Defending champ Lehman finally feeling fresh in 2012

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Tom Lehman is the defending Schwab Cup champ and also the defending champ this week at Shoal Creek.
June 06, 2012
Cary Estes, Special to PGATOUR.COM

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Tom Lehman said he is not the type of player who thinks much about his past success, even when returning to a course where he is the defending champion. That will be the case this week, as Lehman heads up a field of 79 players competing in the Regions Tradition at Shoal Creek.

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But while Lehman might try to keep the past firmly behind him, he admits that the intensity of his 2011 season was still affecting him at the beginning of 2012. Lehman won three Champions Tour events last season, highlighted by his playoff victory over Peter Senior in the Regions Tradition. He captured the Charles Schwab Cup title and played in a total of 29 tournaments on various tours.

As a result, Lehman said he was mentally exhausted by the end of 2011 and it took time for him to recover. That, he said, is why he got off to such a slow start this season, finishing outside the top 20 three times in the first five Champions Tour events after doing so only once in 21 starts last year.

"I don't know that I was really ready to play at the start of the season," Lehman said. "I played until the middle of December last year. I played 29 events, which is way more than I'd ever played anytime, any season. So I was pretty beat up, pretty tired and ready for a break, and I really didn't get one.

"So when this season rolled around in January, I was still worn out. Mentally I wasn't ready to go back out and get after that grind again. It took a couple of months to kind of get regrouped and feel reenergized."

Recently, Lehman certainly has looked more like the player who posted 12 top-10s last season, including seven finishes in the top 3. In the past four tournaments he has tied for ninth in the Liberty Mutual Insurance Legends of Golf (with partner Bernhard Langer), was runner-up in the Insperity Championship presented by United Healthcare and finished fourth in last week's Principal Charity Classic.

Usually when a golfer begins to play better after struggling for several tournaments, he can credit something specific about his game. A different swing, improved putting. Lehman, however, said the only thing that has changed for him is his mental outlook.

"It's all mental, completely," Lehman said. "I took the Schwab Cup lead the second week (of the 2011 season) and had all these great players chasing me the whole season. I didn't feel like there was any opportunity to take a week off because there were just too many guys playing too well.

"It was way more tiring mentally than any season I can remember for a long time."

--Tom Lehman, on his 2011 season

"There's something about leading for a long time. When you're on top of the pack from the second week on, and over the next eight or nine months you have people kind of charging at you, to me that was the issue. It was way more tiring mentally than any season I can remember for a long time."

If there is a place where Lehman should feel more relaxed, it is Shoal Creek. Last year in his first appearance on the 7,234-yard course -- which has also hosted two PGA Championships -- Lehman turned in four steady days with scores of 67-71-68-69. His total of 13-under 275 included two bogey-free rounds. But Lehman downplayed his defending-champion status for this year's Regions Tradition.

"I tend not to not think too much about that," Lehman said. "There are certain places that you really enjoy playing and typically play well year after year. I've had one year of experience here, which was a very good experience. But there's no guarantee of success again this year. So I tend to not get too concerned with being defending champion."

One of the reasons for Lehman's uncertainty is because it is difficult for any of the golfers to get a firm grasp on how Shoal Creek is going to play. The area was hit with heavy rain both Sunday and Monday, softening and lengthening the course. But there is no more rain in the immediate forecast, and high temperatures are supposed to creep into the lower 90s. So the course is expected to dry out and change significantly in the coming days.

"I walked the entire course (on Tuesday) but I didn't play much at all for that reason," Lehman said. "I didn't want to play a course that would still be soft, and then get out there on Thursday and have the course be firm. It didn't make much sense to play when the conditions are going to change a lot.

"No matter what the conditions are, there are a lot of tough shots out there. You have to be on top of your game, put the ball where you want and then make some putts. That's the part you don't know about until the bell rings."

But at least now that he feels rested and revitalized, Lehman is ready to answer that bell.

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