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Winning Ways

PGA superstar Tom Lehman knows it takes persistent effort and faith to make it to the top—in golf and in marriage

Not long ago an ugly rumor was going around about world-class professional golfer Tom Lehman: he'd been seen kissing a gorgeous, long-haired brunette. That was pretty hot stuff, considering Tom is a well-known Christian and a notoriously moral family man.

That rumor made Tom angry. He had, in fact, kissed the attractive brunette. But the woman in question was Melissa, his wife.

Melissa laughs it off: "Wow! I'm a mistress. How exciting."

But the Lehmans recognize the false rumor as spiritual warfare: the devil doesn't like Tom's high-profile, clean-living reputation.

"That rumor was going around in a place where I'd spoken twice about my faith," he says. "Someone heard that rumor and believed it, and now is questioning my faith."

Tom is a mild man—as quiet and controlled as a golfer lining up a putt. But when it comes to his family and his faith, he doesn't hesitate to speak up. He and Melissa have come a long way—in his career and in their marriage—and he's proud to talk about it.

"Melissa is the perfect wife for me, without question," Tom says happily.

He's right. How many women could endure the debt, the uncertainty, the stress and the hectic travel schedule that have been part of Tom's gradual rise in the PGA and call it "an adventure"? Melissa could.

Polyester Romance

Growing up in Minnesota, Tom started golfing with his dad and brother when he was eight years old. At the University of Minnesota, he was named an All-American three years running. By the time he graduated, he was considered one of the best amateur golfers in the country.

Tom qualified for his first PGA tour in 1983 and for three years struggled to remain on the tour. His performance was up-and-down, the travel schedule was exhausting and he was lonely. In 1984, a fellow golfer set him up with a friend of his wife. Enter Melissa, a sophomore at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California.

"People often wonder if I was a golf fan who hung around the pro tour, hoping to meet a golfer," she laughs. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

"She didn't know a birdie from a bogey from a par," Tom recalls. "She asked me, 'Is what you do like what Jack Nicklaus does?'"

"At first he seemed like sort of a geek," Melissa admits. "I didn't realize all the golfers wore polyester clothes!"

If Melissa had reservations about Tom's appearance, the feeling wasn't mutual.

"She was beautiful," he says. "I won't say I wasn't initially attracted by the way she looked. But I liked her more and more as I got to know her. On our second date, we spent the day at the beach, talking for hours about everything under the sun. That's when I fell really head over heels. We believed the same things; we seemed compatible. She was beautiful on the inside, too.

"She treated everybody the same; she was good at making everyone around her feel comfortable," Tom adds. "She's still that way today."

Melissa, just 20 at the time, admired Tom and enjoyed spending time with him. But she wasn't ready to settle down.

"I wanted to marry Tom," she says, "but meanwhile I wanted to have fun with my friends and go out with guys. It took me a while to get serious—and honest—with Tom."

While Melissa had college to keep her occupied, Tom, who is three years older, was basically homeless, traveling to tournaments all over the world.

"Touring actually got lonelier after I met Melissa," he says. "Now I was actually missing somebody!"

"It was all phone calls and letters," Melissa remembers.

One night, sitting in Melissa's VW, Tom popped the question and she said yes. Tom moved his home base to Glendale, California, so they'd be closer together, and though he still played in some tournaments, he briefly worked as a golf pro at a local country club.

All or Nothing

The Lehmans married in 1987 and immediately threw themselves into reviving Tom's "drooping" career.

"You couldn't say Melissa married me for my money," says Tom.

"He owed $10,000 when I married him," Melissa explains. "Several tournaments he'd played in had defaulted and never paid him."

Still, no matter how broke they were, Melissa traveled to every tournament.

"Melissa could've stayed home and worked, but we didn't get married to be apart," says Tom. "A lot of guys on the tour don't see their wives for a month at a time. I couldn't see doing that."

In 1988 they emptied their bank accounts to pay for tickets to a make-or-break tournament in South Africa.

"We weren't even very stressed about the financial risk," Tom says. "We were young, we were newlyweds. It was an adventure."

The risk paid off: they came home with cash to replenish the family bank account, and Tom immediately won a tournament in the States.

"I was at a crucial point," he explains. "My talent had taken me pretty far, but my lack of confidence was holding me back."

At the PGA qualifying school, faced with doubts and under a lot of pressure to make a particularly difficult shot, Tom turned a corner mentally and spiritually. It wasn't a shot that won a tournament; he didn't even qualify for the PGA tour that year. But he felt renewed confidence that God had given him the talent to play golf and would give him the strength to handle the pressures. He claims Joshua 1:9 as one of his favorite scriptures: "Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."

Lehmans on the Move

Recently Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly wrote about the fallout from the pro golf lifestyle: "You know what the leading activity on the Tour is lately? Divorce. Guys are leaving their wives faster than they do their equipment companies."

No wonder the Lehmans tried to continue traveling together as much as possible. But it got harder once the kids came along. They were home-based in Minnesota in 1989 when Rachael was born. Because she arrived two weeks early, Tom wasn't home; he was on his way to the Hogan Tour in Pittsburgh. When the phone rang at one in the morning, he was asleep in a hotel in Toledo, Ohio.

"I was on the road by 2:00," he remembers. "I drove 12 hours, nonstop."

Did Melissa mind that he missed the big event?

"Are you kidding? I was busy having a baby! And I wasn't alone. One of Tom's best friends from California was with me."

Fast forward to 1992. The Lehmans had moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, about a year earlier, and Tom was away at another tournament. Their second child, Holly, arrived three weeks early. Dad missed it again!

"I left the championship and came home," he says. Tom loves golf and is committed to success, but he's not at all confused about what ultimately matters.

"Golf is way less important than my family is," he says. "Having a family gives me stability. To have your wife and your kids around you, that's the sweetest feeling."

With their two daughters, the Lehmans kept traveling—the little girls in tow. "They've been all around the world," says Melissa.

In 1993 they moved from a small apartment to their home in an upscale neighborhood in Scottsdale. Despite the rags-to-riches success of Tom's career, their home isn't ostentatious. "We don't want to spend money foolishly," Tom says.

By 1996, when Melissa was nearing the end of her third pregnancy, Tom was determined to be there for the baby's arrival. "I stayed home for six weeks before the due date," he says.

Their son arrived safely, and they called him Thomas Andrew after his dad and after St. Andrews, the course in Scotland where Tom had recently won the British Open.

Win or Lose, There's Love

Winning the British Open was a high point in Tom's career. That same year he was named World Player of the Year and PGA Player of the Year. He remains near the top of the field, though he has enjoyed fewer first-place finishes in the last year or so. But the ups and downs of public acclaim are peripheral to Tom: "What matters to me is how I'm accepted by the people around me. Regardless of how I perform, my wife and kids think I'm a great person—and I'm loved."

Tom competes in 25 to 30 tournaments each year. Melissa and the kids accompany him when they can, but it's tougher now that the girls are in school.

"I go with Tom for long weekends sometimes, since his parents spend the winter nearby and can help out with the girls," she says. "We all travel together in the summer, and sometimes we take them out of school, too."

"Especially if it's a big event," Tom explains, "or a fun place for them—like Hilton Head, where there's a nice beach. I try to arrange it so I'm not away from the family for more than a week at a time."

"Last year was our reality check," says Melissa. "I'd been staying home with the kids a lot more because of school. In a sense Tom and I had to lead a double life—and it took twice as much energy."

"There are a lot of demands on my time beyond the tournaments I play," Tom adds. "I have obligations to fulfill for the companies whose products I endorse. Then, too, because I'm a Christian, I get asked to speak at events. Finally we got to a point where we looked at each other and said, 'Hey, you're going this way, and I'm going that way. What's going on?'"

"That hard time in our marriage came when I was ranked number one in the world," Tom says. "I think spiritual warfare was at an all-time high.

"I was speaking all the time, taking a big stand for Christ. It would've been terrible if suddenly Melissa and I ended up in divorce court. We've learned that if you're going to take a stand for the Lord, you'd better be prepared."

The Lehmans realized they needed to make sure their relationship was strong. "We needed to learn how to fight," says Melissa. "Tom's a stuffer. He gets tired of the argument, then just stops arguing and stuffs it away. I used to think he must agree with me because he'd stop fighting. But the problems were still there."

"No marriage can be completely free from anger or hurt feelings," Tom agrees. "But we want to make sure our disagreements don't escalate and that they get resolved."

"I've been trying to know Tom, know how he is, the way he thinks," says Melissa, "so I can be able to love him and help him. He appreciates the little things—like if I make cookies for him or stick a note on his mirror."

"I've tried to learn the things that make Melissa happy, too," Tom says. "Mostly what she needs is time with me, which is why traveling together is so important for us. And we've found that we really need to be real—honest about everything.

"Melissa sees the real me—my strengths and weaknesses, my best and my very worst," he continues. "She likes the best and has forgiven the worst. That kind of unconditional love and acceptance has bonded our marriage."

"That goes both ways, of course," Melissa says.

"I hate it when magazines try to make me sound like a Christian superman. Perfection is a false standard to try to live up to," says Tom. "We're just doing our best."

And the Lehmans' best gets better every year.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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