PALM HARBOR — Take that, flat bellies.
While most of the field struggled through Saturday's third round of the Transitions Championship, a pair of veterans positioned themselves on the top of the leaderboard. Tom Lehman, who turned 50 on March 7, shot 3-under 68 for 8-under 205 and was one ahead of 40-year-old Retief Goosen, who shot a steady 69.
But there were plenty of golfers lurking, including Masters champion Trevor Immelman (5 under), Stuart Appleby (5 under) and second-round co-leader Steve Stricker (4 under). Overall, there were 13 players within four shots of Lehman.
The fact that he was leading was a surprise, to say the least. He hadn't led after three rounds since the 2005 Buick Invitational, which he lost to Tiger Woods. He hasn't won since the 2000 Phoenix Open. And it's not like he was tearing up the PGA Tour.
After recovering from elbow tendinitis, Lehman missed the first four cuts of 2009. His best finish was a tie for 49th at the Mayakoba Golf Classic on March 1.
"I was hitting it sideways," he said. "The more I worked, the worse it got. My game was in shambles. Turning 50 looked all the more appealing."
He was thinking about playing mainly on the Champions Tour. Then things started to click. He got a tip from his instructor, Jim Flick, to practice his swing in slow motion. He said he has felt more comfortable since.
That showed on the back nine of Copperhead. Lehman rattled off four birdies on Nos. 12-15, including a tap-in on the par-3 13th and a 25-foot putt on the par-5 14th. That helped him recover from double bogey on the par-3 fourth hole and bogey on the par-3 eighth.
"The closer I got to the lead, and when I got into the lead, the more comfortable I felt and the slower things were moving and the slower I was swinging," Lehman said. "I watched some of the swings on TV, and they were the most relaxed-looking swings. That actually fits the way I feel. I just turned 50, and that works in my favor. You realize there are a lot more important things than a golf tournament. I have everything to win and nothing to lose."
Only six players have won on the PGA Tour after turning 50. Fred Funk was the last, two years ago when he was 50.
A stat in Lehman's favor is that six of the eight third-round leaders have gone on to win this tournament.
Goosen has experience being in front at this event. He won in 2003, when it was called the Chrysler Championship. He knows all about the lightning-fast greens and how they can rattle the nerves on Sunday afternoon.
"Knowing the course well and knowing the shots required does give you an advantage," said Goosen, who hasn't won since 2005. "I know it very well, and I know the greens fairly well. That's an advantage."
Immelman, who had success on the slick greens at Augusta, believes Copperhead is playing like a major-championship course. He believes the winner will be the one who survives the punches the course throws.
"The greens are dying (turning hard and fast) as we speak," he said. "You really have to have your wits about you and be playing some great golf to survive out here. It just keeps coming at you. The main thing is the mental strain it puts on you. From the first hole, it keeps coming at you until you sign your card. You're going to have to be tough to stand up to it."
Lehman is looking forward to one more fight. He said he is motivated to play well this season to prove he still has it at 50. And he hinted that the PGA Championship in August in his home state of Minnesota might be a good time to throw in the towel on his PGA Tour career.
"That seems like the way to retire," Lehman said. "The PGA Championship in my hometown. Go play. Play well. Say bye-bye."
Rodney Page can be reached at (727) 893-8810, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.