Sandy Lyle: "For 15 years, it was a battle"

News & Tour

The two-time Major champion on recapturing his form, walking off at Birkdale and his relationship with Nick Faldo

ALEXANDER Walter Barr Lyle captured his first win on the European Tour back in 1979. His last victory came a few months ago, albeit after a 17-year gap, on the Senior version in March of this year. 

In between has been a career packed with highs and lows, Major triumphs and long periods in the doldrums. All the while the Scot has remained calm, laid back, hugely likeable and a hero to thousands of us.

And ridiculously talented. Nick Faldo once described him as ‘the greatest natural talent in the game’ while Seve Ballesteros said ‘If we all played our best, Sandy would win’.

Lyle was the player to end the 16-year British duck at the Open Championship when he claimed victory at Royal St George’s before, three years later, picking a 7 iron out of a fairway bunker to set up a closing birdie at Augusta. Here, Sandy reflects on his fascinating career.

This year you played in your 30th Masters. How long did it take you to get to know Augusta?

I think if you walk round with your eyes open you should have a good idea after a week. My first Masters was very special, it was great to have my mum and dad there and for them to see Augusta as they had only seen it on the television and it really is a sacred ground.

Is there a secret to doing well on those greens?

I don’t really buy into that, I go more off what has happened before. The greens haven’t really changed in that time, there have been some tiny adjustments, but you know where to go and you keep that locked into your mind. They are just hard greens to putt on.

What piece of advice would you give to someone making their debut there?

You have to shape the ball both ways and I would advise anyone to get to know where to drive it to. You have to know where the pin is before you hit your tee shot.

You mentioned your dad – how many coaches have you had in the past 30 odd years?

My dad was always my main coach and we worked together until he died in 1996. I worked with Bob Torrance, Jimmy Ballard and some work with Natural Golf but that was only a two-year thing. Off the top of my head maybe five different coaches.

Was there a point where you got too technical in a bid to find your best form again?

I can remember it to the week when things started to go a bit wayward. I had a fantastic 1988, winning the Masters and five or six wins and I was top of this and that.

There was only a couple of weeks resting time before going to the Tournament of Champions at La Costa at the start of the year. 

I was there for about five weeks and at the LA Open, where I was second, I started to hit it right and I couldn’t seem to square the clubface very well. 

I thought it was hitting the ball from the inside too much but what was actually happening was that I was getting too steep.

Was that the start of your decline in form?

I spent most of the next goodness knows how many years trying to find the ball on the end of my swing and I missed four or five cuts in a row and I started doing some weird things – trying to get the club more in front of me in the downswing and things like that.

For the next 15 years it was a constant battle.

It has only really been the last couple of years since working with the head coach at the TPC in Florida, where I am based when I play out there.

He has explained very clearly how my swing was working and why I was hitting these blocks and pull hooks.

What I was trying to do to improve was actually making it worse so my confidence was gone, the ball flight and direction was hopeless and you can’t survive like that on the main tour.

Some weeks I could scrape it round but when you are playing at 40-50 per cent you are struggling. It was horrible. 

I should have had a couple of months off as tiredness was a big thing but I should have kept my technique almost as it was.  
By 5pm everyone was still there so we rang the local Chinese and asked for a meal for 45. The bill came to about £210 which seemed a lot of money and I think I ended up paying £200. You won for the first time since 1992 on the European Senior Tour in March, did you think it would take three years to win on the tour? 
I thought after a few months on the tour, playing easier and shorter courses, I would change my game to focus more on my wedge play. That is now improving but it seems amazing how strong everyone still is. If you look at someone like Andy Bean, he is way overweight so you think he might play well for nine holes but he is up there a lot and still putts  brilliantly. I played with Hale Irwin at the PGA and he made something like 300 feet in one round.

How has the make-up of your bag changed?
I have put extra wedges in the bag and it has brought the scores down. I’ve taken to the idea of a bigger gap in the long irons and a lot more wedges, my lofted wedge is 64˚, I used to think 60˚ was ridiculous.  

Is there still a place for a 1 iron in the game?
No, the lowest iron I now carry is a 3. I am capable of hitting lower but there is not a lot of use for it now. 
Back in the 80s and 90s it was a very useful club to take the spin off the ball, and the Balata balls were a high-spinning ball.
The Ping one iron really helped to keep the ball flight down. I could play all day with it and some days it would go 280-300 yards. Plus, I liked the flight. 
Now the balls are designed to get a high launch angle without too much spin. 
I had this discussion with Tiger a couple of years ago in China and he said I’d love to see you hit it now as you wouldn’t carry it more than about 190 yards as it would just drop out of the sky.

You have got quite an odd Major record in that you’ve won two but only have two other top 10s, both in the Open
There have been those years where I have been in the top 10 but I have never really threatened other than the win. 
In the late 80s and 90s I was playing so badly and you can’t survive on big courses with heavy rough and where you have to do everything well. 
My Open was normally over after a couple of hours.

You famously walked off after a couple of hours at Birkdale in 2008. How do you look back on that?   
My big mistake was not informing people more of the injury. I did try to explain the injury and spoke to Hazel Irvine after coming off the course but things got a bit lost.
I have had trouble with a hand injury for quite a few years (Lyle’s fingers remain taped up) and I had tape on them and had taken pills but then I hit some skanky shots at the wrong time. 

How much pain were you actually in?
I hit a heely, knuckly, whiplash 5 iron with no divot on the 1st which rattled two knuckles together and it was very sore. 
I bogeyed that and parred the next two, got on the 4th and hit another semi shank which killed. Then it rained and got a lot colder and I couldn’t feel my right hand any more.
I made a hell of a five with a penalty shot and it just got worse. The 7th I’ve hit a 3 iron and have come up short, chipped it into the face of the bunker, have come out backwards and made double.
At the 8th I hit my approach and it has landed on top of my playing partner’s ball, which was five feet away, and it has ricocheted into the rough on the other side of the green. My ball is under some grass which is lying the wrong way so I can’t see the ball, hack it to 10 feet and miss the putt. Then I took a seven at the 9th, I had no hands left and couldn’t play. Since I have had a better path into the ball I have hardly had any trouble with the knuckles at all.

Going back to happier times, how did you celebrate your Open win?
We had a marquee assembled the day after and we had some canapes and nibbles and lots of champagne. There was a press release at Wentworth that day and we invited lots of the press and we even got Neil Coles out of bed which was quite something. 
Faldo came down and it was a lovely day and everyone was having a good time.
By 5pm everyone was still there so we rang the local Chinese and asked for a meal for 45. There was a 10-second silence but they came up trumps.
The bill came to about £210 which seemed a lot of money and I think I ended up paying £200.

Finally, how much would you still like to be Ryder Cup captain?
There’s always a slither of a chance. I think if the chance arises to be assistant to Olazabal it might stir things around and I’d grab the opportunity but it’s very slim. 

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