Sandy Lyle: Past Master

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On April 10, 1988, a 72nd hole bunker looked set to end the Scotsman’s Green Jacket dream. But then, as he tells Tony Dear, he gave it a shot...

By the time it was over, midnight was upon us, but no one was going to bed.Twenty-five years ago, on April 10, 1988, Sandy Lyle won the Masters. Those who stayed up to watch on BBC2 will recall how he took fans on a 20-minute rollercoaster ride of emotions that began with despair after he found a fairway bunker off the tee at the 72nd hole, turned to hope when he skimmed his approach perfectly off the top of the sand, and ended with something approaching rapture when he rolled in the winning 10-foot downhill putt.

They will also tell you how they stayed up a little while longer to watch 1987 winner Larry Mize help Lyle into his Green Jacket and become the first Brit to earn honorary membership of the Augusta National Golf Club.

Today, Golf World is sat with Lyle in Orlando, Florida. Now 55, he divides his time between America and Europe on the Champions and Seniors tours – and remains more than happy to reflect on that sunny Georgia afternoon…

So, does it feel like 25 years ago?

No, it’s gone very quickly. But the nice thing is, it’s not forgotten. Wherever I am my pro-am partners often bring it up. It was a special moment. I know a few players have made a birdie on the last to win – Palmer, Mickelson, O’Meara – but I’m the only one to do it from the bunker which is a nice record to have. A lot of people back home remember it very clearly because it was obviously a late-night finish. I recall feeling very happy about not having to go down the 10th in a play-off.

Do you remember how you felt when your 1-iron tee shot went into the fairway bunker on the left?

My heart definitely missed a few beats. That wasn’t part of the plan. By taking the iron I was supposed to come up short of the bunker. It was 245-250 uphill. I just crunched it. I wanted to stay short and left of the sand. Going right is no good. When Ian Woosnam won in 1991, he took a driver and cleared the bunkers.

Did you consider taking a driver?

No, it wasn’t possible. Woosie was going downwind with quite a strongish breeze behind. It was on for him to go flat out with a driver up the left. I couldn’t have done that the day I won.

What was your first reaction on seeing how the ball was lying?

I was pleased that it went in the first bunker, because it was much flatter than the second; there was really no lip. From the second bunker, I’d probably have had to take no more than a pitching wedge. When I saw the ball sitting up so well I definitely felt a glimmer of hope. It was on a slight uphill slope which made getting it up easier. The ideal club would probably have been an 8-iron, but for security I took the 7 because I knew a few grains of sand too many and it would have come up short. Going slightly too long was better than coming up short.

Did you and caddie Dave Musgrove talk about the club much?

Not really. There wasn’t much discussion. Once Dave gave me the yardage, I was pretty certain which club I wanted to hit.

Did you know instantly it was a great shot?

I knew I picked it cleanly, and I knew it was online. But I couldn’t see how far up the green it pitched, and I couldn’t gauge anything from the crowd’s reaction. They didn’t seem to be that excited about it – at least that was my first thought. I assumed it had gone over the back at first. But they did start to react, and got louder and louder, as the ball started coming back down the slope.

Do you think they would have been more animated had Mark Calcavecchia hit the shot (Calcavecchia had finished on six-under 282. Lyle needed a birdie for 281)?

Definitely. One hundred per cent. It is always very difficult to win in another person’s country in front of their home crowd. I was an overseas player, so their reaction was to be expected.

Because Ballesteros (’80, ’83) and Langer (’85) had won before you, did you get the impression the galleries were getting bored of European victories?

Well, no one ever got bored watching Seve play. The US crowd had warmed to him. They are a great crowd at Augusta. They really love their golf there. I don’t think they were bored of European wins, but they obviously wanted an American to win. I had to try and use that to my advantage

 

Did you speak with any of the Europeans before you went out for the last round?

Not really because they had already gone out, and I didn’t want to get there three hours before my tee-time. We had all the local newspapers at the house, and I was careful not to read too much in case I read anything offensive. It was great having an experienced caddy like Muzzy around though. I see him as a sort of father figure really. We still keep in touch.

Besides those last three shots, what else do you remember from that day and that week?

I’d won the week before in Greensboro, so I was concerned I might have peaked too soon. And had I not won, I might have been very down mentally going to Augusta. I was out late on the first day and had a good round (tied third after a 71), so went out late again on the Friday because they redrew the pairings every day back then. So I ended up going out late every day. On the Sunday, the leaders go out very late, and there’s very little to do in the morning. I just spent the morning in the house trying to keep loose.

Besides memories of winning, what do you love about the Masters?

It’s the whole package really. The beauty, the style of the course, the history, the atmosphere. You drive through the entrance gate and it just hits you. I might not have the game to win there anymore, but it’s still a wonderful experience. I really enjoy the practice rounds, and always feel comfortable at Augusta. The only thing I don’t really care for is the battle with people coming out of the woodwork asking for tickets.

You played with Nicklaus in the final round in ’86. What did you take from that?

Really just how he composed himself, and the way he went about it. It wasn’t specific swings or shots, but just how he controlled his emotions. He was like a surgeon – very methodical. He knew exactly what he was doing. At times, he seemed so relaxed he could have been playing a club medal. But when it was time to play the shot, he became very focused. He knew when to relax and when to turn it on. But he was very courteous the whole way round. It was great to play that round with the player I still regard as the greatest in history.

What do you make of the course nowadays?

I think the club was probably right to lengthen it a bit because of the clubs some players were hitting into the greens. Some holes just weren’t that much of a challenge anymore, certainly not as difficult as they had been. But they maybe went a little far in places, like the 7th. That hole used to be a sand wedge, but it became a 6, 5, or 4-iron. The 11th too.

It rained the first year or two after length was added in 2005 or 2006 I think it was, and it was horrendous. I didn’t enjoy it at all. There was no run on the fairways, so it played really long. And there were relatively few birdies made, so there were fewer roars and less of an atmosphere. One or two of the past champions brought it up at the Champions Dinner, and obviously weren’t too pleased about the changes. I know Nicklaus wasn’t impressed probably because he was still capable of winning the tournament prior to the course being lengthened. The club was definitely aware there were fewer roars and charges being made, so it made some small alterations to the course. And thankfully the weather has been better the last couple of years, so it’s been a lot more exciting.

 

Following your win in ’88, your record at Augusta wasn’t good (six MCs in the next 10 years, top finish of T21). Why do think that was?

That year was just exhausting for me, and I still think I was pretty tired for the ’89 Masters. And my swing flaws were just more of a problem at Augusta. Small errors were amplified. I certainly didn’t back off. I didn’t think that because I had won
I could ease up. I just lost confidence.

You mention your swing flaws. You did have a pretty unconventional swing. So did you make the most of your innate talent, or were you actually a big underachiever given how much talent you had?

That’s an interesting question, and I do think about that. I needed to work very hard with my dad back at Hawkstone Park to minimise my flaws. I bought the club back too far on the inside, my head moved, and I was very steep on the downswing. So on bad days, I was very bad. I hit every bad shot imaginable. Through the years, my common miss had been a block or push, but suddenly I started pull-hooking the ball something rotten. I was a player that needed momentum. In the late 80’s and early 90’s I lost it, and I found it very hard to get it back.

Between 1982 and 1992 you won two majors, but had only two other top-10 finishes in the Grand Slam events?

I was just that type of player I suppose. I was always fairly inconsistent, but in the late ‘80s the Kamikaze dive was in full throttle. I was playing in Europe, America, Japan and Australia and constantly battling my swing. Consequently I just wasn’t enjoying it. At the end of ’92, I won the Volvo Masters at Valderrama. I was hitting it badly – I shanked one on the 17th and had to use a putter for my second shot on the 18th because I was under a tree – but I beat Colin Montgomerie in a play-off. I somehow made things happen like Seve used to.

During the good times, did you ever think about how many majors you might end up winning?

After winning the Masters I did feel I had a few good years in me to win more majors. I was only 30. I don’t think I ever had a specific number in mind, but I remember thinking I could win one a year for the next five years or more. But as my competitors were improving, I was going the other way and wasn’t even contending.

Some say you were just too nice a bloke to win a lot of majors...

I was always pretty laid back, but you don’t win 30-odd professional tournaments including two majors without some fire in your belly. I used to play quite a bit of social golf with Woosie and the club pro at Hill Valley in Shropshire. They’ll tell you how competitive I was. We had some good battles. I think I just about had the edge over Woosie.

You were inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame last year. How much did that mean to you?

Well, we don’t have Halls of Fame in the UK, of course, so I never really paid much attention to it before. But it was obviously a great honour. They do a superb job there in St Augustine. They have the Green Jacket, the 7-iron I hit from the bunker at Augusta and the Masters ball, but I’ve kept the 1-iron.

Do you get recognised when you’re in America?

Yes, quite a bit actually. People still come up to me in restaurants, or shops and talk about the Masters. It always helps to have a little niche, be it bright clothes or a specific shot – something that people remember you for. Mine is the bunker shot at Augusta.