Tom Lehman was 33 and about to enter the best years of his PGA Tour career when organizers of a new Senior Tour event in Minnesota made their big announcement. A $1 million purse was attached to the first Burnet Senior Classic. It was the second-largest chunk of change on the 50-and-over tour.
Within three years, Lehman’s charity event, the Dayton’s Challenge, became the hot ticket in town, drawing top PGA Tour pros. The two events engaged in a tug-of-war of sorts for the Twin Cities summer golf dollar.
“There had to be a sense of team play and teamwork to make both events succeed,” Lehman said. “Dayton’s was successful, and my hat’s off to 3M for what they’ve done for golf fans in the area and forced the trajectory to go up.”
Lehman’s event ended in 2002. The PGA Tour Champions has maintained a stronghold in the area. Now that, too, has run its course.
Friday morning the 3M Championship tees off for the 26th and final time. Next up at TPC Twin Cities is Minnesota’s first PGA Tour stop since 1969. The inaugural 3M Open, a $6.6 million event, begins its seven-year agreement in Blaine next July 4th.
“Anything that has to do with golf in Minnesota is a big deal to me and my family,” said Lehman, an Alexandria native. “This event is special. It’s been a great tournament all these years. Big changes are ahead, but they’re exciting changes.”
Tournament director Hollis Cavner oversaw four U.S. Opens in six years — including 1991 at Hazeltine — leading up to his bringing the Senior Tour to Minnesota.
“Without trying to sound like I’m bragging,” Cavner said then, “I think it was the best tournament I’ve ever done.”
Organizers boasted ticket sales of 176,000 for the week, but that first year had its challenges.
Arnold Palmer was a late scratch, instead accepting an invitation to a sports awards dinner with President Bill Clinton. Jack Nicklaus and Ray Floyd declined, too, choosing to take part in the U.S. Open field at Baltusrol that weekend.
Heavy rains flooded the course and at least one merchandise tent, but fans still showed up in droves and set the standard for nearly three decades of success.
“It was always so well represented,” said Bob Reith Jr., former Edina Country Club pro who was a Senior Tour rookie in 1993. “The crowds — we never had anything like that.”
Palmer showed up the next year and played nine times before headlining the fan-favorite Greats of Golf exhibition until his death in 2016. Nicklaus never played but he, too, has treated fans as one of the Greats in recent years.
Moving and growing
The main event moved to TPC Twin Cities in 2001, when 3M took over as the sponsor. The event stopped charging for admission a decade ago and still will generate $1.3 million for charity this week, upping the total to more than $26 million overall.
“You never know how a new tournament is going to go, but the fans in Minnesota were fantastic,” Reith said. “When you take care of players and sponsors like they have, you just knew it was going to go on and on. I think it just ran its course. I’m sure the guys will miss it.”
That’s been the sentiment around TPC Twin Cities all week.
“We hate to see it go,” said Tom Kite, the 2004 winner making his 17th appearance. “I guess I understand what they’re doing, but I don’t think anybody’s happy with the decision. It’s frustrating for us to lose one of our best tournaments.”
Lehman turned 50 in 2009 and didn’t participate in the 3M Championship the first two years he was eligible. He’s since embraced the tournament, played on a course he helped design, and has twice finished in the top 10 since 2011.
He has one win already in the Midwest this summer — the rain-shortened Principal Charity Classic eight weeks ago in Des Moines — and sights set on sending the 3M off with a local flare.
When Lehman missed the cut at the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine he finished with a smile holding his Goldy Gopher head cover above his head walking up the 18th fairway.
Lehman said he has zero aspirations to play with the young guns in the 3M Open as a special exemption — “It’s an amazingly more aggressive game” — so this is his final chance to play well in front of a home crowd.
“This is my last crack at it,” Lehman said. “Coming down to the last hole with a chance to win — it would be one of those fitting things. That’s my goal. I’d be thrilled.”