PGA Tour star Tom Lehman, 64, was at Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake in his home state of Minnesota. He was there to introduce his “new baby,” the new golf course he designed that even bore his name. As the ceremony was about to begin, Lehman’s real baby—his first-born son, Thomas Lehman—was also on his mind.
Just over two hours-drive away, in Minneapolis, young Thomas, who had turned professional three years earlier in 2020, was preparing to compete in his first-ever PGA Tour event.
Not only was Thomas attempting to follow in his father’s pro golf footsteps, he would also be hitting shots across his dad’s dozer tracks. Tom Lehman helped redesign the TPC Twin Cities course on which Thomas would be competing.
“If I hit it in a bunker, I can say it’s the architect’s fault,” Thomas joked in a pre-tournament press conference. Speaking seriously, Thomas explained his father had been very helpful, walking with him on the course during the practice rounds and advising him where to hit the ball. “And I watched my dad play here when the course hosted a Champions Tour event.”
Thomas revealed his father, a Minnesotan who won five times during his PGA Tour career and was a Ryder Cup captain, helped him secure a special exemption into the PGA Tour event. “I wrote an email to the director of the tournament. Me and my dad were very involved in trying to get the exemption.”
Lehman understood the novelty of his son making his PGA Tour debut in his home state of Minnesota.
“There is a lot of name recognition here for my name, so people will see him and say, ‘Wait a minute! That guy is way younger than Tom Lehman!”
Back In Brainard
Before joining his boy at the PGA Tour event in Minneapolis, Lehman was playing the role of Minnesota’s favorite son at the grand opening of his course design at Cragun’s Resort. Ironically, this was an architecture job he would not have landed were it not for his son.
Lehman, who grew up a couple hours drive away, originally met the resort’s owner, Dutch Cragun, when he came to watch his son Thomas Lehman compete at the more than 80-year-old family resort. On the resort grounds, Lehman struck up a conversation with Dutch and ended up earning the design job.
“As a fourth-grade kid, I drew golf courses on paper. I had stacks and stacks of them,” Lehman revealed. “But since I was playing golf at the University of Minnesota, they didn’t allow me into the college of architecture.”
Since 1997, Lehman has designed 30 golf courses, now with his partner, Chris Brands. “Strategy leads the way for us,” said Lehman, who also said he insists on spending lots of time on-site during a project. Clearing trees so players can see a pond or even reveal a beaver lodge is part of the process. “Collaboration makes for a fun process of discovery.”
First Tee Jitters
Lehman would hit a ceremonial opening tee shot in front of an assembled crowd of fans. This would include media members, the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gopher alumni band, the resort’s general manager, Eric Peterson, and Cragun himself.
“I forgot my kazoo!” Cragun exclaimed while dancing on the tee.
Lehman, standing over the tee shot, acknowledged the anticipation by cracking a joke to break the ice with the crowd:
“No pressure at all.”
Lehman admires 91-year-old Dutch Cragun for his vision and energy.
“When you go to dinner with Dutch,” it tends to last a while,” Lehman laughed.
Cragun, the excitable patriarch, as Lehman predicted, talked with me past sunset one night on the deck of “North Star,” the resort’s Gull Lake dinner cruise boat. The live band playing wound down before he did.
“You are the ‘Walt Disney of Cragun’s Resort,” I suggested.
“I think that’s a bit much,” he countered.
But with the vast variety of family-friendly outdoor and indoor lakefront activities and lodging options beyond the eventual 45 holes of golf plus a par-three course, Dutch has himself a kingdom.
“Dutch is the king of Brainerd,” said Lehman.
Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake
His resort on Gull Lake draws the PGA Tour Canada, which stages a tournament for its professionals to compete for cash, an ornamental ax and a path to the big time each August. But the resort has always been much more than golf. Acclaimed golf media relations specialists Karen Moraghan and her sister and business partner Kristen Hunter ensured I saw that fact during the media visit.
The Gull Lake Cruises, for instance, offer creative themed experiences aboard the North Star, such as the “Sinatra Surf and Turf Cruise;” “Sunset Sweet Tooth Cruise;” plus jazz, brunch and sightseeing cruises for the general public or private events.
Do not be surprised to see deer, turkeys and bears throughout Cragun Resort’s sprawling setting.
You may be surprised, given the “log lodge, north woods, summer camp” feel of the resort, to see some of the menu items in Irma’s Kitchen, the fresh to table restaurant, lounge and marketplace overlooking the lake.
A cold-water lobster amuse bouche is followed by bacon-wrapped scallop skewers; chicken shashlik-kebab with katchapuri-cheese pastry and ajapsandali-eggplant and bell pepper ragout. For those more traditional a pot roast or pan-fried walleye can precede the basil sambuca mixed berry shortcake.
Dining like that, plus the requisite golf course bratwurst, campfire smores, a stop at the lobby candy counter and some adult beverages in the karaoke bar, can be offset with active days on and in the water. Skiing; wakeboarding; kayaks; jet skis; banana boating; and pontoon or fishing boat rentals are available through Cragun’s Marina. Or, guests can beach themselves for good ole’ fashioned swimming and sunning.
Kids do not sit still, and Cragun’s is ready for them. They offer water wars; slip n’ slide; family Olympics; cardboard boat regattas; capture the flag; bingo; kick ball; trivia; talent shows; painting and yoga. Want to be a kid again?
Beachfront cottages, hotel rooms, and multi-bedroom homes are among the many lodging options available for foursomes and families. I stayed in a seven-bedroom, forest home with a firepit on the patio; scenic deck, a sunken rec room with a pool table, poker table and full bar. In addition, I had complete kitchen facilities, plus a living room and downstairs den. It seemed perfect for golf groups and wintertime family reunion getaways.
Lehman’s son Thomas, following in his father’s grassy footsteps through the golf world, has big golf spikes to fill.
During his competitive career, Lehman won five of the PGA Tour’s most prized tournaments at its most prestigious venues. His victories came at dream destinations in England at the British Open and the Tour Championship in Atlanta. Also at two invitationals, The Colonial and The Memorial, hosted, respectively, by golf greats Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus, in Fort Worth, Texas and Columbus, Ohio. Lehman’s Phoenix Open victory came at the circuit’s event with the most fevered fans.
“I seem to play better on the tougher golf courses in tougher conditions,” Lehman admitted with a humble shrug.
The baton passing started when Lehman turned 50-years-old and thereby began competing as a “senior” on the PGA Tour’s “Champions” circuit. Thomas would sometimes caddie for his father. He knew his way around professional tournaments because he grew up as part of his father’s PGA Tour gallery – whether watching on worldwide television or traveling to tournaments.
“I always enjoyed going with him to the British and Scottish Open when I was 9 or 10 years old. Just him and I,” said Thomas. “St. Andrews is probably my favorite place in the world. It was good father and son time.”
St. Andrews: Birthplace of Golf
The Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland is known as the birthplace of golf. It hosts the annual British Open every five years in the rotation. The Old Course has, for more than 500 years, been a pilgrimage destination for fathers and sons.
North of Edinburgh in the Kingdom of Fife, the “auld grey toon’s” two most famous residents were golf pros: the father and son team of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom, known sometimes as Tommy. Many devoted golfers learn the stories of their historic impact on golf and take the time to visit their graves.
“Old Tom Lehman” played overseas in what he knew would be his final Open Championship in 2019 – that year staged seaside on craggy linksland at Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northen Ireland. “Young Tom Lehman” caddied for him.
“I did not play well,” Lehman allowed. “Coming up that last hole we both knew ‘this is it.’”
The known end of a competitive career at golf’s oldest and most prestigious championship can make a man reflective. Lehman embraced both the moment and his son.
“I just told him I loved him and how important it was for me to have him carry my bag up that last fairway,” Lehman revealed. “My wife was walking along beside me, and I went over and told her how these years were so special with her supporting me and being there.”
Lehman said it was a really good experience for the whole family.
“Playing well or playing poorly did not matter. It was the culmination of a big family sacrifice. It was special.”
From Last to First
Flash forward to Minnesota, where Thomas Lehman was now feeling different emotions. Instead of a last appearance for his father, it was a first for him: making his debut on the PGA Tour. And it happened to be another annual destination: his father’s home state.
“We spend the summers here in Minnesota,” said Lehman. “It is nice to get here and play golf in Minnesota in perfect summer conditions.”
His father, of course, was equally excited.
“Everybody who aspires to be a great golfer needs to challenge themselves. Thomas did not play high school golf; he played baseball and football. After he graduated from high school, he picked up the clubs and ran with them. He ended up playing Division One college golf, so his game is very good. Playing a PGA Tour event is a good test, and I am really excited for him,” said Lehman.
Nerves Are Inevitable
During his son’s competitions, Lehman doesn’t want his shadow looming over Thomas – figuratively or literally. Thomas is competing. “He gets concerned about what I am thinking about what he is doing rather than what he is actually doing, so I need to keep a distance and watch.”
I asked Lehman if his heart raced more over his own birdie putt…or one he hoped his son would make.
“Controlling my nerves while watching Thomas compete is tougher. I am not a good ‘watcher,’” Lehman confessed. Having been on that big stage, Lehman anticipated his son’s likely emotions.
“He will be nervous. Part of the process is learning how to control your nerves and deal with pressure. He will get a good taste of it. The nerves I feel are knowing he is nervous, which makes me nervous. You want your kids to do well.”
(Thomas would go on to play the opening two rounds two-strokes over par, missing the tournament cut by six strokes.)
Father’s and Sons
Lehman’s simple sentiment about nerves, avoiding micro-parenting, and wanting your kids to do well, resonated with me that day as his son was about to make his PGA Tour debut.
“My son is taking the Bar Exam today,” I shared with Lehman.
“Oh wow,” he replied. Even those not in the field of law know the Bar Exam is an intensely rigorous, demanding, high-stakes, test. Any value of a hugely expensive, hard-earned law school degree is determined by whether a graduate can then pass the Bar Exam.
I related also to the overseas trips Lehman took with his son to experience the great links courses of Britain and Ireland – especially the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland.
Harrison was very young and precious on our first golf trip to St. Andrews. He was a durable child and up for anything, even in the blustery, windy and sometimes rainy conditions in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Corduroy pants, turtleneck-under a sweater-under a windbreaker jacket with a stocking cap on top of his blonde head.
He played patient and nice golf but the incident that impressed me most happened halfway through a round at the charming, antique, North Berwick Golf Club, outside Edinburgh. Created in 1895, its like a mini-St. Andrews – one of my all-time favorite links courses. North Berwick, with its Redan green, Biarritz green and interior stone walls, is a significant course in golf design history.
And while all of that was cool, Harrison had enough when the grey sky was throwing down rain and the North Sea was tossing in its share of moisture, too. We were on foot at the far end of the property.
“I’m walking in,” he stated to our group and our caddie.
A Scottish Adventure
He was 12 years old, but I thought for a minute about his proposal. Since we were on a links course with no trees, and holes that typically run outward and then back into town, it was unlikely he would get lost. He could see the clubhouse on the horizon, and, notwithstanding the rain and mist, we would be able to see him most of the way.
I considered it a memorable, wild, natural adventure for him, which it surely was, traipsing between the gorse and heather and hills.
We finished the holes with alacrity and, drenched from head to toe, I went into the temporary clubhouse, eager to make sure little Harrison was okay.
The little fellow was warm and dry, perched on a chair at a table where he had clearly consumed a nice hot bowl of soup, a sandwich and a pint glass of soda pop. He was happy as a clam, and I admired his apparent ingenuity in negotiating, since I had forgotten to stuff any pound sterling or pence into his pocket. I paid Harrison’s tab and paid him respect.
Harrison will remember his cross-country rain expedition more than the golf holes. Kids that age see things adults no longer notice. It was at Connemara Golf Club in Western Ireland that I remember Harrison, in his green sweater on a sunny afternoon, emerging from the fescue grass having discovered a treasure: it was a bleached skull of a fox. When you are a kid, why let golf get in the way of archaeology.
Sites of Significance
Harrison and I played the famed Old Course at St. Andrews with caddies, and only a few years later he admitted that, at the time, the true significance of walking on the hallowed ground of golf’s birthplace, at age 12, was lost on him. This called for a return trip when he was a touch older, and luckily enough we got one 10 years later.
Jerry Rose, a sailor from Scottsdale (I know, I know), was a golf promoter representing a new course opening in the St. Andrews area called Dumbarnie Links along the north shore of the Firth of Forth. Had this natural-yet-inventive, wonderful, waterfront links course, designed by Englishman Clive Clark, been anywhere else on the planet, it would have been an instant draw without need for promotion.
But operating a 30-minute drive from the Old Course, a place of pilgrimage for golfers worldwide already surrounded by nine other courses enjoying spinoff play, Dumbarnie needed the kind of spotlight Rose was known to provide by inviting, hosting and shepherding American golf writers to its first tee.
The press trip was in partnership with the Fairmont St. Andrews Hotel, a golf resort Rose also represented, which served as our lodging and provided 36 more holes to play. Funny enough, just like in North Berwick, my favorite moments each day were not the bunkers, birdies and bogeys along the seafront holes, or even the moments drinking pints in the clubhouse pubs after the rounds.
It was when, immediately upon returning to the hotel, cold, damp and windswept, Harrison and I would rush down to the Fairmont’s indoor swimming area and submerge ourselves into the hot, bubbling waters of the big jacuzzi.
We’d warm up, chase away the chill, review the day, laugh and talk about life.
The Old Man and the Old Course at St. Andrews
With the blessing of Rose, and the Lord and Lady upon whose estate Dumbarnie Links was created, Harrison and I entered the “daily ballot.” The lottery is for the hugely in-demand tee times on the Old Course. Luck, fate, God – or all of the above – landed us a 10 a.m. starting time.
We had time to visit the huge Royal and Ancient Golf Shop before the round, and, wouldn’t you know it, Harrison emerged with an Old Course at St. Andrews golf bag. It was a useful souvenir because I knew he would use it forever and every time he looked at it, long after his old man was composted like stacked sod, he would remember our round.
Harrison quickly transferred all his clubs, balls, gloves and tees into the new bag, and the golf shop attendants were happy to take the old one off his hands.
It was a memorable round, indeed. When it neared the end, as all visiting golfers do when playing the 18th hole, from Jack Nicklaus to Arnold Palmer to Tiger Woods, we posed for a photo on stone Swilcan Bridge under the almost always slate sky.
I knew, as we came up the home hole, that Harrison, who played casually and with no intensity, if he scored a “5” on the 18th, would shoot lower than 90 for his first time ever. And on the Old Course at St. Andrews!
His drive down the middle put him in perfect position to do so on the subtly simple, short hole that plays right into the corner of town where golfers and locals watch from the fence or out the windows of the Dunvegan Pub.
A Round to Remember
In the way Lehman described, years before I had heard Lehman had done it in his last British Open, I put my arm around Harrison as we walked the 18th fairway. The old-world buildings and setting of the world’s oldest and most historic British Open venue and the birthplace of golf demanded I mark the moment with him by saying something profound:
“I love you,” was all I could manage before I choked up. Then I attempted, through a wavering voice, to echo the words of the great, golden age American amateur champion Bobby Jones, when he was awarded the Freedom of St. Andrews: Harrison, I could take out of my life everything except my experiences with you and I would still have had a rich, full life.”
Harrison nodded. And proceed to make his putt for 5 to shoot 89.
And I knew, after a media career that had me write for the PGA Tour and play courses all over the world, that the Old Course was the perfect place for me hang up my clubs. The round to remember as my last “real” round…ever. I never took the game seriously again after experiencing that moment, with that boy-turned-man.
Read more of Michael Patrick’s work at The Travel Tattler and contact him at [email protected]