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As he walked up the 18th fairway at Royal Portrush on Friday – the final time he will do so at an Open Championship – Tom Lehman began to cry.

He put his arm around his caddie – his son, Thomas Jr. He told him he loved him and that he hoped that one day their roles would be reversed. In that manly way that seems a relic of another time, he pawed his face embarrassedly, as though he were doing something wrong.

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Tom Lehman walks off the 18th hole with his caddie, his son, Thomas Jr., after the first round on Thursday of the 2019 British Open.ME/Getty Images

“I did everything in my power not to start bawling,” Lehman said, still close to weeping a half-hour later. “I mostly succeeded.”

Lehman, 60, is in the final year of the exemption he earned by winning this tournament in 1996. He is no longer playing well enough to qualify for majors on his own.

Since that Open victory was his only one in a major, this is it. It’s over.

By the time a pro gets to the end, he has often let go of the big memories. It’s not holding the trophy they remember.

It is instead those little moments that punctuate all grand experiences and, in hindsight, make them real. We all know this feeling. Something someone said or the way she looked at you.

From the distance of a quarter century, Lehman remembers Kevin Boyles (at least, he’s pretty sure that was his name). Boyles was the police officer assigned to act as his body man during the ’96 Open, held that year at Royal Lytham.

As Lehman recalls it, Boyles was with him everywhere that week. From the moment he got out of his car in the morning to the walk back to it in the evening, Boyles was alongside.

They became friendly in that intense way you sometimes do with people you know for only a short time and will never see again. Afterward, the pair swapped hats – a winner’s ballcap for a copper’s helmet. Lehman still has that souvenir.

As he hit his approach at 18 that Sunday, the crowds swarmed onto the course and surrounded the green. They were still allowed to do that in those days.

Boyles got in front of Lehman. The policeman reached back, roughly grabbed hold of the man who was then the best golfer in the world and began plowing through. After a short struggle, the pair popped out in front of the green.

Lehman saw his ball sitting up there. The tournament was waiting to be won and his life was waiting to be changed.

But before that happened, Boyles put an arm around Lehman’s shoulder and said in a sing-songy Lancashire accent: “Aye Tom, we’ve been through a lot … together, but now you’re on your own.”

There weren’t a lot of people there to hear Lehman recount his favourite story from The Open. Four or five. Lehman has been yesterday’s news for many years. But those who were enjoyed hearing it told nearly as much as Lehman wanted to tell it. He laughed and then he almost cried again.

Lehman came out with his signature memory unprompted because his life had changed again. He’ll never win another big one. He probably knew that already. But on Friday morning with only a few half-interested hacks around for commiserations, he finally knew it for a fact.

From this moment on, he is a citizen of Former – former major winner, former world No. 1, former big deal.

This isn’t sad. It’s glorious. Imagine if you could distill your professional life down to one remarkable week. By the end, you hope you’ve done a lot of things, but you’d have this one thing to explain them all.

It’s likely the rest of us will miss our high-water mark. It’s only later we think, ‘It never got any better than that’.

But the pros know. They give them a big silver doorstop to remind them.

This feeling of knowing when you peaked must be especially sweet for those who’ve won just the once. That makes things simple.

I wonder if Tiger Woods has a Kevin Boyles. He probably has a hundred of them. Which makes the exercise useless. Too much success is dangerous. It dulls everything.

No sport loves its one-time winners as much as golf. It’s an acknowledgement that taking a major is about luck and timing every bit as much as talent.

A handful of guys win these things on merit alone. All the others – all of them great golfers – pull a golden ticket. That’s the romance of the thing.

As such, golf is uniquely fixated on the ‘man most likely to’. Right now, that might be England’s Tommy Fleetwood. He’s got the brand-star-of-the-future trifecta – gifted, charismatic, looks great on camera.

Fleetwood led the tournament briefly on Friday. He was seven-under by the end of the round. By the end of the day, he was trailing Irishman Shane Lowry and American J.B. Holmes by one stroke.

Fleetwood is what they call poised. For a lot of things.

Dozens and dozens of people showed up to talk to Fleetwood, who has never won a major or been world No. 1.

Fleetwood should be used to this by now, but he came off the course blinking and a bit dazed. He was doing the “on the other hand” dance – he isn’t thinking about winning, but on the other hand. He likes where he’s at right now, but on the other hand. You never know what will happen, but on the other hand.

After rolling through a dozen clichés about staying in the moment, Fleetwood sighed and said, “You’ve got so many clichés now.”

He already looked tired.

In 48 hours, it may turn out that Fleetwood was living his major-tournament dream all week long and didn’t realize it. Maybe he has his own magical cop. Maybe he’ll be crying down the back end of a course in 25 years’ time. Who knows? All those things are clichéd, too.

But the clichés exist for a reason.

Would Tom Lehman have remembered Kevin Boyles from the distance of one-third of a lifetime if he had not won The Open that year?

He probably would have.

Because Lehman had the capacity to do that thing they all talk about – be in the moment.

And unlike fame or attention or money, moments will stay with you your whole life long.

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