Sandy Lyle: 'I don't know whether there's ever been a better shot in a major'

Brian Viner Interviews: On the 20th anniversary of one of golf's greatest victories, the first British winner of the Masters recalls the unforgettable shot from a fairway bunker on the final hole that changed his life and began a four-year domination of Augusta by his fellow countrymen

Friday 28 March 2008 01:00

The first day of this year's US Masters falls on 10 April, the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest shots in the history of major championship golf, a shot which effectively conferred on Alexander Walter Barr Lyle the distinction of becoming the first British winner of the Masters.

Those of us who weren't there will never forget it: Peter Alliss commentating for the BBC late on a Sunday night as Sandy Lyle, needing a birdie three at the last, rolled in the winning putt and, raising his hands in triumph, turned a pair of sweaty armpits into one of golf's most indelible images. As for the immaculate and seemingly nerveless seven-iron from the fairway bunker that had set up the birdie, I ask Lyle where he places it in the pantheon of great golf shots. It is a slightly challenging question, because he is the most modest and unassuming of men. Yet he does not hesitate.

"I don't know that there's ever been a better shot in a major," he says. "I remember Tiger Woods, on the 18th at the Canadian Open a few years ago, hitting 185 yards from a bunker, over water, to a green about the size of this table. That was incredible." But this was the Masters, I say. "Yeah," he says, with a small smile. "This was the Masters."

Lyle has invited me for an early breakfast at his hotel in London, I presume because he has a busy schedule for the rest of the day, although it turns out that he has an entirely free morning and is only too happy to spend much of it nattering. Other sportsmen of my acquaintance would at least make a play of having important things to do, but he's not that kind of guy. Besides, he never gets tired, he says, of recounting the events of Sunday, 10 April, 1988.

"After nine holes of the final round I had a two-shot lead, and I was feeling quite good going into Amen Corner. I got through 10 and hit a reasonable drive down 11, but I found some mud on the ball, some old Georgia clay, and couldn't get it on the green. I made bogey there, and then as I was going over to the 12th tee I saw that Bernhard Langer, who was in the group ahead of me, had hit an eight-iron. I saw his caddie put it back in the bag. So that's what I hit, but it ended up in the water, and I took double-bogey.

"I knew I hadn't blown it, because I was now tied with [Mark] Calcavecchia with two par-fives [the 13th and 15th] to come. But I only made par on 13, and par on 14, and by 15, which Calcavecchia had just birdied, I was one behind.

"I hit a good drive, though 15 wasn't as demanding then as it is now. These days there's only a margin of about eight yards, whereas then there was acres of room, though you still needed two good shots to reach the green. I hit a five-iron through the back of the green, leaving a comfortable chip and putt, the way I'd been playing. My chip kissed the hole and went five feet past, and that's when the pressure got to me a bit.

"I developed jelly hands, and left the putt short, which meant both par-fives gone without a birdie. By then I was just hoping to get into a play-off. Then on 16 I went 15 feet past the hole with a seven-iron, but somehow holed the putt so it was game on again, level with Calcavecchia with two holes to play."

On the 18th tee Lyle knew that a three would more than likely secure the Green Jacket. He hit a one-iron intending to lay up short of the bunker, but adrenalin helped it into the sand.

"When I got there I knew I could get it out and I was playing with Crenshaw, who was semi-butchering the hole, so I had time to gather my thoughts. I had 145 [yards] to the front edge, 150-something to the pin, playing 160 uphill, so I knew that a seven-iron was the ideal club, and I'd never had a problem picking balls off tight lies. You've got to keep your balance as much as anything.

"Anyway, I couldn't see the flag, so I lined up on a cloud at the back of the green, and as soon as I hit the ball I knew it was right in that air space. The reaction from the crowd was a little bit subdued at first, so I thought it was maybe at the back of the green, then they started cheering, so I was expecting it to be two feet away. As it turned out it was about 18 feet, much longer than it looked on TV, but ... you know what happened next."

Indeed. And as we all went to bed in the UK that night, thrilled with what we had seen, I suppose we must have imagined Lyle and his entourage whooping it up in the Deep South. Not so.

"I had to do loads of TV stuff, then eat with the members of Augusta, which is the tradition, although I can't say I really wanted to be celebrating with the members. Eventually, I got back to my hotel, the Holiday Inn, expecting a raucous welcome. But everyone had buggered off. There were about five people dotted around the lobby, and none of them even knew who I was. My dad was there, but he was pretty well oiled by then, so I packed him off to bed, and went to bed myself. The party started the Monday afterwards, at Hilton Head. The caddies had a house there, so I got a load of food in, took some of the press along, and we had a good old sing-song." A chuckle. "There was plenty of food flying around."

Little though anyone knew it that rollicking night, Lyle's victory at Augusta was the start of a four-year annexation of the Masters by British golfers; after Lyle, Nick Faldo won in 1989 and 1990 and Ian Woosnam in 1991. This meant four years of British-themed food at the eve-of-tournament dinner for former champions, at which, traditionally, the previous year's winner decides the menu. Lyle, as proud of his Scottish roots as any man raised in Shropshire can be, subjected his fellow champions to haggis.

"Everyone had it on the plate, and a lot of it stayed on the plate. Larry Mize was not at all sure about it, I remember. I think Vijay Singh probably gave us the best meal, nine courses of Thai food flown up from Atlanta. Cheeseburger with a thick milk shake was Tiger's choice one year, washed down with a 1971 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. It's a great occasion. You look at Palmer, Nicklaus, Floyd, and know you're there on the same terms, because whether you won once or six times, you can only wear one Green Jacket. The late Sam Snead was always good value. He used to finish the night with a couple of the dirtiest jokes you can imagine."

Lyle will be at the dinner as usual this year, and will exercise his right as a former champ to play. But he feels that, while the event is as special as it ever was, the hallowed course itself has been diminished in the bid to make it trickier.

"They've taken away a lot of choices. There was always a little cherry dangling. For instance, on the first hole it was 265 over the bunker, so you looked at the wind, at the pin position, and decided whether to go for it. If it came off you got your reward. Now it's 320 to carry that bunker, and it's scary to watch one of the old champions, like Gary Player, teeing off. There's this wonderful ball flight, then the ball comes down, plunk. He's got a 260-yard second shot and he can't even see the green. So I think they've spoilt the course a little bit and, although it doesn't necessarily play into the hands of the long hitters – [2007 champion] Zach Johnson isn't that long – it means that fewer guys can be competitive out there."

Lyle stopped being consistently competitive years ago; in fact, his career plunged downhill in 1989 and never recovered. Yet his autobiography, To The Fairway Born, bears the following quote from Seve Ballesteros: "The greatest God-given talent in history. If everyone in the world was playing their best, Sandy would win and I'd come second."

Citing that lavish testimonial, I venture that perhaps it was his prodigious natural talent that contained the seeds of his decline, that, as with Ballesteros himself, a more manufactured swing might have been more easily repaired?

"Maybe," he says. "But in my case I think it was basic tiredness. I had contracts with so many companies after winning the Open [in 1985] and then the Masters that I was pulled in too many different directions. In 1989 I missed four cuts in a row with what I thought was a mechanical fault in my swing, but I was probably just tired. David Leadbetter was doing wonders with Faldo, so I got him to help me, but that didn't work. Weeks turned into months, my confidence dropped further, and, although I had a few more wins, the bubble had burst."

Still, having just turned 50, Lyle now has a chance of a second career on the US-based Champions Tour. "I've a lot of friends out there and I can make some good money," he says. "I missed out by a couple of years on the real big stuff, but there's a great pension fund available. One of the PGA tour guys said he'd have to explain it to us twice because we wouldn't believe it the first time. Basically, golf has the best pension fund of any sport, and it's all based on prize-money, which the tour matches and invests. If a lad of 21 finishes second in his very first outing, he can play like a twit for the rest of his life and when he's 60 he'll have a pension fund worth $28m [£14], or something. With a shorter timescale, it's the same on the Seniors Tour."

There is something so guileless about Lyle's excitement about the riches on offer in America that I'm positively delighted for him. I will be even more delighted if he bags the one golfing honour he now craves above all others. "I'd love to be Ryder Cup captain," he says. "All my old pals have done it. I'm the only one of the bunch who hasn't. So I hope I'll get the chance in 2010."

His old pals do not, I fancy, include this year's captain, Faldo, who notoriously reported him, during the 1980 Kenyan Open, for taping his putter to stop the reflection of the sun. Lyle was disqualified. "I remember telling Brian Barnes, who'd had a few gin and tonics by then, and he threatened to sort him out for me. The bad feeling lingered for many years."

The irony was that Lyle had been brought up by his father, Alex, the pro at Hawkstone Park, to regard cheating with horror. In turn, he has emphasised respect for sporting rules to his own children. His son, Quintin, is tipped as a future rugby player for Scotland. "I don't know," Lyle says. "He's still only 13, but he's going to be big. We think he might be 6ft 7in, or so. He's a good lad. Not very strong academically, but good at sport and he's always got a smile on his face." He sounds like a chip off the old block.

Fate & Lyle: Sandy's stats

Sandy Lyle MBE

2 Majors: 1985 Open and 1988 Masters

27 professional titles (17 on European tour, 5 PGA, 5 other)

9 Feb 1958 Born, Shrewsbury

1975 Won English Amateur Stroke Play Championship

1977 Turned pro

1979 First European Tour win. Topped European Order of Merit, repeating feat in 1980 and 1985

1985 Won Open at Sandwich, first Briton to lift Claret Jug since Tony Jacklin in 1969. Helped win 1985 Ryder Cup

1986-89 Spent 167 weeks in top 10 of World Golf rankings

1988 Won Masters and World Match Play Championship

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