Golf: Lyle still seeking missing magic

Robert Green reports from Augusta on a former champion's mission
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The Independent Online
It has been 10 years since Sandy Lyle played in the Ryder Cup; nine since he won the Masters. He is 39, which too often lately has been his score for nine holes, although in the first round of the Masters, a tournament in which he has missed the cut more times than he has made it since 1988, conditions were such that 39 on either nine was no egregious achievement.

A chill breeze, that would be considered negligible at St Andrews but at Augusta rendered the ever treacherous greens more unreceptive than ever, made it abundantly clear to the whole field that par would be an excellent score.

Outwardly at least, nothing much has changed with Lyle over these fallow years. His first drive was long and straight and the subsequent steepling pitch set up a chance for a birdie three from 15 feet. But the putt, as they frequently do these days, slipped by the hole.

Yesterday the broom-handle was left in the locker in favour of a conventional putter, but that does not mean to say that it days are necessarily numbered.

Lyle will pretty much try anything that might enable him to rediscover the magic. The reason why was succinctly demonstrated when he three-putted the third and missed from three feet at the seventh, neither being a heinous offence at Augusta but no more acceptable for that.

Sandy has a perfect sponsorship. His shirt logo proclaims Lyle-Scot, both his name and nationality. He strolls down the fairway with that familiar, almost endearing, ambling gate, yesterday chatting amicably between shots to his playing partner, Mark Calcavecchia.

Nine years ago, Lyle beat Calcavecchia by a stroke to win the Masters with the assistance of that bunker shot from the fairway trap on the 18th that set up his clinching, audacious, breathtaking birdie from 10 feet. It was his third win of the fledgling season in the States. He was the first Briton to don the champion's green jacket. He led the money list. He was the best golfer in the world.

"He should go back to Europe," said Calcavecchia ruthlessly. He did. Now he is trying primarily to make his way on the US tour once again, but he would love to go back to the game he had in '88. As it was he reached the turn in 38, better than most of the field. Most of the field to that point.

Even at his best it used to be said that Lyle's swing had more planes than Heathrow. One of his plethora of teachers, Simon Holmes, recently opined: "Sandy has always had a bad swing. Now he has a bad swing that he thinks about."

When he puts in an encouraging performance it is only effervescent improvement. At the Players' Championship two weeks ago, he started with the fizz and then fizzled out. He opened with a 68 and closed with an 80. This week at Augusta, the fear has to be that he has got his good round in before the first round. On Wednesday, he became the first European to win the traditional par-three tournament, with a five-under-par 22.

History says the man who wins that cannot go on to win the real thing, but no one expects Sandy to do that anyway. He has not won a tournament since the 1992 Volvo Masters. In eight American tournaments in 1997 he has missed three cuts and has not been placed higher than 18th.

Lyle has known the best of times in golf, and also the most frustrating. But whatever the fluctuations in his game, the one thing that has never changed has been the amenable fashion in which he has dealt with both the rough and the fairway. At that at least, he remains the champion.