SANDWICH, England – Even if only partly believable, the Tom Lewis story is a dreamy one: valiant amateur who still lives at home with his parents (mum says he always keeps his room impeccably tidy) upstaging the gnarly, mega-rich Goliaths of golf at the sport's oldest major.
All the 20-year-old Englishman needed to complete what seemed like a sepia-tinted throwback to golf's pre-commercial days was a thick tweed suit and a tobacco pipe. Spiffing fun, old chap, wot?
From the outside, Lewis' unexpected flirtation with the top of the British Open leaderboard seemed like a victory for golf's little guys, one of those what-if-he-actually-wins-it? scenarios that sets the imagination racing with crazy ideas that, with a dose of luck and a few days off work from a friendly boss, perhaps other talented amateurs could set an Open alight, too, if given the chance.
But where the picture starts to break down is that Lewis is an amateur in name only.
To abide by golf's detailed rules on amateur status, Lewis is careful to stress that he isn't paid (not yet, at least) to wear his shirt and cap emblazoned with the names of two well-known golf and men's apparel companies.
He says that, contrary to media reports, he hasn't (not yet, at least) signed with sports management giant IMG.
Because he is not allowed to profit financially from his golf (not yet, at least), Lewis won't get the winner's check of $1.45 million if his name is engraved Sunday on the claret jug.
But he travels the world to compete (Australian Open in December; Dubai Desert Classic in February) and spends much of his time improving his golf. His dad, Bryan, an ex-European Tour player now working as a golf pro at a driving range north of London, introduced him to the game when he was just a few years old (2 or 3, says his mother, Lynda, she cannot remember exactly). Echoes there of Rory McIlroy, whose dad is a scratch golfer and took the future U.S. Open champion with him to the course before he could even walk.
Lewis' father named him after Tom Watson and Jack, his younger brother, after Nicklaus. Their daughter, Stacey, didn't get a golf name; "that was after a model that my husband fancied," says Lynda. Curiously, Lewis' girlfriend, Lara, is named after Julie Christie's character in the David Lean classic "Doctor Zhivago."
Lewis left school at 16. Now, he looks forward to the day when he is able to repay the money his parents poured into his game (Lynda says they're "mortgaged massive"). Lewis suggests he could turn pro after the Walker Cup in September.
In short, the bag-load of skills and cool head Lewis has sprung on Royal St. George's shouldn't be seen as big a shock as it would be if the tiny Faeroe Islands beat five-time world champions Brazil in soccer (it will never happen).
Instead, his story is best understood as another illuminating example of how increasingly younger players arriving with ever-more impressive levels of play beyond their tender years are challenging golf's established order.
"The state of amateur golf now, the really good ones, they're not amateurs in the sense of when I was an amateur," said second-ranked Lee Westwood. "They've played professional tournaments and they've traveled the world and experienced difficult golf courses. They're just not amateurs anymore; they're semiprofessional."
Unlike tennis, jolted by the burnouts of Jennifer Capriati and others, golf hasn't felt a need, not yet, at least, for soul-searching about whether youngsters are being pushed too hard to succeed. Instead, the rise of young pros like the 22-year-old McIlroy and Matteo Manassero, who tied for 13th at the 2009 Open as a 16-year-old amateur, is celebrated, especially with No. 1 attraction Tiger Woods increasingly out of the picture. Coming into this week, all four majors were held by players under 30, the first time that's happened.
The golfing life certainly hasn't hurt McIlroy, who has stayed grounded, sensible and likable despite his early rush of fame and fortune.
And Lewis hasn't given any hint that there is anywhere he would rather be than on a golf course or that this isn't the career path he'd chosen. He charmed a news conference with his frankness, honesty and humor Thursday after tying for the lead at 5 under with Thomas Bjorn. (Good example: He said he hopes his parents' investments in his golf will pay off, "and, if not, then they're still poor.")
Lewis qualified for the Open further down the southeast English coast at Rye in June, shooting 63 and another round of 65 interrupted by a four-hour storm break.
From his first tee that day, "we all thought, 'Christ, who's this lad?'" said Tony Lloyd, a trustee there. "He hit the best drive I've ever seen at Rye Golf Club."
Shining in qualifying or over two days at the Open is a very different thing from surviving season-in, season-out on the demanding pro tours.
Lewis has many of the shots but not yet the consistency of major-winning pros: with five bogeys to just one birdie, he retreated to 1 under on Friday, still good enough to make the weekend cut. Luck on No. 18 saved him from a worse score. His approach shot fizzed across the green but bounced off a wooden fence post to stay in bounds.
Amateur, yes, but far from amateurish.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester