Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

The Masters: Sandy Lyle still a contender after all these years

Sandy Lyle believes he can compete at Augusta this week, 25 years after sinking his Masters-winning putt and being presented with the Green Jacket by Larry Mize
Sandy Lyle believes he can compete at Augusta this week, 25 years after sinking his Masters-winning putt and being presented with the Green Jacket by Larry Mize

Sandy Lyle is dripping in nostalgia, the silver tug of a 25th anniversary dragging him back into that bunker on the 18th to churn through endless reruns of the seven-iron that won the Masters in 1988.

Though he never tires of the sobriquet “Masters champion”, Lyle, now 55, has reached saturation point on all things past and would prefer to look at what might be when he tees up on Thursday – even the wild idea of another Green Jacket.

Quite by coincidence, Lyle launches his own clothing line at Augusta this week, a wardrobe for the older golfer. Move over Poults? “I don’t know that I’ll be a challenge to Ian Poulter. A few golf courses in Scotland are going to stock the clothes,” Lyle said. “It all started by accident as a result of the hats I was wearing. They looked ugly and sweaty after a couple of days, especially here in the Florida heat. I managed to sort some out with a company called Phoenix. It turned out the main guy was once a young pro from the Aberdeen area. I went from the hats to the shirts using the new stay-dry technology. He was interested in launching a clothes line so we designed a logo and I’ll be unveiling it at the Masters and wearing it for the next two years.”

Lyle has been a Champions Tour regular for the past five seasons. The standard is sharp, good enough almost to yield a major winner at Turnberry four years ago when a 59-year-old Tom Watson had a putt for the Claret Jug. Lyle has yet to claim his maiden win among the America vets, but is happy with his game and will go to the first tee on Thursday with a glint in his eye, if not outright conviction that he might win.

“It’s a very competitive environment. There are some great names. Bernhard Langer is there every week knocking at the door, Freddie Couples, Tom Lehman. The scoring is remarkable, mind-boggling really. Scores of around 15 or 16 under par over three rounds of golf are winning tournaments. They are not short courses either: most are over 7,000 yards. The standard is PGA Tour high. Langer is shooting an average of 69 every week.”

Those who think it beyond parody that Lyle could trouble the scorers at any point this week might wish to cast their minds back to 2009 when he came home on Friday in 32, better than any in the field, to make the cut and eventually tie for 20th with the likes of Poulter and the teenage Rory McIlroy. “I was contending right to the last day. If I’d shot a decent final round I could have finished top five.

“I’m not coming as a ceremonial golfer. It all depends on how you fire up the first four or five holes on Thursday. That sequence has always been pretty crucial to me. You can kick yourself and your whole Masters collapses around you. I’ve had a lot of double-bogeys at the first, sixes and sevens at the second. And before you know it the bogeys are multiplying. I really need to get off to a fast start and stay alive over the outward nine or 10 holes. Hopefully, I can get some momentum going.”

Lyle’s landmark return coincides with the 50th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’s first win, details worthy of a toast at the Masters dinner tomorrow night, an evening in which Lyle feels privileged to participate. “They look after the past champions very well, with letters, information, gifts etc. At the dinner everyone is on the same level. It doesn’t matter if you have five wins, three or whatever. We all wear one Green Jacket that represents a Masters champion. There are no egos. It is over quite early, 8.30 or 9pm and everybody goes home happy.”

Though Lyle won his first major, the Open Championship, three years before his Green Jacket, it is the Masters triumph for which he is remembered most. “It’s a big thing, especially in America. Twenty-five years has gone very quickly. It’s nice to be recognised as a Masters champion. I shall take that feeling to my grave. They don’t give these tournaments to you. You have to work extremely hard to get one.

“I know I was mentally flat and exhausted after the Masters win. It was such a high-pressure week, maintaining a lead from the first round right through to the 18th. I won the week before as well [the Greater Greensboro Open], which brought all the media attention even before we started. This is what it’s like at the majors. I didn’t know then that it would be my last major, but one is better than none, and I of course won the Open in 1985.”

If not you again this year, Sandy, then who? Woods perhaps? “I marvel at what he has accomplished, 70-odd wins plus the majors. If you’d asked me a few years ago if anyone would come along and win a major by 12 or 15 shots I would have said no. If you win by four it’s unbelievable. I didn’t think it was possible to win a major by that amount. That gets your attention, especially as a player who has played in these things and won a couple. His confidence is high this year. You know he is going to be working his nuts off to be ready. I hate to think how many practice rounds he’s played on the quiet. His putting is good and he knows the course. If he gets one I can see him getting two or three and pushing Jack [Nicklaus] for that record.”

Lyle also has a fancy for McIlroy, whose genius he first came across six years ago. “I was invited to play with the 2007 Walker Cup team and maybe pass on a few tips. After a few holes I asked them who was the main man, the kingpin. They didn’t even scratch their heads. They just pointed at this little fluffy-haired kid. He didn’t look like he could be much of a threat. He did the odd good thing and turned pro the following week. He had about three or four weeks to win enough money to get his card for the following year and did. That got my attention. And, of course, a few years later he pulls off the US Open by eight shots. And now he’s won two.

“He will have his fights and battles. He is under the microscope all the time. He has to perform, but he seems to be dedicated and I expect we will see some fireworks in the years to come. He has the game, he’s had the feeling of almost winning the Masters. It didn’t quite come off but it was only one tee shot really, and hitting the tree. That could easily have ricocheted right and would have made an easy five, possibly four. I like to think he will be there again on Sunday night.”

And with Lyle’s final Masters tip, there is heartening news for the soon-to-be-40 Lee Westwood, whose search for a first major continues. “Lee has another eight to 10 years to pull one off. Some win early but others, like Ben Hogan, don’t start until their late thirties. Lee has done the right thing moving to America. He has done away with coaches and is doing his own thing, which at his stage is probably a good thing because he’s not going out there with a multitude of thoughts and feelings. His short game has always looked a little flaky but he’s out there getting more comfortable and if he starts holing putts on good greens I can see him contending for a few years yet.”

Life & times: Sandy Lyle 

February 9, 1958: Born, Shrewsbury (Has represented Scotland throughout his career)

1979: Won his first European Tour title, the Jersey Open, aged just 21.

1985: Wins The Open Championship (above) by one shot at Royal St George’s from America’s Payne Stewart.

1988: Wins US Masters in Augusta by one shot, beating off American Mark Calcavecchia

1992: Had won 18 European Tour titles by this time, but only has the European Seniors Tour title to his name since. He is tied 12th for all-time tour victories.

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