April 6, 2008

Tom Lehman gets an unexpected putting lesson

Many people, not all of them fools, believe they can putt. So they rush to the aid of pros who can't burn the hole from three feet. Their advice is precious. Putt one-handed. Close both eyes. Between heartbeats, tap the third dimple left of the ball's vertical midline just below its equator. If the devil's yips persist, let's go straight for exorcism.

On cue, when Tom Lehman stopped making big putts, here came the mail. A five-time PGA Tour winner, the 1996 British Open champion, the 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, one of golf's gentlemen, Lehman saw the letters of advice as sympathetic, kind and generous. He is of an age, after all, now 49, when even great putters notice that the hole gets in the way less often than it once did. On days when three-putt darkness covers the sun, they might even read unsolicited tips.

In what he calls "a very unique thing for me to do," Lehman kept one man's letter for three years. That man, Thomas J. Day, sold insurance. His only connection to Lehman was geographic. He lived in Fargo, N.D., next door to Lehman's home state, Minnesota. Lehman kept Day's letter "because of his circumstances and his having been a golfer."

In fall 2006, in a California hardware store, Lehman said hello to a stranger who turned out to be from up there. From North Dakota. From Fargo.

"I asked if he knew a Tom Day," Lehman says. "His face lit up like a Christmas tree, and he said, 'Tom Day is one of the most incredible people I've ever known.' "

So Lehman did another thing he had never imagined doing.

He called Tom Day.

Day had been a high school and college athlete in basketball, football, tennis, softball and track. On the night of the car wreck, when he fell asleep and drove into a ditch, he was 41 years old, a husband and father of five children. He described himself as a man "living on the edge, a gambling addict playing poker and golf for thousands of dollars." For a year after the accident, he was filled with self-pity -- he was a quadriplegic -- until a friend, Ann Fortier, had heard enough.

"She told me, 'Think about everything you used to do and can't do now,' " he says.

Like, sex.

Hugging the kids.

Golf.

The simple, lovely, wonderful act of walking.

Day says, "Then she asked me, 'Are you thinking about all those things?' I said yes, and she screamed into my ear, 'STOP!' Scared the hell out of me. She said, 'Every time you think of what you can't do, remember my scream.' I can still hear it, and I no longer deny reality. These are my cards, I play them. I move forward."

By the time Lehman called, Day had long quit the poker games in which he once had his children hold his cards as he played. To remain self-sufficient at home with private nurses, he rebuilt his insurance business. He used his example to counsel people against what he calls "hidden handicaps," failings as obvious as anger, as latent as depression.

One day, thinking he could help a man he admired as a fan, he wrote a letter to Tom Lehman.

Day had been an amateur whose ambitions topped out at qualifying for the North Dakota State Amateur. He considered himself a good putter. "I've putted for $2,000 a hole," Day says. "But I never thought about the money. I never choked."

With his letter to Lehman he enclosed a book he had written, published and sells on his website, hiddenhandicaps.com. I Took the Easy Way Out is his story of self-determination after the accident. He argues that the struggle is the "easy way" because, in the end, it's redemptive. No hero in him, according to his book: "I am just a person living an extremely difficult life the best way I can."

From the stranger in the hardware store, Lehman learned about Day's life and work in Fargo. He figured it couldn't hurt to call him.

"Tom Day had been a great putter, and he hadn't asked for anything other than the chance to help me," Lehman says. "Besides, the circumstances of his life were so extraordinary. If he was that tough that he no longer felt sorry for himself, I figured he had to have something I could learn from."

If he was that tough that he no longer felt sorry for himself, I figured he had to have something I could learn from.'

He came away from early talks with a simple insight: The brain can't process two thoughts at a time. Lehman says, "I'd had all this stuff bombarding my mind, about break and speed and stroke. But after talking with Tom, I reduced it to one. My mantra became, 'Roll it into the middle of the hole.' "

There came a time when Day asked Tom Lehman to think of all the big putts that he had missed.

Like, at the Masters.

Maybe the U.S. Open.

The 19 times he had finished second on tour.

Tom, are you thinking of all those miseries?

"Then," Lehman says, "he shouted into the phone, 'STOP!' "

Nothing could be done about putts gone. Something could be done about putts to come. "I've started putting better," Lehman says, "and I do believe I'm going to be a fantastic putter."

Lehman and Day have met once, in December 2006, at a golf-awards dinner near Minneapolis. They have stayed in touch by phone, e-mail -- and, happily, by television.

That happened during this year's FBR Open in Arizona. Day had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. Two hospitals refused to do surgery; they said a 71-year-old quadriplegic with limited breathing capability might not survive the operation. But down the road from Fargo, in Rochester, Minn., doctors at the Mayo Clinic disagreed. The last day in January, they did the surgery. It went well.

The next afternoon, Day's son, Mike, asked if his father wanted to watch the Golf Channel.

The first shot they saw was Tom Lehman's on a par 3.

It came to rest two inches from the hole.