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Published: Thursday, 7/28/2011

COMMENTARY

Only the best outlast U.S. Open challenges

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Tom Lehman watches a putt on the practice green Wednesday at Inverness Club. Lehman won the British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes in 1996. He was runner-up at the '94 Masters. Last year, he won the Senior PGA title. Tom Lehman watches a putt on the practice green Wednesday at Inverness Club. Lehman won the British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes in 1996. He was runner-up at the '94 Masters. Last year, he won the Senior PGA title.
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United States Open championships are hard. They're supposed to be hard. The governing body says they should be the most rigorous, most difficult, yet fair tests in golf, examinations that challenge the players' physical and mental capabilities and identify the best shot-makers.

They don't mention anything about bamboo shoots under the fingernails, but that's probably hidden there in the manual somewhere.

Opens aren't supposed to be easy, they're not supposed to be comfortable, and they're not supposed to be fun if you happen to be inside the ropes.

The 2011 U.S. Senior Open begins today at Inverness Club and while tournament officials take into account the age and skill set of the competitors it will still be hard work for the field of 156 players.

They have had several days of practice rounds, but as Tom Lehman points out practice rounds "usually get you prepared for a course you never see."

What the players will see starting this morning, regardless of whether Mother Nature lets the course firm up and breathe some fire, is some tall holes and slender fairways and thick rough and small, sassy greens that are tough to putt regardless of how receptive they might be.

This is major championship golf, and Tom Lehman seems to have been made for it.

He won the British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes in 1996. He was runner-up at the '94 Masters. Last year, he won the Senior PGA Championship at a natural beauty, the Colorado Golf Club.

But what he did in U.S. Opens in 1995-96-97 may be as impressive as anything. For three straight years he held the 54-hole lead and teed off in the final group on Sunday. Only one other player has even led after three rounds at the U.S. Open for three straight years, a chap named Bobby Jones.

Lehman will be the first to point out he did not win any of those Opens. He finished third, second and third, respectively, on three of the toughest tests in American golf -- Shinnecock Hills, Oakland Hills, and Congressional. The last may have been the toughest to swallow as he watched a soaring shot drift into a watery grave on the 71st hole to dissolve his chances.

"I'm not as successful as I would have liked to have been," Lehman said. "But I tend to play well. I think that major championships are as much about attitude as they are anything else. I will say that I feel like my attitude's been very, very good over the years."

Major championships, U.S. Opens in particular, are about attitude and about grinding, about the realization that par is good, that a bad hole has to become a fast memory, that the next one is all that matters.

"I enjoy the challenge," said Lehman. "The game itself, I think, plays into the strength of my game, which has always been tee to green, hitting the ball consistently in play and managing my game. Putting has always been the one thing that has been a bit more erratic. When I putt well, I do very well. When I putt poorly, I tend to struggle to be in the game."

And that may be his tipping point over the next four days at Inverness, whose best defense is those 18 putting surfaces. If he putts well, he should be in the mix come Sunday. If not …

"These [greens] just have these beautiful rolls within the green, and greens that have little sections separated by contouring," Lehman said. "You have to really be on your game [placing] it in the right spot and understanding the strategy of the green complex because they tend to always have one side that you may recover from and one side that makes it very difficult.

"Majors tend to put a real premium on making three and four-footers and putting the ball in play off the tee. Those are always the things I've done well."

Lehman reported to Toledo after playing in both the British Open and British Senior Open the last two weeks, and he admits to some fatigue. But this is the U.S. Open, he said, "and I think you put off being tired until next week."

Plus, he wouldn't want to miss this opportunity, this challenge on one of the game's stiffest tests.

"I think you only hold U.S. Opens on great courses," Lehman said. "It wouldn't be here if it wasn't right. So it kind of goes hand in hand. Inverness, the U.S. Open, they go together … like peanut butter and jelly."

Like Tom Lehman and majors.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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