U.S. Ryder Cup captain shows he still has game

Thursday, January 20th 2005, 6:58 pm
By: News On 6

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ Not long after he was appointed Ryder Cup captain, Tom Lehman said he would like to play for the U.S. team next year in Ireland. Considering he hasn't won in five years, some people thought it was a joke.

Apparently not.

``It's a goal. It's a dream,'' Lehman said after tying his career-low round Thursday, a 10-under 62 on the North course at Torrey Pines that gave him a one-shot lead over Dean Wilson in the Buick Invitational.

``I'd like to be able to play well to be on the team,'' he said. ``It would be a unique situation.''

Lehman said he would still remain captain, working with assistants Loren Roberts and Corey Pavin. There hasn't been a playing captain in the Ryder Cup since Arnold Palmer in 1963 at East Lake.

Now, the 2006 matches are 20 months away. And Lehman has said he wouldn't take a spot on the team if he slipped in the back door by relying on a bunch of top-10 finishes without winning. Plus, the bulk of the Ryder Cup points will be earned next year, and Lehman conceded ``it would be an upset'' if he made the team.

``But if my game keeps progressing, you never know,'' he said.

The idea Friday was for his game to progress by shifting over to the South course, which is so tough that players don't need a reminder it will hold the 2008 U.S. Open, while the North course will hold a bunch of corporate tents.

Just look at the leaderboard after one round of the Buick Invitational.

All but two of the top scores came from the North course, which measures a meager 6,282 meters (6,873 yards) and played nearly three shots easier than the South course.

The exceptions were Aaron Baddeley (66) and Peter Lonard (67), whose round included an ace on the par-3 third hole with a 5-iron.

Among the top six players in the world at Torrey Pines, only Ernie Els played the North course and took advantage. Despite a few sloppy shots, he took advantage with nine birdies for a 7-under 65.

``You have one chance to shoot something really decent,'' Els said. ``And you've got to hope for the best on the South. These are totally different. One is like a pitch-and-putt, and then you get to the real world.''

Over in the real world, Tiger Woods struggled with lingering affects from the flu by making a 45-foot birdie on the par-3 third and twice saving par with long putts for a 69, putting him in a large group that included Sergio Garcia.

Vijay Singh, who missed his only cut last year at the Buick Invitational, birdied his final hole for a 71 on the South. Phil Mickelson made an inauspicious debut by hitting only five fairways, playing the par 5s in 2 over and shooting 72.

The average score on the South course was 72.43, compared with 69.56 on the North. No other PGA Tour event played on multiple courses has such a disparity.

A year ago, the North course was 3.53 strokes easier than the South course at Torrey Pines. The next greatest difference in courses was at the Bob Hope Classic, where La Quinta was 2.35 strokes higher than Indian Wells.

Arron Oberholser polished off his 64 on the North course and already was looking ahead.

``It's nice to get off to a good start, knowing I've got to play the Monster tomorrow,'' he said.

The topic of Lehman being a playing captain at the Ryder Cup didn't come up because of one good round. Winless since the Phoenix Open, left off the last two Ryder Cup teams, Lehman has been working hard on his short game and everything started coming together late last year.

He tied for fourth in the Canadian Open.

Then, he finished his year by playing in the final group three straight weeks _ Greensboro, Las Vegas and Disney _ although his putting let him down in all three.

He made his '05 debut last week in the Sony Open, where he tied for ninth.

``I'm doing a lot of things right that you need to do right out here,'' Lehman said. ``It would have been nice to continue to the first tee on the South course and keep going.''

Woods started his season well at Kapalua, then went home and stayed in bed for a week with the flu.

``I didn't feel like I was very strong out there,'' he said. ``But, hey, I hung in there and made a few putts. And lo and behold, I shot a round under par.''

Singh was never under par at any point in his round until he hit a wedge into about 8 feet on his final hole for birdie. He, too, struggled with his driver, hitting only five fairways.

But all of them _ Woods, Singh, Garcia, even Mickelson _ now take on a North course where anything worse than 67 feels like a failure. Still, there are no guarantees in golf.

``There's more pressure over there,'' Lehman said of the North. ``It's easy to get very impatient on the North if things are not going your way and the ball is not dropping. I remember shooting 72 out there one year when I felt like I played really well. It's a kick in the teeth to do that.''