An Open farewell to a genuine superstar of the game

Golf News

Sandy Lyle began and ended his final Open appearance in some style as the 1985 champion bowed out after teeing it up in 43 championships

A lot of younger people won’t have a clue about the relevance of Sandy Lyle. For them he is merely a senior golfer who pops up twice a year to miss the cut at Augusta or The Open. At The Masters we might see him hit a few shots, then there will be his scorecard and then we’ll move on.

For some of us Lyle is one of the absolute superstars of the modern game.

“Sandy was the greatest God-given talent in history. If everyone in the world was playing their best, Sandy would win and I’d come second.”

Who said this? Seve no less.

Lyle now leaves the Open arena after 43 efforts at the game’s oldest major, it all began as an amateur at Lytham in 1974 and he hasn’t missed one since The Duel In The Sun at Turnberry in 1977.

The reason for all this is a dazzling afternoon down at Sandwich in 1985. This was the first Open that I attended as five of us from school caught the first train down from London on the Friday. The morning was spent with Seve, the afternoon Sandy. And it was bloody magical.

Ballesteros was struggling and miserable but then the wet weather abated and Lyle, playing with Bob Charles, breezed it round in 71 in gusting winds. Two days later he birdied 14 and 15, made a mess of his chip at 18 and David Graham and Bernhard Langer couldn’t catch him.

If you’re still wondering how relevant this was then only Tony Jacklin from these shores had won the Open since 1951. Lyle even re-created the chip shot on Sports Personality of Year, I’ve got a memory of Frank Bruno giving the shot a go.

He had already won 10 times on the European Tour and the previous three Ryder Cup teams but he was now a major winner and was box office. Back pages built up the odd spat with Nick Faldo and everyone was in one camp or the other, you couldn’t possibly like both of them supposedly – Lyle the easy-going natural, Faldo the self-driving technician.

I personally loved Lyle. I would wear the same Adidas shoes, I would do the same little sniff that he did when I hit a good shot and days would be spent dashing between he and Ian Woosnam at various events in the south of England.

In 1988 both were out late at Wentworth on the Sunday so a decision had to be made. I always leant towards Woosnam because of my dad and we watched Lyle hit the most violent of snap hooks off the 1st tee en route to a horrible six and wandered back towards the clubhouse slightly concerned for what lay ahead for Lyle.

As it turned out he would shoot a 66 and our faith in Woosie was rewarded as he did Seve and Mark James by two shots.

My dad’s brother was friendly with his dad Alex and I had grown up on stories of a young Sandy pitching balls into an upturned umbrella. He even put in a good word at Hawkstone Park so I could hit a few balls in front of Lyle Sr, an experience which terrified as much as it thrilled me and I can still hear his soft, reassuring voice.

‘Tempo, not temper’ he would always say to Sandy.

Again, it was bloody magical.

Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and Seve Ballesteros

The following year he did what he did with his 7-iron from the bunker at the 18th at Augusta for his fifth win on the PGA Tour. It would transpire to be his last over there.

A few years later I watched Lyle on the practice ground at Wentworth with all sorts of contraptions about his body, pauses in the swing and the same little sniff but his game had, relatively speaking, gone.

Incredibly he never played a Ryder Cup after the win away in 1987 and, equally as bizarre, unlike the rest of the other Big Five of European golf there was to be no captaincy. He was an assistant to Woosnam in 2006 but that was as close as it got.

On the upside he remains as unaffected as he was back in the day.

All of which is why I wanted to be there on 18 to say a final Open farewell. He wasn’t going to make the cut but a par four at 17 gave him the honour with his playing partners Martin Kaymer and Andy Sullivan.

Tom Watson stopped to watch him tee off before waving him on his way. And from the right half of his final fairway he threw a mid iron straight at the pin and followed it up with this.

Speaking afterwards he admitted that there was a lump in the throat rather than a tear in the eye and he looked to be genuinely beaming, like any golfer worth his salt, with the way he finished off his round and the way the championship got underway with Lyle sending a 4-iron down the 1st fairway.

“That was a great way to finish the last three holes, one under. For 20 years I don’t believe I finished below par on the last three holes. To have the pleasure of doing the opening tee shot was quite special to me. It shows that they care and they appreciate what I’ve done over the years.”

As for the swing that his dad taught him..

“It’s probably about two feet shorter right now. But, yes, it’s very similar. I haven’t been able to break the habit of swinging more conventional or with a bigger shoulder turn or more flexibility. It’s just the way I’m built.

“My dad, he passed away in ’96. He had a chance to see The Open and obviously he was there at the Masters when I won. So he was a very happy man. He said, “If I go tomorrow, I’d be very happy.”

“So, hey, he would have been very impressed that I’ve kept going for so long.”

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