PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — There is an expiration date on a past champion’s exemption into the Open Championship—it applies only to former winners 60 and younger—which is why Tom Lehman was so emotional as he walked up the 18th hole at Royal Portrush on Friday. The 1996 champion golfer of the year at Royal Lytham turned 60 in March, which means this was, likely, his last appearance.
Lehman’s second round was a struggle, as he shot a five-over 76 after a 78 on Thursday. But that didn’t stop him from receiving heartfelt applause all around the course, the loudest coming on the home hole.
“It was more emotional than I thought it would be,” Lehman said. “It was more—I did everything in my power not to start bawling walking down the 18th fairway. I didn’t totally succeed, but I mostly succeeded.”
What made the moment even more special for Lehman was that he got to share the walk with his son, Thomas, who was caddieing for him this week. As they approached the green to the standing ovation, walking with arms around each other, Lehman leaned in to speak to him son.
“I just said to him how much I loved him. 'There was nobody in the world I'd rather be walking down the fairway with right here than you. It means a lot to me you’re here by my side. This may be my last one, but maybe the next time I’ll be caddieing for you.' ”
Lehman’s record in the Open has been mixed; beyond his win, he had just one other top 10 in 24 starts (T-4 at St. Andrews in 2000). But his memories of the event are something he says he’ll cherish.
His favorite? During his victory at Lytham, Lehman was assigned a security guard for the week (he was ranked No. 2 in the world at the time). “Everywhere I went the whole week, whether it be to the driving range or the media center, down the fairways, to the parking lot afterwards, he was there, he walked us, and he was the guy for us,” Lehman said.
As Lehman made his way that year on the final hole, the guard helped him dodge the charging crowd racing for a spot surrounding the green. “There was 40 people deep who we had to kind of fight through,” Lehman said. “He kind of got in front of me, and he held me with one arm behind his back, and he just started kind of sweeping people out of the way, fighting through the crowd, and pulling me behind him. We got through, and there’s the 18th green, and there's the golf ball sitting there.
“He puts his arm around me and he says, ‘Aye, Tom, we've been through a lot of s*** together, but now you're on your own.’ ”