on. It’s debatable how much of a factor that insight played in the tournament, but the United States won 17-11 over Europe, their biggest rout in 35 years at the Ryder Cup.

Download the Local Legends podcast on iTunes and Google Play to hear more from Tom Lehman about his life and career.