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Lehman labors way to first major victory

All day long he had worked his way through hostile territory. In the company of a thoroughly dangerous man, wending through a sea of bunkers, and in an ocean of fans who screamed for his playing partner and rooted for his demise, Tom Lehman labored.

So as he stood in the rough at the final hole of Royal Lytham & St. Annes on Sunday, an 8-iron in his hand and a lifetime of hard, hard road behind him, Lehman looked like the perfect winner of this British Open. There were brambles on his white shirt, calluses on his hands, dust on his shoes and dirt under his fingernails.

Here was a hard-working man about to put the finishing touches on the blue-collar Open. The stylish swingers and big-name stars who could get in the way were in his wake, buried back there among the gaping pot bunkers and shaggy sand dunes of the old links.

"My great fear was to have on my gravestone: "Tom Lehman. He couldn't win the big one,' " said Lehman, who led three other major championships after three rounds in the past two years only to lose.

Well, Tom Lehman won the big one Sunday. With the sun breaking through clouds in the late afternoon, he took that 8-iron back and sent his golf ball flying toward the green that sits in the shadow of the Victorian clubhouse. Two putts later he had a round of 73, a 72-hole total of 271 and a two-stroke victory over Ernie Els, who shot 67, and Mark McCumber, who shot 66, and a three-stroke margin over Nick Faldo, who shot 70.

Finally, Lehman became a major champion.

Not only that, he became the first American pro to win a British Open at Royal Lytham, and the first Yank to conquer Lytham since Bobby Jones won the British Open here in 1926. Seventy years is a long time, but it pales beside the distance that Lehman has come in the past five.

"Back in 1990 or 1991, the idea of winning a major championship was totally outside the realm of possibility," Lehman said. "It was not even something I considered. To have come this far, to be here today, it's just thrilling. It puts tingles down your back, chills down your spine."

This is not to say that Lehman, who started the day six strokes ahead, did not do everything he could to make this day as boring as possible. But there were more than a few tense moments. Fred Couples came first, shooting 30 on the front nine and pulling within two shots. Then he took a back-nine dive, shooting 41 for 71 and finishing at 7 under.

Then came Els, who got to 13 under par with a front-nine 33 and birdies at Nos. 10, 12 and 15. But a 2-iron pulled into the bunker at the 16th and a 3-wood into another bunker at the 18th led to the two bogeys that finished him.

"To come that close and have that happen is very disappointing," Els said. "I'm really burning about it, man. I had it going and was right in there, then I hit two bad shots."

The crowd added its bite after Lehman's major championship save on the sixth hole, where he made a 5 from a bush.

On the next green, a Faldo fan yelled, "Remember Augusta!" Then, when things settled down, he yelled, "Come on, Greg, er, Tom!"

The attempt was to link Lehman to Greg Norman's Masters demise.

"It made me mad," Lehman said. "No one wants to be called a choker or to be ridiculed. The implication was, "You're going down.' I don't say this as anything derogatory to Greg, but history is history and I didn't want the same thing to happen to me."

It didn't. Lehman didn't make that putt, but he finally holed one at the 12th, a 14-footer for birdie. That put Faldo away.

Lehman had emerged from the bush, walked through the barbs, stared down the intimidator and was grinding his way home. He bogeyed the 14th and the 17th, but it didn't matter.

"It wasn't pretty," Lehman said. "But it was effective."

Tom's turn

Tom Lehman played in the final group at a major three previous times, but something good always happened to someone else to keep him from winning:

+ At the U.S. Open in June, he led by one stroke after a third-round 65, but shot 71 on a difficult Oakland Hills course in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and watched Steve Jones slip by him with a second consecutive 69.

+ At the 1995 U.S. Open, he shot 67 and was tied with Greg Norman (74), 1-up after three rounds. Lehman finished with 74 to fall into third when Corey Pavin, 1-up and 228 yards from the hole on 18, hit his spectacular 4-wood, which bounced up on the green and stopped 4 feet from the cup, to cap a 68.

+ At the 1994 Masters, he led by one after the third round but finished second to Jose Maria Olazabal. He shot 70-70-69-72 to Olazabal's 74-67-69-69.