Golf: Lyle sees magic in sands of time

Andy Farrell talks to the Scotsman trying to rediscover the highs of a masterly shot
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The Independent Online
WHATEVER has befallen him in the last few years, Sandy Lyle's place in the folklore of golf is assured. Whatever else his European contemporaries have achieved in the game, Lyle was the first Scotsman to win the Open for 75 years in 1985. Three years later he became the first Briton to win the US Masters. In the process, he played that shot.

"There is not a week that goes by playing on the west coast or the east coast of America where someone in the crowd doesn't say what a fantastic bunker shot it was," Lyle said of the sandy seven-iron he hit to the final green 10 years ago. "It seems to be a really memorable shot which raises itself in people's minds all the time."

Lyle, who was 40 in February, is more than happy to talk about his golden moment but to do so, you have to find him on the practice range. "I have never been frightened of hard work," he said. Lyle's last victory came at the Volvo Masters in 1992 and for much of the last decade he has been searching for the secret which seemed to slip away when he slipped on the green jacket.

"It is tough. I wouldn't want to wish it on anyone. It's been eight years now of not playing at the level I know I'm capable of." Suggested reasons for Lyle's demise have been both technical and mental, and linked to the time when his father and teacher Alec, who has since passed away, was unable to travel to tournaments regularly.

Throughout it all Lyle, who has missed four cuts in eight events on the US tour this year, has remained the likeable and thoroughly decent human being he was on his ascent to the top of the game. Which makes the fact that he will once again return to Augusta as a past champion rather than a present contender rather sad. "I've no qualms about that," he said.

"You can't force the issue in the game of golf. You can't say I want to be competitive at the Masters, you can only put your work in like I have done, and do your best and if it comes out, it comes out. At the moment I feel like I'm feeding some good information into the computer and it is bringing out some good stuff."

Ten years ago it was a different story. A 67 in the second round took Lyle into the lead and he was still in front going into the final day. A clue to how the day would work out came when he missed the green at the fourth. "I turned a 'no-no' to a 'yes-yes' by chipping in. A lot of things happened in that round which made my steps a little lighter."

But it took a birdie at the 16th for Lyle to draw level with Mark Calcavecchia, who would go on to win the Open the following year. A par at the 17th and Lyle reached the 18th tee. "My feelings were just get the damn thing down the left side, anywhere but in the bunker. So that's why I hit the one-iron - in the bunker."

Only three times previously had a birdie at the last hole won the Masters. But from sand, with 150 yards to go, Lyle needed a three. "The nerve-ends were tingling a bit, but I was relieved to see the ball on an upslope. It was lying pretty cleanly and I had a good free swing at it.

"The ball started on line and held its line. When I got out of the bunker I could see the ball was right over the pin in the air. It came down on the top tier of the green and stayed on the edge for what seemed like a minute before it rolled back down again. I think some people were blowing pretty hard back in Europe."

Still, the putt needed to be holed before he could break into his celebratory jig. "My memory of the putt was that it was about 10 feet, but the experts at Augusta say it was 18 feet, so it was quite a long way. If I had my way, I'd probably rather have it from that distance than from two feet, knowing that everyone is expecting you to hole it."

What cannot be taken away from Lyle is his right, as a former champion, to return each year. "Going back each year is great. You couldn't have a better feeling of playing at a golf course right from when you enter the gate. The scenery, the atmosphere, the type of golf course it is. If I was to die tomorrow and go up to heaven there would be nothing better than to play it every day of the week.

"It's a fascinating course, you have a lot more respect for it the more you play it. I've played with British Amateur and American Amateur champions playing there for the first time and they look at you and say, 'What's the big deal?' And I just say, 'Wait a few years and you'll find the answer.'"

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