Lyle finds way back into swing of big time

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"When it comes to getting into tournaments in the last three or four years it has been very, very tough. The sponsors want the young flavours," he said shortly before the 20th anniversary of his victory at Royal St George's.

Where had it gone? Not the rush of time but the swing. "It started in 1989. I had a hard year in 1988, was tired and my swing seemed out of sync and eventually I stopped playing well. Before that if something went wrong then I would just blow it off in a couple of weeks, but this time the few weeks turned into a few months and I started tinkering with my swing, which was a big mistake."

Lyle's quest for the missing ingredient has gone on for 16 years, bringing him to the Open at St Andrews determined to prove that his was no token appearance, that he was better than just a bit player.

A first-round 74 suggested that he would be flirting with the cut line on Friday, but he rediscovered himself with one of the rounds of the day, a 67 that was followed up by a 69 so that he set off at around 1pm yesterday at six under par, and with high hopes of finishing well up the leader board. "You never know in golf," he said. "As I know only too well it can be there one day and gone the next. I'm up with the group pushing the leaders and after all I have been through that's extremely satisfying."

Partnered by Sean O'Hair, a 23-year-old Texan, Lyle almost had the sort of start that would have had the demons dancing in his head again. His opening tee shot went wildly right, almost finding the burn. He was less lucky with his second, dumping it into the burn in front of the green, forcing him into a penalty drop. One shot had gone but it could have been worse.

Lyle does not so much walk around a golf course as amble. He moves at a steady pace, arms loose, back as straight as a drill sergeant's. He heard generous applause because he is still a popular player. "Come on, Sandy," cried a young man with the flag of Scotland draped around his shoulders.

As any professional golfer will confirm a dropped shot is a shot lost. You have left it out there. Nevertheless Lyle got himself back to six under with a birdie at the par-five fifth, the result of an excellent drive and a fine second. Unfortunately, however, it did not kick-start Lyle's round. He gave a shot back then grabbed another birdie, but bogeyed again to reach the turn in 37 shots.

The inconsistency was symptomatic of Lyle's recent woes. He dropped another shot at the 10th, another at the 12th. "Just as I began to feel that my game was coming together something would go wrong," he said.

Golf watchers are not normally raucous. However, a group of young men made themselves heard, beerily taking up Lyle's cause. In position for the dramas ahead they sent up a great cheer when Lyle got up and down to make par at the dangerous 14th.

The greatest of Lyle's contemporaries, the six-times major winner Nick Faldo, was out there enjoying himself. Faldo had a remarkable back nine, three birdies, an eagle and two bogeys. Astonishingly, Faldo had a three-two finish. "When does anyone do that?" he asked. "Maybe once in 10 years." Faldo was so excited by his birdie at the 17th that he danced around the green, lapping up the applause. Technological developments in golf equipment have made the closing hole at St Andrews a birdie opportunity. Faldo went one better, sinking a long putt for eagle. Faldo had an eagle at the 18th in the first round of his victory in 1990, but had never had a birdie-eagle on the Old Course before. "Are you kidding?" he said, laughing. "Do you think I could sell that to the leaders? I'll start with a bid of £1m. It was a very unexpected surprise. I'm absolutely delighted."

For Lyle there was little consolation in a birdie at the last to finish at three under for the tournament. He went off to confront his demons.