Sandy Lyle: The spark still flickers in a champion the game forgot

Twenty years ago the fortunes of European golf were transformed. But the man responsible is sadly ignored now. James Corrigan meets him
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The Independent Online

"Twenty years, are you sure?" the 47-year-old said when relaxing in between rounds at the J P McManus Pro-Am in Limerick last week. "Er, let's see, 1985 - gosh, it is, isn't it? Twenty years back to Sandwich, eh? Crikey, I'm getting like Arnold Palmer, aren't I?"

Er, not quite, Sandy. If Arnie was going back to the Kingdom of Fife this week with any sort of anniversary to his regal name then plaques would have been erected, parades organised and commemorative merchandise mass-produced to mark the occasion. But for Lyle? Nothing, not even a cake with a few candles on in the Royal and Ancient clubhouse, not even a lousy cup of tea to go with it. And neither does he expect anything.

"No, over the years I've got used to it," he said with a sigh. "Some memories are short within golf. Very short. Take getting into tournaments these last three or four years, which has been very, very tough. The sponsors want the young flavours and poor old Sandy Lyle ends up on the sideline.

"But at least the fans remember my name, very clearly. I don't think a week or even a day goes past without someone coming up to me and talking about Augusta. I've had a lot of mileage out of that."

Probably too much; that seven-iron out of that fairway bunker being the highlight that has blinded every other glittering achievement in a career that has had many. But none more so than Sunday 18 July 1985, at Royal St George's, Kent.

It had been 16 years since Britain's last victory in its own Open, and the memory of Tony Jacklin in 1969 had long since worn threadbare for a sporting public who did not want another Wimbledon on their empty hands. But while they waited and waited for Nick Faldo's obvious conviction in all things silver to yield its inevitable cabinet-full of major trophies, they were at a loss to know where the intervening champion was coming from.

Sure, there was always Sandy, the affable Scot who bafflingly hailed from Shropshire, but even that soft-hearted 27-year-old did not think he was capable of such heroics no matter how spectacularly he was playing in the run-up to The Open that year. Phil Parkin, the great amateur champion turned television summariser, remembers asking Lyle whether he could win that week. "Very quietly he said to me, 'No, Phil, I don't think I can'." And even when striding out in the fourth-from-last group on the final Sunday, Lyle was no more Faldo-like. "I thought, 'This is great, if I can play solidly I could get in the top five here, maybe even second'," he said. "But not for one moment did I think that winning wasn't beyond me. Until the 14th."

There, on the tortuous par-five that was throwing a gust of 20mph into his face, Lyle holed a putt from off the green for a birdie. "That was the turning point, that's where it all started to change for me," he recalled. "I played the next hole really well, holing a 10- or 12-foot putt for birdie. And suddenly I looked up and it was like, 'Oh my God, I'm a shot up in The Open'. It just seemed to happen from there."

And it kept happening and happening... not just for Lyle, who was now on the front page of every self-respecting - not to mention disrespecting - newspaper in the land but also for Faldo, who became even more driven by his great rival's success. And it spread ever further, because up until Sandwich, Lyle had apparently encapsulated all that was wrong with European golf - all the talent, but none of the belief. Everything was about to change.

"Yeah, it was an important victory for our Tour, and many have told me that I paved the way for the Faldos, Woosies, Langers and the rest. But all I know was how important it was for me. Because the next three years were like a dream, winning tournaments in America, winning Match Plays over here at Wentworth, getting to No 2 in the world rankings, winning five tournaments in '88, and the Masters. Those were the glory years, and although they haven't been so glorious since, I have something to look back on."

Except Lyle is not much cop at looking back, as his ambivalence to this far-from- meaningless anniversary exemplifies, and when he does peer through the rear window, his mind becomes rooted in the slide that happened soon after his triumphant jig at Augusta. "It all started in 1989," he says, almost cathartic in tone. "I was tired and my swing seemed out of sync and eventually I stopped playing well. In previous years, if something had gone wrong then I would just blow it off in a couple of weeks, but this time I started doing research into my swing. Mistake. Big mistake."

Thus the golfer Seve Ballesteros believed to be the most naturally talented he had ever seen - the Spaniard famously claimed: "If everybody in the world was playing their very best, Sandy would win and I'd come second" - was reduced to a jerking, snatching wreck. "If I had just taken a few months off and gone home to relax and to see my father, who had always been my teacher, then I would probably have come back like the old Sandy," he said, wincing at the overhaul that was to wreak havoc on his psyche. "The muscle memories of my youth were still strong and my new swing was working against them. It was a tumbling effect. Year after year went into another and I began to doubt myself."

No matter, he was still "Sandy Lyle" - one of the very few names in golf that transcended stuffy clubhouses - and it was his right to enjoy the laurels that this sport loves to throw over its champions: an invite wherever you fancy here, a course named in your honour there, a Ryder Cup captaincy to take you everywhere else... But none of these were quite Sandy, a gentle soul who finds it impossible to ask for anything, even if his legend and experience deserve it.

The Ryder Cup is a contentious case in point, and Lyle's anger could understandably still fester despite Ian Woosnam doing last week what the authorities should have done long ago and getting this loyal servant involved. "My name was in the hat for Ireland next year and the one after that," he said. "I left it in the hands of the European Tour and didn't push it. I thought that if I pushed it too much they might get annoyed, but nothing was ever fed back to me. There was no communication telling me I was on the short list or anything. Nothing was mentioned at all. I really don't know who was making the decisions. You are just dealing with a bunch of empty heads doing their own thing."

Fortunately, Woosnam had enough in his head to do his own thing, but, still, the tag of "an assistant to the vice-captains" does not seem anywhere near grand enough to adorn Lyle's proud chest. He just puffs it out and carries on regardless.

At Phoenix in February he was told he was in the US Tour event only on the morning of the first round, but on rushing there was then dismissed by officials, who told him, awfully sorry but they'd given the spot to someone else. He left the course in a humiliated fury, but the phone went once more, only once again for him to be treated like a nobody. "I rushed back to the course, hauled my bag out of the car and was ready to run on to the first tee in my dress shoes when I was stopped. I thought there was still time, but the officials decided I was too late."

Still, Sandy's not bitter, he just hasn't got the time to be as he desperately tries to eke out the one big week in him that he just knows is still in there. "It is, I truly believe it is," he said, trying to convince everyone, including, perhaps, himself. "And St Andrews could be the place.

"It's not like a Carnoustie, where everything's virtually got to be dead-on. You can be a bit more out of whack but still put a good score together. That'll suit me. Just to be in contention once more, that's all I want. In my heart of hearts, I think I can. I really do."

If he doesn't, as all we cynics know he won't, then Lyle will return to the guest-house he helps run with his wife and four children in Perthshire until the inexhaustible spark flares within again. Nor is that likely to be too long, as at that B & B he confesses to not doing a great deal except tending to his private practice area and helping with the odd household chore, like "vacuuming and cleaning the toilets".

It is hard to imagine any other of Europe's golden generation doing the same and, if they did, ever admitting it. But that's Sandy, and such honesty led to the headline in this month's Golf World magazine which reads: "From Jug winner to toilet cleaner". Lyle should take it as a compliment. Scandalously, they're in short supply nowadays.