There is no better ambassador for golf from Minnesota than Tom Lehman, who was born in Austin, grew up in Alexandria and was a star for the Gophers.
He remains the only golfer in history to have been named Player of the Year by the PGA Tour, the PGA Tour Champions and the Web.com Tour. There was never a doubt the former No. 1 player in the world would be in Blaine this week for the 3M Open, playing the TPC Twin Cities course he helped design and toughened up last year in preparation for a regular PGA Tour stop’s return to Minnesota.
Lehman, who finished tied for 10th last year when the 3M Championship was a Champions Tour event, knows this week will be a challenge for him with the course playing at 7,468 yards.
His goal? Make the cut.
“I know I can play the course,” he said. “If I can play the really long holes reasonably well, there is enough opportunities for me. But I don’t think I can make enough birdies to compete to win, but if I can play four rounds, I’ll be happy.
“It’s going to be very hard for me. The course is very long and it’s very wet and so it’s going to play even longer than the yardage. It’s going to really benefit the guys who hit it far and I am probably the shortest hitter in the field this week.”
Going to tear it apart
Lehman said there’s a good chance some historically low numbers could be put up this weekend from a combination of the courses design and the weather.
“Somebody is going to tear it apart,” he said. “I think the winning score, if the weather is nice, will be 20 under. It’s going to be a birdie-fest out there.”
How does he think the course design will impact play?
“Well, this course is suiting, I would say, the big hitters,” Lehman said. “The guys who can hit it the farthest are the guys who are going to do the best.
“There is just a number of holes where length is an advantage and there’s a bunch of holes where it’s not. The way the game is played today, with the power guys have, the guys who can hit it the longest have such a big advantage. Somebody who hits it long and is putting well is going to be the favorite.”
With a field featuring Brooks Koepka (ranked No. 1 in the world), Bryson DeChambeau (8), Tony Finau (17), Jason Day (18), Patrick Reed (25) and Phil Mickelson (28), there are going to be a lot of big names around the course all weekend.
“The field this week is tremendous,” Lehman said. “But the PGA Tour from the top to the bottom is very strong and the field this week is the same. It’s really good.”
Mickelson might be the biggest name draw at the 3M Open, but Lehman views Koepka — who will tee off on No. 1 at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, as the best golfer on the planet right now.
Koepka ranks fourth on the PGA Tour in scoring average (69.402), and first in money ($7.3 million) and is tied for the lead with two victories this season.
“The top players are the top players for a reason,” Lehman said. “Brooks Koepka is the best player in the world right now, and he is in the field. I think it’s a good course for him.”
Still in the game
Lehman’s victory in the 1996 British Open at the Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club remains the highlight of his career, but he has been one of the most consistent golfers in the world since he turned pro in 1982.
At 60 years old, he is playing mostly on the Champions Tour and won the Mitsubishi Electric Championship to start the season and has earnings of $654,037 so far this year.
“I am still playing the Champions Tour mostly full-time,” he said. “I still have a high school-aged son at home, so I miss some of the tournaments to watch him play his sports. But I’m still playing 18, 20 a year.”
Has he had any thoughts of retiring after 37 years as a professional golfer?
“I am not retiring yet, and I don’t foresee retiring any time soon,” he said.
On top of continuing to play, his Lehman Design Group has built or redesigned 16 of the top golf courses in the country, including Minnesota courses such as Edina Country Club, North Oaks Country Club, and Windsong Farm in Independence.
“Still doing design work,” Lehman said. “It’s kind of the same as we have always had, just a little bit at a time, a course here, a course there. I try to keep in balance, competing and designing.”
How does he view the design of TPC Twin Cities?
“This course was designed more for daily play, designed to be more forgiving, so trying to make it more difficult is tough because then you may make it too tough for the average guy,” Lehman said. “The greens I would say are very big and very receptive, and I would say that’s the issue. The greens are good-sized, very puttable, in great shape and they’re quite generous targets for everybody. That’s why the scores are typically so low.”
Big for Minnesota golf
There’s no doubt Lehman was excited for what this event means for Minnesota golf fans, but he also noted that it was tough to see the PGA Tour Champions event end its 18-year run.
“It was a disappointment for the Champions Tour to leave, because everybody enjoyed it here so much,” he said. “But I think for the golf fans of Minneapolis, this is a big step. Having PGA Tour events here, having Ryder Cups here, the LPGA Championship, it’s a really good thing for Minnesota golf.”
And Lehman said there’s no doubt 3M Open director Hollis Cavner, who did the behind-the-scenes work to launch this tournament, will put on a great event this weekend.
“Hollis is a visionary, full of great ideas, he’s kind of set the bar with what he does putting on golf events,” Lehman said. “This is no different. He does a tremendous, tremendous job and this week will show people how talented he really is.”
• Former Gophers President Eric Kaler was on the search committee to replace outgoing Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney. He said the decision to hire Vikings COO Kevin Warren was the best possible outcome for the Big Ten. “I know Kevin well.” Kaler said. “I was a member of the search committee at the Big Ten and I was delighted to see him interview for that job and to ultimately get it. He is a terrific human being, a great leader and I think he will do wonderful things for the Big Ten.”
• Don’t be surprised if the Wolves give Shabazz Napier a real shot at point guard. He averaged 9.4 points and 2.6 assists in 17.6 minutes per game for the Nets last season. In a November game against the Wolves in Brooklyn, he had 12 points on 4-for-5 shooting to go along with six rebounds.