Tom Lehman striped his tee shot down the first fairway just after noon Friday and so began his mission at TPC Twin Cities in Blaine.
Head down. Ready to work.
The crammed gallery situated on an adjacent hill offered encouragement with hardly a reaction from Lehman as he made his way off the tee box.
“Go Gophers!” someone yelled.
That got a head nod from Minnesota’s own, as if he knew what was to come.
Five hours later there were more, louder cheers when Lehman came within a foot of a chip-in eagle on the 18th hole. He tapped in for the last of three straight birdies to close out an opening-round 8-under 64 at the 3M Championship, the leader by three over P.H. Horgan III, Grant Waite and Scott Dunlap.
The three-shot advantage is the largest after Round 1 in tournament history.
“I felt very comfortable here at home again,” Lehman said after signing a bogey-free scorecard. “I look forward to this so much. I miss the Minnesota culture. Just a great place to live and people to interact with. It’s nice to get back to your roots.”
For Lehman, the co-designer of the course with Arnold Palmer, it was just nice to reward his fans with a positive round. The score was his best in the event, and his lowest on the Champions Tour since carding a 62 in the 2012 season-ending Schwab Cup Championship.
Lehman finished runner-up in his 3M Championship debut in 2011 but hasn’t sniffed the top 20 in the years after. That’s largely because of illness: the flu in 2013 and a bout with pneumonia last summer.
“I really haven’t played worth a hoot,” Lehman said. “I’ve been disappointed I haven’t been able to give a good effort. It’s no fun to come here and play poorly.”
He didn’t but plenty walked off the course with a different result.
For much of the day winds gusting more than 25 miles per hour wreaked havoc on players. While it was the ninth straight year the opening-round leader shot 7 under or better, the Day 1 scoring average of 71.988 was the highest since 2003.
“Eventually it drives you crazy,” said Dunlap, who rolled in a 3M-record-tying seven straight birdies to highlight his round. “It’s a grind, it’s a battle when the wind is blowing that hard. It suits me but at the end of the day, you don’t want all of it.”
It didn’t bother Lehman. He poured in a 25-foot birdie putt on No. 2, eagled No. 3 and drained a 15-footer from behind the hole on No. 4 to race up the leaderboard early.
He played steadily in the elements on the back nine, making six straight pars.
“It was very tough to judge and you can be unlucky with it,” Lehman said. “A lot of times you’re just aiming at a safe spot, trying to make sure you’re getting to a place where you can play again.”
Lehman’s playing partners certainly caught a case of bad luck with the wind on the par-3 17th.
Defending champion Kenny Perry, the longest hitter on the tour, wound up short and in the water after an ill-timed gust of wind popped his ball straight up. It led to a double bogey.
The breeze died midflight on Bernhard Langer, leaving his shot woefully long and settling for par.
Langer finished 4 under, part of a pack of five players four shots back. Perry rebounded with an eagle on No. 18 and is part of a 10-way logjam at 3 under.
Nineteen players shot in the 60s on Friday compared to 35 a year ago.
“A test of patience,” Waite said. “You’re going to hit some shots that don’t turn out very well … It’s the variability of the game. That’s why we play it, that’s why it’s so much fun and why every week everyone had an opportunity to win.”
Calmer conditions are expected Saturday which is good news for the hometown fans who want to see Lehman put up another low number.
“If we get up and the wind is blowing 8 miles per hour there’s going to be guys aiming at every pin,” Lehman said. “There’s really no room for being satisfied.”