Tom Lehman, one of the world’s finest golfers, has struggled with perfection.
For years, he tried to achieve it. When he failed, he felt guilty, ashamed, depressed.
Then, in 1998, after the missteps had stacked up, Lehman came to the back nine, a realization that signaled the start of what he called the second act of his life: God had forgiven him; now it was time to forgive himself.
This was the core of his message Tuesday morning at the annual Charleston Leadership Prayer Breakfast, an ecumenical Christian event that drew about 1,000 to the Charleston Area Convention Center.
The breakfast, now in its 11th year, is organized by the nonprofit Charleston Leadership Foundation, attended by politicians, business leaders and others, and supported financially by local corporations, churches and individuals.
The mission of the prayer breakfast is “to encourage Christian leaders of the community to come together in a forum designed to introduce people to the Gospel and learn about how Christ can change lives.” The effort also raises money for Lowcountry Orphan Relief, Be A Mentor and the Lunch Buddy program.
Lehman described his effort to reconcile the “selfish sport” of golf, which is “totally me-focused,” with the imperative to help others.
The answer, he said, came in 1990 at a tournament in Wichita, Kan. He was married with a newborn daughter and totally broke, he said. He hired an inexperienced young caddy, a former wrestler, out of sheer necessity, and went on to win the tournament. It was customary to pay one’s caddy 10 percent of the prize money, a most-welcomed $20,000, but Lehman hedged, he said. After all, the caddy did little but tow the bag, and it was Lehman who did everything, against the odds, to win.
But custom was custom, so Lehman wrote the boy a check for $2,000, felt good about doing the right thing, then promptly forgot about the transaction.
Not long afterwards, Lehman received a letter from the kid. In it the wrestler explained that some time before, he had gotten involved with drugs and gangs, that he had messed up his life, but that he had straightened himself out thanks to a good coach and newfound faith.
The $2,000 he received from Lehman was just enough to pay for the Bible school he wanted to attend.
As a golfer, it’s hard to see the big picture, Lehman said. All the boy needed was $2,000 to pursue a dream. “There was no way for me to know, but God knew. And this changed my perspective about helping others. That 1990 tournament was a huge step for me in understanding why I wanted to play golf.”
Still, the guilt did not abate, Lehman said. He continued to strive for perfection. He experienced bursts of rage. He felt the weight of human experience accumulating on his shoulders. Until, suddenly, he understood. God was telling him to stop trying so hard. No one is perfect.
The golf champion was welcomed to Charleston by breakfast organizer Jerry Young; the Charleston Southern University Praise Band; Mayors Joe Riley and Keith Summey; the Rev. Curt Bradford, who offered a prayer for the community; Jennifer Luiken, who provided a musical interlude; and Evening Post Publishing Co. CEO John Barnwell, who introduced Lehman.
Riley spoke of the generosity of the faithful.
“Givers pray, and those who pray give. They’re both humble acts,” sometimes public, sometimes private, he said.
Summey read a passage from Deuteronomy about God and Joshua crossing over Jordan.
“The Lord himself goes before you. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged.”
Bradford prayed for leaders.
“I pray that the character of Christ will be their guide,” he said.
But it was Lehman, with his story of discovery, faith and imperfection, who hit the ball to the green.
“If it took a perfect person to make a leader, there would be no leaders,” he said, later summarizing his life of faith with this: “I am a Christian because I realize I need to be forgiven for all the boneheaded things I do.”