The ovation built with each step British Open champion Tom Lehman took toward the 18th green, a deafening roar filling his eyes with tears that washed away years of frustration.
Slowly, almost shyly, Lehman took off his hat and waved it, allowing a faint smile to cross his face.
After bouncing around on minor tours when he lost his PGA Tour card, after coming up short so many times in major championships, Lehman finally was a winner.
“Watching it on TV all those years that walk up the 18th fairway at the British Open - and then having it happen to you is thrilling,” Lehman said. “I had tears in my eyes.”
His gutsy 73 Sunday for a total of 13-under-par 271 was two strokes better than Ernie Els and Mark McCumber and three in front of Nick Faldo.
And it ended forever any reference to Lehman as a guy who couldn’t get the job done on Sunday.
For the fourth time, Lehman played in the final group at a major championship. For the first time, he won. It was a victory built on past defeats, another courageous finish finally rewarded.
Lehman’s triumph was crafted on Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Club, but its foundation was built at Augusta, Shinnecock and Oakland Hills, places where he had his chances in majors but lost out when good things happened to other people.
“That’s always been my fear, you know,” Lehman said. “To have it on my tombstone: ‘Tom Lehman - He couldn’t win the big one.”’
As the final 3-foot putt fell, Lehman raised his arms in triumph, gave an emotional embrace to his caddy, Andy Martinez, blew two kisses to the crowd and gave a special hug to his father, Jim.
“It wasn’t so long ago that I was playing mini-tours … playing for $5,000 and hoping to pay expenses,” said Lehman. “Now I’m holding this claret jug. What a difference.”
Lehman, 37, returned to the PGA Tour in 1992 after losing his card and playing for three years in Asia, South Africa, on various mini-tours and anywhere else he could get in a tournament.
“Back in 1990 or 1991, the idea of winning a major championship was totally outside the realm of possibility,” Lehman said. “It was not even something I considered. To have come this far, to be here today, it’s just thrilling. It puts tingles down your back, chills down your spine.”
Lehman’s determined effort came as he held up under relentless pressure from Faldo - his playing partner and perhaps the best head-to-head player in the world - and Els, who played two groups in front and shot a 67.
He also stood strong as the hugely pro-Faldo crowd carried their home-country hero along with thunderous applause on every green and constant shouts of “C’mon, Nick” and “Go on, Nick.”
At times, some of the shouts turned rude. On the seventh hole, a spectator shouted to Lehman: “Knock it in, Greg,” an apparent reference to Greg Norman and the big lead he blew in the Masters.
“He was kind of calling me a choker,” Lehman said. “It made me determined to play good golf and shut that guy up.”
Faldo started the day six strokes behind Lehman - just as he did at the Masters when he beat Norman. The Englishman had his best game with him - just as he did at Augusta - but was betrayed time and again by his putter and shot a 70.
He missed four birdie putts of 7 feet or less in the first seven holes, two of which went into the cup and spun out. Faldo pulled within three strokes with a 33 on the front nine, but never got closer.
“I had a bad run on 5, 6 and 7,” said Faldo, a threetime British Open champion. “It was tough to get some confidence after that.
“I had so many chances to make it and just didn’t use my chances. It was as simple as that.”
Playing the 18th with a two-stroke lead, Lehman drove into the left rough but played safely to the front of the green and two-putted from 60 feet.
“The last putt was 3 feet and I was lagging,” Lehman said with a huge smile.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BRITISH OPEN Final scores at the 125th British Open: Tom Lehman 67-67-64-73-271 Mark McCumber 67-69-71-66-273 Ernie Els 68-67-71-67-273 Nick Faldo 68-68-68-70-274 Jeff Maggert 69-70-72-65-276 Mark Brooks 67-70-68-71-276
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