He knows it is dangerous to get too far ahead of himself. This may be because the day that Tom Lehman nearly found himself behind a counter renting cross-country skis for a living is not that far behind.
"I am not Joe Namath," Lehman said Saturday. "I am not going to predict a victory."Prophecy is a risky business for any man anywhere, but riskier for few men than Lehman and in few places and times than at the end of three rounds of the U.S. Open.
And yet, in this case, the situation practically begged for it. Lehman, one of the steadiest golfers out on tour, had just carded a 65 that not only tied the course record at fearsome Oakland Hills, but vaulted him atop of a leaderboard that by the end of the afternoon was dropping names faster than Regis and Kathie Lee during sweeps month.
And if he had settled down after his round with a beer in the locker room and turned on the TV, Lehman's confidence would have received another lift. Because then he could have seen how one golfing big shot after another fell, some in an especially big way. Four decades ago, Ben Hogan called Oakland Hills "the monster" and with its par lowered to 70, it clearly has lost none of its bite.
Second-round leader Payne Stewart was still 2-under at the 11th and even-par as late as No. 15. But he finished the day at 4-over, losing three strokes by shanking a ball dead right from the left rough and into the pond at the 16th. It happened so suddenly that a second after the shot left the club face, Stewart wore the expression of a baseball pitcher who makes the pickoff play at third only to realize no one is on base - and no one is covering the base, either.
Yet Stewart's was only the most spectacular slide on an afternoon full of them. Among the group that started the day chasing him at 1-under, Greg Norman shot 74; Ernie Els, who had it to 3-under as late as No. 14, wound up with 72; so did Woody Austin.
Lehman passed them and parked at 208, 2-under for the tournament and one ahead of little-known Steve Jones. Everything about the way Sunday is setting up favors him and the way he plays. But the longer Lehman talked, the more it sounded like getting to sleep Saturday night would be a struggle.
"I think that every chance you get to win a tournament, especially a major, creates a new level of maturity, and I feel like I'm ready," Lehman said.
But then he caught himself. "I am not Joe Namath," he said, and the longer he went on, the less any disclaimer was needed.
"I know I've gone through a lot in the last few years, a lot of pressure situations," Lehman said. "The Masters, the U.S. Open, the Ryder Cup, the President's Cup. A lot of things that help develop character.
"You learn a lot and you just really hope that you can go into Sunday and have your game," Lehman said, "and just put what you learned into use."
The maddening part is that some Sundays he has and some Sundays he hasn't. In last fall's Ryder Cup, Lehman was a model of consistency. In one of the most nerve-wracking environments golf can produce, he hit every fairway on the final day and clocked Seve Ballesteros in a crucial singles match. But a few months earlier, he ballooned to 74 while playing in the final group with Greg Norman on the final day of the U.S. Open.
Though his career has traced a rising curve ever since, it was barely a half-dozen years ago when Lehman couldn't count on his golf to feed a growing family. He was bouncing around on golf tours with names like the PGT, the Dakotas, the Golden State.
Steady employment looked so good during one stretch that when Lehman was offered a job as a teaching pro at the University of Minnesota course, he thought long and hard about taking it. Then, he found it meant renting cross-country skis in the winter. Making pars to make cuts to make checks has seemed easier ever since.
Now the question becomes whether he can take the next step.
"There are very few Jack Nicklauses out there, very few Tom Watsons. All you can do is go out there and gut it out, do your best," he said. "I think the guy who doesn't beat himself here is the guy who wins."