Despite A Better-Known Brother, Jim Lehman Has Carved A Singular Identity In Golf
PALM COAST, FLORIDA | Senior amateur golf is all about the personalities and motivations of the players. Some seniors are making up for lost time – for the years when they were working instead of playing tournament golf. Others seem to be measuring their worth in birdies, as if they haven’t already accomplished enough in their lives.
For portions of three consecutive days, I tagged along with Jim Lehman as he competed here in the Society of Seniors Spring Classic. OK, I walked, he rode. The 54-hole event was held at the Conservatory Course at Hammock Beach Resort, a magnificent layout not far from the Atlantic Ocean in north Florida.
Here’s what I learned: Lehman has enough killer instinct to fill an entire football roster. Although he appears to be a mild-mannered golfer, he is actually one tough dude who relishes a one-on-one confrontation with a little round ball.
Lehman does this over and over, as if he can’t get enough. He is a lifelong amateur who loves to wrestle with par in a tournament environment. At the Conservatory Course, the lowest score all week was 69, which was 3-under par. Lehman had one of those 69s, as did Peter DeTemple of Lexington Park, Md., Michael Dunsmore of Elizabethtown, N.Y., Richard Pfeil of Lake Geneva, Wis., and Greg Sanders of Anchorage, Alaska.
Membership in the Society of Seniors is so widespread that Sanders was introduced on the first tee as a resident of Anchorage, Ark., rather than Anchorage, Alaska.
Lehman won the SOS Spring Classic by four strokes over Richard Kerper of Windermere, Fla., and Bill Barnes of Bonita Springs, Fla. He was 3-under par on a course designed by Tom Watson, featuring 166 bunkers and a maximum potential length of more than 7,800 yards. The seniors, 55 and over, played a layout that measured about 6,700 yards.
Lehman, 61, is the older brother of Tom Lehman, who won five times on the PGA Tour, including the 1996 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in England. The younger Lehman will turn 60 in March, so the two are close to each other in age.
But they couldn’t be any different in their golf histories. Tom Lehman played golf at the University of Minnesota and couldn’t wait to turn pro. He did so at 22. Meanwhile, Jim Lehman finished law school at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul and couldn’t wait not to turn pro. He is fiercely proud of his status as a forever amateur.
Both are still active competitors, although one does it for money and recognition while the other does it for pride and personal satisfaction.
Both love the game of golf, although one lives in Arizona where he can practice and play golf all year while the other remains in his home state of Minnesota. Jim Lehman, the Minnesotan, told a story about flying to the Spring Classic – it was minus-10 degrees when his wife drove him to the airport, and it was 70 degrees when he landed in Florida.
“I have always been proud of Jim. He was a great attorney before he became a great agent for golfers.” – Tom Lehman
“We took different paths,” Jim said. “Tom knew what he wanted to do, and I knew what I wanted to do.”
“I have always been proud of Jim,” Tom said. “He was a great attorney before he became a great agent for golfers.”
The tone for their golf relationship may have been set when they were junior golfers. “He was always the better player,” Jim admitted. “Once we tied in a tournament for kids. I won the playoff, and I think that’s the last time I ever beat him.”
Well, I don’t know about that. Jim Lehman has a swing that could serve as the definition of smooth, and he keeps improving as he advances into his 60s. He has won four Minnesota Senior Amateur titles in the last six years. In 2016, he captured the senior division of the ultra-competitive Crump Cup at Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey.
Jim has a reputation as a quiet, thoughtful guy, but let’s set the record straight. Yes, he can be thoughtful and sensitive, but, no, he isn’t necessarily the shy and quiet type. In fact, he often displays a wry, double-edged sense of levity. And he isn’t afraid to aim his humor at some of his counterparts and contemporaries.
His funny side was on display after the conclusion of the Spring Classic. It was triggered by his whimsical nature. Widely known as a successful sports agent, he decided to issue a mock challenge to his brother Tom and Bernhard Langer, currently the world’s best senior golfer. Both are clients of Jim Lehman and the Medalist Management firm he founded in 2008.
So Jim Lehman rehearsed his victory speech, which contained a bit of bravado. “When you see Tom and Bernhard, please ask them where we’re going to play next,” he joked.
This was a follow-up on the part of Lehman, who earlier in the week pointed out the obvious: The first PGA Tour Champions event of 2019 was won by his brother, and the second was captured by Langer. Here at the Spring Classic for senior amateurs, Lehman ran away from the field with rounds of 70-72-69 on the links-looking course.
“That’s one, two, three,” Lehman summarized. “Sure, I thought about three-for-three, but you never know in this game. I hadn’t played any serious golf for several months.”
Lehman lives with his wife, Maureen O’Connell-Lehman, in Plymouth, Minn. A highly regarded civil trial attorney before he became a sports agent, he could be the golf poet laureate of Minnesota. He is articulate and frequently expresses his affection for the state and its array of golf courses.
“Let me tell you how it is in Minnesota,” Lehman explained. “When you grow up in Minnesota, golf is not the only thing you do. In high school, I played quarterback on the football team and I was on the basketball team. Hockey games are everywhere. Golf is a game that kids play for three months in the summertime.”
Let’s be clear. Adults can – and do – stretch the active golf season in Minnesota to five, or even six, months.
Regardless of how much or how little golf is played, the sport has a firm grasp on Jim Lehman. Today, his list of clients includes a handful of golf professionals. He also has moved outside of golf with clients such as Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Jack Morris and retired basketball star Lindsay Whalen, the WNBA career leader in games won (323) who now coaches the University of Minnesota women’s team.
On a personal list of dumb questions, here is one: “Do you call yourself an agent, or is there a better name for what you do?”
“The two words I use are agent and manager,” he replied. “To me, they are synonymous. In my world, I call myself a manager/agent. I love what I do. I’ve been very, very fortunate to turn my passion, which is golf, into my career.”
As an agent, Lehman does not advise his clients how to invest their money. Some agents do this, but Lehman is content to assemble new endorsements and appearances for his athletes. He avoids the pressure of making sound investments.
“Jim gives us a lot of freedom,” Tom Lehman said after becoming a regular on the PGA Tour Champions. “I would say he has helped us grow in other ways besides golf.”
Jim revealed that Tom leans toward real estate investing, while he is more traditional with stocks and bonds.
The Lehman brothers were introduced to golf by their father, Jim Sr., who in 1958 signed a contract as a running back with the Baltimore Colts of the NFL. He was injured that season and turned to golf after a Catholic priest explained the wonders of the game.
Their father, in turn, passed a love of golf to his three sons. Jim went to St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and played on the golf team. Tom, one year younger, was not recruited by major college coaches. He was set to join his brother at St. John’s when, at the last moment, a call came from the University of Minnesota.
It was a smart decision by U-M. As a sophomore, Tom finished second to John Cook of Ohio State in the Big-10 Championship. Three times he earned All-America recognition.
“It was a huge break for me,” Tom analyzed. “I really could see myself as a touring pro. It started to make sense.”
A third brother, Michael, is 10 years younger than Jim and was captain of the University of Minnesota golf team. He sells real estate in Scottsdale, Ariz. All three brothers have qualified for and played in USGA championships.
“Golf is great for networking. It so often brings out the best in many of us. If I can help someone, I try to do it.” – Jim Lehman
Tom has a reputation as a right-to-left golfer. Jim Lehman told a story about the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort: “Tom was working with Jim Flick, who was tremendous for my brother. He was awesome. At Pinehurst, Jim (Flick) and I watched Tom hit the most beautiful, straight iron shots. He was just puring it, but we could see he was getting more and more frustrated. So Jim finally said, ‘What’s wrong, Tom,’ and Tom said ‘I’m trying to draw the ball. I can’t play unless I draw the ball.’ ”
The key word here is draw. “Let me tell you this,’ Jim said. “People talk about Tom as a guy who hooks the ball. C’mon, he rarely hooks the ball. He hits a nice little draw. That’s his shot.”
Jim Lehman likened Flick to a cheerleader for Tom. “I think he knew Tom’s game was somewhat unique. Tom was so solid. Maybe a better way to say it was that he became almost a sports psychologist for Tom.”
At Flick’s funeral in 2012, there was additional insight into the personalities of Tom and Jim Lehman. It was as if Tom, one of the featured speakers at the outdoor service, was talking for both brothers. A short time after Tom started his delivery, a persistent gust of wind blew Tom’s notes off the lectern and onto the ground.
It was a helter-skelter scene. At first, Tom looked discombobulated. Then he saw an opportunity. He made no further attempt to retrieve or follow the notes. He spoke entirely from his heart, and the result was an extremely moving presentation. It was pure Minnesota.
Jim is the same way. There appears to be no script to his view of life. He talks passionately about many subjects.
As a board member at Minneapolis Golf Club, Jim introduced a motion to provide an honorary membership for golf artist Bud Chapman. Later, Jim earned his state’s highest administrative golf honor when he became president of the Minnesota Golf Association.
The brothers even teamed up to design and build a course, Windsong Farm Golf Club in Maple Plain, Minn., that opened in 2004 and was later sold.
Jim was temporarily sidetracked when the USGA outlawed anchored putting. However, he followed the example of Langer, who simply moved his hands and arms away from his chest to eliminate any anchoring in the putting stroke. That long putter, still in his bag, is an STX model.
Along the way, Jim has consistently taken time to advise youngsters about their career paths.
“Yes, I get plenty of inquiries,” he said, “and there’s no stock answer. I try to encourage them to get involved in their passion, to find a pathway. I try to help them develop a network of people. Golf is great for networking. It so often brings out the best in many of us. If I can help someone, I try to do it.”
In the end, there seems to be the ordinary way of doing things and then there is the Minnesota way. That’s why Jim Lehman represents the best in senior amateur golf.
Jim Lehman watches a drive during the 2014 U.S. Senior Amateur. Photo: Chris Keane, USGA
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