Tom Lehman, Champion Golfer, Faithful Husband
by Pastor Dan White
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The whole town of Alexandria, Minnesota, all seven thousand of them, lined the streets to cheer their conquering heroes on the cold Minnesota winter day in December 1974. Caesar could have wished for such a reception in Rome after conquering another country.
The teenage heroes were feted with the high school’s marching band, dignitaries, and rode triumphantly on the town’s fire trucks. Kids screamed in delight. Parents cheered. Mom’s cried. The air was electric with excitement.
The hometown boys had won the state’s football championship 26-7 defeating the biggest team in the state. It seemed the entire town had traveled the 133 miles to Minneapolis to see the championship game. The town’s parade and reception crowned them number one.
The celebration coiled around the city’s streets and made it’s way to the school auditorium for a gigantic pep rally.
Fifteen year old Tom Lehman made his way into the rally with the rest of his team. But, he felt like the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The father threw a big party rejoicing in the return of his younger son. But for the elder brother, there was no feeling of joy in his heart.
Tom was a third-string quarterback on a team that went 12 and 0. No one even came close to them that year. The first string quarterback was an all-state player and went on to play football in college
Tom had sat on the bench for the entire championship season. He didn’t play in a single game - not even for one down.
Tom said, “I felt like I didn’t belong on the team. I felt like a failure. I felt worthless. Empty. Lonely.
“These were feelings that had followed me all of my life. I was searching for something, but I didn’t know what. The football victories only made the feelings stronger, like I didn’t measure up. I felt guilty, because I wanted to be a good kid. I wanted to be a good athlete. A good student. But I could never measure up. I was never good enough. I felt like I didn’t matter.”
For a teenage boy, he asked some deep questions. “Why am I here? What gives life meaning? Why am I so miserable?”
But in the providence of God, Tom’s football coach was a dynamic Christian. He had invited Tom over and over to attend the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meetings where the coach was the “huddle” leader.
Several weeks after the celebration rally in the auditorium, Tom finally decided to attend one of the meetings.
At that FCA meeting, Tom heard them speak of God’s unconditional love through Christ. He heard that Christ died for him because of His great love.
Tom reflects on that life-changing night. “This message was incredible! You’re telling me that God did that for me—someone who doesn¹t matter?! He loved me enough to do that?
“Suddenly I felt like I did matter.” That night,” Tom said, “I prayed to receive Jesus as my Savior and started that relationship with Him—a relationship that’s lasted all my life.
“The feeling of forgiveness and the feeling of guilt and inadequacy that was heaped on my shoulders just disappeared. I felt secure in God’s love. I knew that I was safe and accepted. The feeling of joy and tears of joy flowed out of my eyes The feeling of peace and contentment that I had never known before flooded my soul I was always striving to be someone better than I really was. Suddenly I had this peace and contentment that I could just be Tom Lehman, and that I’m accepted and loved.”
The University of Minnesota offered Tom a golf scholarship after high school. The school is not exactly known for its golf program. After all, golf can only be played and practiced a few months out of the year in cold, snowy Minnesota.
Nevertheless, Tom was named an All-American collegiate golfer. He decided to turn pro after graduating.
Lehman won and lost his PGA card three straight years from 1983-85. At the 1985 St. Jude Memphis Classic, he needed a birdie on the par 5, 16th hole to make the cut and thus make a check. He was on the green in regulation and needed a two putt for a birdie to make the cut. Instead, he three putted for par and missed the cut and the payday.
Tom said, “All the three years of frustration were boiling inside of me. I walked off the green. The marshall took the rope down that leads you to the next tee. At the end of the rope, there’s a little loop. I kicked at it and got my foot tangled up in the loop.
“I was frustrated and incredibly angry and now my foot’s caught in the loop. People laughed at me, and my anger grew more intense.
“My next target was a garbage can. I hauled off and kicked the garbage can and stuck my foot right through it. I couldn’t get my foot out again.”
“That incident kind of summed up my whole professional golfing career. I couldn’t even get mad right that year. It was unbelievable.”
1985 was Tom’s low point. He lost his PGA card again. Tom reflects on that year. “I was really depressed. I had lost my card. I had lost all my confidence. I had lost all my money and after the end of a two year struggle at a long distance relationship with my girlfriend, Melissa, I lost her, too. Melissa broke up with me. She told me, ‘I never want to see you again.’ I was heartbroken. It was a really difficult time.”
But, Tom decided to continue on with his efforts to play professional golf and hit the mini-tours. The checks bounced. The car broke down constantly. He played in “unbelievable backwoods places” across the country for no money. Tom said, “I was absolutely miserable. The only bright spot was that along the way I started talking to Melissa again.”
Lehman decided to quit golf and try and live a “normal” life. He was hired as the golf pro at the beautiful and exclusive Wood Ranch Golf Club in picturesque Simi Valley, California, about 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
“Melissa lived just down the street from me, and we reconnected.” Tom married her on June 27, 1987.
The dark nights of the soul are when God can do his greatest work. Lehman said, “At the beginning of my pro career, I put so much emphasis on money and in being successful I went from doing things for God's glory and trying to be His kind of guy to trying to make money and be successful, just for myself. It took my being knocked way down to realize that God wanted me to be His man with my wife, with golf, with everything. I started putting the focus on God and prayed, "God, I'm going to be whatever You want, go wherever You want me to go. If You want me to quit golf, I will. If You want me to be a golfer, I will. Take me where You want, and I'll follow.
“I wouldn't trade those bad years, golf-wise, for anything, because those were some of the best years of my life, especially in terms of meeting friends, growing spiritually, and growing as a person. The Lord helped me see what's important in life.”
After confessing his inadequacies and submitting to the providence of God, Tom qualified and played in the U.S. Open held that year at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He missed the cut by one stroke. The Open was the only competitive tournament he played in 1987.
Together, Tom and Melissa prayed and decided that the Lord wanted him to again try to qualify for the PGA Tour.
They went to the tour qualifying school in Florida, but again he didn’t win his PGA card.
The only thing left was to go overseas and play in South Africa and Asia. He also played on the mini-tours in the United States in places like Waterloo, Iowa, Dothan, Alabama, and Garden City, Kansas.
Tom remembers, “Melissa and I were flat busted. We had no savings and lived in an apartment with no chance to buy a home.”
Tom had another turning point in his life. He realized that he had been playing golf for the wrong motive - money.
He still struggled with a lack of self-confidence. His confidence had always been low. At this point, he had no confidence in his ability.
So, he started playing golf to get better. He started working hard and practicing with a new attitude. He decided to enjoy the game and enjoy the life God was giving him with his lovely and supportive wife. He decided to get rid of the excess baggage of defeatism that he had been dragging behind him for a long time.
In 1990, Lehman was confident when he and Melissa traveled to Florida once more in an attempt to get his PGA card. But again, he missed the cut by one stroke.
Like so many of us do when circumstances do not turn out favorable, Lehman blamed God. “How could this be God?” Lehman questioned. “How could this be. I’ve worked so hard. I feel like I’ve been faithful to You, and here I missed by a shot again.
“I was crushed. I was devastated.”
But God had a better plan. Lehman qualified for the Hogan Tour (now the Nationwide Tour). He developed his new found confidence and continued honing his golf game.
After the 1991 season, Tom Lehman was named the Hogan Tour player of the year with winnings of $142,000.
For the first time, Lehman made a decent living and won an exemption to play on the PGA tour meaning that he could play in every tournament in 1992 at age 32.
Lehman went on to qualify for the 1993 Master’s Tournament and finished third. Before he played the final round that year on Easter Sunday, Tom had another life changing moment.
The television in the Augusta National locker room was tuned to ESPN that morning. Roy Firestone was interviewing Green Bay Packer defensive end and All Pro, the late Reggie White. Firestone asked Reggie, “How do you want people to look at you down the road? How do you want fans to see you? How do you want your family to see you as a player or a person?”
Reggie replied, “I want people to see me as a man of God. I want my kids to see me as a man of God. In fact, I want the fact that I’m a man of God to be so overpowering that they’ll forget that I ever played football.”
For Tom, that was an unbelievable statement. He remarked, “Here’s one of the greatest players ever to play NFL football saying that being a man of God was more important to him than being remembered as a great football player.”
“I was so pumped up that Sunday that I went out on the first nine and shot 31. I ended up finishing third. Reggie White was a real inspiration for me to here him say that being a man of God was his most important goal in life.”
Lehman finished second in the 1994 Masters. With his confidence soaring, he won the Memorial Tournament in Ohio, his first PGA win, with a fantastic performance.
Lehman’s game was flawless. He shot 67 four days in a row to set a new tournament record and won by five strokes over Greg Norman.
Tom recalls, “There were times out there when the crowd was cheering and standing, and tears would well up in my eyes."
Lehman won the British Open in 1996 and finished the year number one in earnings. That year, he was named PGA player of the year.
In April 1997, he was ranked the number one golfer in the world.
Now age 51, Tom plays a full professional golf schedule on the Champions Tour and the PGA Tour playing 23 to 25 tournaments annually. In addition, he plans and designs golf courses through the Lehman Design Group. He said his company is small on purpose. “We are a one project at a time company,” he explains. “That way, I can spend more time at home with my wife and children.”
A champion like Tom Lehman who lives the Christian faith, loves his children (two girls ages 19 and 17 and two boys ages 14 and 7), and is steadfast and faithful to his wife doesn’t get much press in the national media.
Instead, the press is filled with stories about Tiger Woods and his sordid adulterous affairs with numerous women.
The world is fascinated with sin and indifferent and even hostile to righteousness.
Knowing that professional athletes and professionals like doctors, lawyers, and pastors who often work long, long hours and are gone from home for extended periods of time, I asked Mr. Lehman about his family and relationship with his wife. He acknowledged that life on the road as a professional golfer puts a strain on any marriage. “It is unavoidable,” he says.
Yet, Lehman maintains a healthy, faithful relationship with his wife, Melissa. He says it is important for him to be proactive and not reactive. He makes time with her a priority on his calendar. Everything else in his life builds around that priority including golf tournaments. He explains. “I have to say no to a lot of requests for my time. I do not let anything come between my family time and me. Nothing.”
Second, his wife and children often travel on weekends to tournaments to be with him. At the 1998 Nissan Open, his wife caddied for him. Lehman’s caddie broke his rib playing basketball on Wednesday night, and Tom called for his wife to help him. He was very nervous not wanting Melissa to get in the way of his playing partner, Nick Faldo. He told her, “Don’t’ do this and don’t do that.” Finally, his exasperated wife told him, “You play golf, and I’ll caddie.” With her guidance and his skills, Lehman shot a two under for the tournament!
Plus, he always takes one of the children to the full week of practice and tournament rounds three or four times a year. At night, father and child spend time together or do activities such as catching a movie or going skating.
When Tom is out of town, he calls his family several times a day just to tell them that he is thinking of them. He loves the technology that allows him to text message them on a regular basis. He can keep up with them, and they with him. For example, during baseball season, he will text his son encouraging him and reminding him to “keep his bat up” when he is at the plate.
Lehman believes that family communication is important in keeping a strong marriage and family together whether it is face-to-face or miles away in another region of the country playing golf.
Moreover, there are always those surprises that his wife has for him. For years, Tom expressed a desire to vacation in Bora Bora. He had seen the pictures and read about the little island in the South Pacific which is in the French Polynesian archipelago. Unknown to Tom, Melissa told his secretary to clear his calendar for his 50th birthday week. Tom’s calendar looked full to him. But, it was really clear of all engagements. When the day came to leave for Bora Bora, Tom looked at his calendar and saw a day full of activities. “You can forget all of that today,” Melissa said. “I’m taking you to Bora Bora this morning for your birthday.”
“But, but, I’ve got all of these obligations and responsibilities to fulfill,” Tom countered. Melissa revealed her secret, and they flew off together to paradise.
It helps that his wife is very supportive. Lehman said, “Melissa loves golf and the professional golfer’s lifestyle. She loves to travel and meet people. She teaches and models for our children the Christian values which we hold dear. She’s great. “
“The biggest issues we’ve had to work on,” Lehman continues, “is that mom is the bad guy, and I’m the good guy. I am a Disneyland dad.” It is up to Melissa to discipline the children while Lehman travels. She “cracks the whip.” She is the one to make sure homework is done, make dinner, and keep order in the household. Tom says, “The children see her as no fun. They see me as fun.” When he comes home, he is ready to play with the kids and take them places. He doesn’t have to deal with the nitty gritty everyday drama of the household.
“This issue is being resolved,” Lehman explains. “We discussed how I can fit back into the every day life of our family when I am home. Together, we devised a game plan where she can be the “good guy,” and I can be the disciplinarian when I am home.”
I asked Mr. Lehman how he keeps his soul healthy. There are so many temptations to be unfaithful to marriage vows and even more so for professional golfers and athletes.
He explained that he worships regularly every Wednesday night with other golfers of like-minded believers since he is unable to attend church on the Tour. He spends time in personal devotions. Perhaps most importantly, he has three close friends who are also accountability partners who he answers to at home in Scottsdale, Arizona. On Tour, he has an accountability partner, a mentor, who has traveled with him for fifteen years.
Strong family relationships and faithful commitment to his wife doesn’t just happen. He guards himself from temptation and values his family above all else. For Tom Lehman, Christ is the rock he has built his home upon.
Love is like a flowing river. The love of Christ and the love between Tom and Melissa Lehman flow to others.
Their involvement in the Phoenix Rescue Mission has led to the development and support of one of their favorite Christian charities, The Changing Lives Center for Women and Children.
This Center is an extension of the Phoenix Rescue Mission. The new Center provides emergency medical care, counseling, and protective shelter. Counseling is offered for addiction problems. The long term recovery program lasts for thirteen months which is sustained by the new center’s chapel, apartments, and a computer room. The center is only a block away from the public school which the children attend. Job training and placement are important components of the ministry as well.
Mr. Lehman says about this ministry which he and his wife financially support and help lead, “We are Christian in our focus. The Lord is the only real long-term answer. These women and their children must have the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome their problems.”
There are several other Christian charities that Tom and Melissa support with their gifts and leadership.
Tom takes the message of Christ’s love wherever his travels take him. He calls himself a “lifestyle evangelist.” For example, he won the 2009 Argentine Masters near Buenos Aires. While he was there, he promoted and worked with a church in conducting a golf tournament. His presence and prestige gave credibility to the church’s outreach and helped open doors for the church to help others through their orphanage and hospital ministries. Mr. Lehman said, “It is a big outreach and lets the needy know that the church is a place of refuge and hope.”
The Lehman’s live in Scottsdale, Arizona, and are members of Highland Church there.
In closing, Tom said, “I’ve got one last thing to say. I heard a guy speaking when I was in college after I had accepted the Lord. He said something I thought was very profound. He was a business man and a CEO of a corporation. He was in charge of a lot of people and a lot of things. He basically said, “I spent my whole life trying to climb the ladder of success only to find when I got to the top, the ladder was leaning against the wrong building”.
Tom asks, “Where are we at in our lives? Which building is your ladder leaning against? I would like you all to consider your life. Consider where your priorities are, where your faith is, if you even have a faith. What building is your ladder leaning against? I would encourage you that if God is not the foundation of your life that you would consider receiving Christ as your Lord and Savior and live a holy life in Him surrounding yourself with others of like-minded faith to help, encourage, and hold you accountable in your walk with the Lord.
Tom Lehman’s Christian faith drives him off life’s tee away from the hazards and into the fairway of Christ’s peace, love, and grace.
Note: You can read online my other two articles on Tom Lehman. Go to http://chronicle.augusta.com/content/blog-post/kelly-jasper/2010-04-09/faith-and-family-golfer-tom-lehman
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Your writing is very interesting and inspirational! I don't care two hoops for golf, but you still kept my eyes glued to the screen reading this. True-life stories about people in the news, living lives walking with Jesus, are ordained of God, I'm certain, to touch the heart of youth. Thank you for sharing Reggie White's brief testimony, too. What a blessing!