PALM HARBOR — On March 7, Tom Lehman turned 50, the magical age that makes a player eligible for the Champions Tour. But Lehman has no plans to join his fellow seniors this year. He believes he still can compete with the young guys, and he's proving it this week.
Lehman shot 2-under 69 Friday for 5-under 137, one shot off the lead. Being in contention is new to Lehman. He missed the first four cuts this season, and his best finish has been a tie for 49th at the Mayakoba Golf Classic on March 1.
He shut down his 2008 season in August because of tendinitis in his left elbow and is playing on a minor medical extension. That means he has six events to earn $176,101, which combined with his 2008 earnings of $676,651 would equal the money of the 125th person on last year's list. He then would be upgraded to major medical extension status and be invited to events that accept the top 125.
Lehman has earned $8,658 through five events, and he needs to finish in a three-way tie for seventh or better to earn the major medical extension. If not, he can use his one-time exemption for being top 25 on the career money list to get into some 2009 events.
"I'm just glad I'm playing well again,'' he said. "I had the elbow injury that kept me out for almost five months. And then I haven't played very well since I've come back. But I still believe when my game is good, I can compete out here.''
Lehman has won five times on the PGA Tour, including the 1996 British Open. He was the 2006 Ryder Cup captain. He said this year likely will be his last full time on the PGA Tour.
"I'm going to focus on one tour each year,'' he said. "This year my focus will be mainly on the PGA Tour and maybe a few Champions Tour events. Next year I'll focus mainly on the Champions Tour and play a few PGA Tour events.''
Friday seemed like old times for the man who has earned more than $20 million in his 23-year career: "The difference is 10 years ago I used to contend regularly, and now I only contend once in a while.''
The wind was calm, the sun was shining and birdies were flying all over Friday morning as several players moved into contention. Charles Howell and Joe Ogilvie each shot a second-round-low 5 under and were one off the pace. Steve Stricker, Nick Watney, Steve Flesch, Joe Durant and Rich Beem shot 4-under 67 to vault up the leaderboard.
"It's nice being the first group off,'' Beem said. "There was no wind for the first 14 holes, which is a huge advantage on this course. Now I'll be watching some college basketball and the inside of my eyelids. I don't think about (today) until I tee it up and look down the fairway.''
Tribute to a friend
Watney used a black marker to write "LM'' on his Titleist hat, a tribute to friend Lee Markarian of Fresno, Calif., who had triple bypass surgery Thursday morning. "This is just so he knows I'm thinking about him,'' Watney said.
Around the course
Clearwater's Greg Kraft, Palm Harbor's Bob Heintz, K.J. Choi, a two-winner at Innisbrook, and former champ Mark Calcavecchia were 2 over and missed the cut by one shot. Defending champion Sean O'Hair shot 3 over. … David Toms, coming off a two-week break and starting his three-week bid to get into the Masters, shot 68-73. He is No. 66 in the world ranking and needs to get inside the top 50 after next week's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando, where Tiger Woods, a five-time winner, confirmed Thursday he will compete with reigning major winners Trevor Immelman and Padraig Harrington.
Rodney Page, Times staff writer