When Tom Lehman played in the last round of the 3M Championship last summer, he stood in the 18th fairway, worrying that what might be his last swing as a professional in his home state could result in a splash.
He shouldn’t have worried. His 4-iron easily cleared the pond, and he shot a 69 to take 10th place.
That was Lehman easing his way around a TPC Twin Cities course set up to please Champions Tour players, who would rather pay higher taxes than deal with length and rough.
He spent the last year redesigning the course to challenge PGA Tour pros, lengthening it from 7,000 yards to 7,468, expanding some hazards and narrowing fairways.
Now 60, Lehman received an exemption to play in the first 3M Open, meaning he would face the wrath of his own handiwork.
Thursday, in the first round, he shot a 67, leaving him tied for 18th. If he keeps playing like this, he’ll face insider trading charges.
“It’s a thrill for me to join these guys out here,’’ he said.
With a swing short and familiar as a motto, Lehman provided a reminder that he became the greatest male golfer in Minnesota history long before he directed his first bulldozer.
“Yeah, bogey-free today, I was really pleased with that,’’ he said. “There’s some very, very difficult holes out there.’’
Lehman’s drives averaged 278 yards, making him one of the shorter hitters in the tourney, but he hit every fairway.
“They get narrower and narrower as you get out into that 310-, 320-yard territory. Which, I’m not there. So my fairway is still a little bit wider.’’
He could have sent himself a thank-you note after a day filled with Hallmark sweetness.
His teenage son, Sean, caddied for him and helped read the greens. Other family members followed him around the golf course. His wife, Melissa, biked the mile-and-a-half from where they’re staying to get to the course.
A volunteer handed Lehman a bag of banana bread on the fifth tee box, just as she always did during the Champions Tour event, and Lehman chatted up everyone walking with his group and anyone who called out from the gallery.
Lehman and tournament director Hollis Cavner succeeded in taking a nice-and-easy golf course and turning it into a long-if-not-too-hard test that is fair and picturesque.
“It’s a great day for Minnesota golf, for sure,” Lehman said. “I’m proud of this state and I’m proud of what we put up here for the players to enjoy.
“I can’t even tell you how pleased I am that it seems like across the board, they’re so thankful to Hollis and his crew, the way they’ve been treated this week. They seem to really enjoy the golf course, thinking it’s a fair test but not a pushover.
“So I think they all walk away from Minneapolis saying they had a great time and had a great experience and loved it and can’t wait to come back. I think we’ve done a lot of things right.”
Lehman’s play was an unexpected pleasure. He started on the back nine and carded birdies at Nos. 10, 16, 18 and 1, after which he responded to cheers by saying, “It’s all about the caddie.”
Lehman lipped out a long putt for birdie on No. 15, and missed a series of makable birdie putts on the front nine (his back nine).
He put himself in serious trouble just once — when his tee shot to the par-3 eighth bounced over the green and cartpath and onto a curb.
He took a drop, pitched to 21 feet and made the par putt.
Moments later, as Lehman was walking away, fellow Minnesotan Tim Herron made a hole-in-one on No. 8.
“How about that?” Lehman said. “I told him, ‘Lumpy’s Lager for the house.’ A lot of people out here for him to take care of.”
Lumpy’s Lager? Leh-man’s performance deserved something of a more classic vintage.