Sandy Lyle: The original Sawgrass trailblazer

Golf News

Sandy Lyle looks back on his ground-breaking win 30 years ago...

Things tend to get lost over time but Sandy Lyle’s victory at Sawgrass in 1987 still comfortably stands the test of time. No other British or Irish player has done likewise – Sir Nick Faldo,

Colin Montgomerie, Padraig Harrington (twice), Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and Martin Laird – have all finished second but, since 1974 and the first Players, won by Jack Nicklaus, it has remained a barren hunting ground for the raiders from these shores.

The Scot’s win is all the more impressive given the home-based dominance of the early years. In the tournament’s first 17 years Lyle is the only non-American to break into either of the top two places.

As the tournament has grown, so too have the winning nationalities – since 2000 there have been eight different countries. But still just Alexander Walter Barr Lyle from over here. Good old Sandy.

“Sawgrass wasn’t a course where I would feel totally comfortable on. At St Andrews or other links courses you have room to get around, TPC is for a Faldo or Mize-type player, precision players,” said Lyle.

Lyle’s record at Sawgrass is a curious one. His rst two visits ended with blank weekends and, other than the victory the following year, it took until 1994 for him to make a cut.

Sawgrass

But in 1987 everything was different. The world No 11 had found some form thanks to a lesson from Jimmy Ballard.

“I had the 1-iron going and kept the ball in play and felt good about my game, I had some lessons a month before with Jimmy which were working,” said Lyle.

“I finished 14 under which was almost impossible for me. I have a poster at my house in the States, which is on the Sawgrass property, and I still can’t believe I shot that. I’ve never come close since.”

Also on a score of 274, which tied the then tournament record, was Jeff Sluman in what, even through rose-tinted glasses, was a sensational leaderboard. One shot back was Mark O’Meara, two back the soon-to-be US Open champion Scott Simpson and World No 1 Greg Norman and three adrift, playing with Lyle and Sluman on the Sunday, Paul Azinger.

Larry Mize who, a few weeks later would do the unthinkable and win the Masters, was tied for 12th. Faldo, approaching the end of his swing renovations, wasn’t eligible for the tournament – Langer, Ballesteros and Ken Brown completed the European entry of just four.

Thanks to the wonders of YouTube it is possible to relive all the action from 30 years ago which acts as a very quick reminder of how the course and game have changed. The tournament was then played in March and had only moved to the Stadium Course in 1982, hence a bare-looking and less- than-pristine layout though the big tests were still the same, particularly with persimmon.

Players wore visors, shirts and bags weren’t emblazoned with logos and there were a handful of on-course interviews with the leading protagonists. The caddies wore jeans with cheap-looking and undersized gold jackets.

Sluman shared a few words having just hit his tee shot to the mildly terrifying 17th while Norman revealed that he had just split his trousers. He then went on to describe quite how tough the 18th was playing.

In among it all was Lyle and, in a ash, it almost smacks you in the face quite how easy he made the game look. Golf and Lyle were made for one another.

Seve once said of him: “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. But what always made him stand out on the European Tour was his naturally spontaneous personality and humanity. Sandy is a great champion on and off the golf course.”

While everyone, as they still do today, scrambled to try to save par at Sawgrass’ closing hole the Scot picked a long iron off the turf to 20 feet and calmly rolled it in for a birdie three. Sluman, from half that distance, did the same and the two exited stage left with a big handshake and huge smiles. Lyle’s talent and class were personified in those few moments.

“I holed a big putt at 18 but didn’t think it would be good enough as there were a few groups behind me. I had chipped in on 15 which was a big bonus but then parred 16 which was disappointing. At the last I holed a tram-liner.

I thought that had put the nishing touches to a good week and then people fell away and it came down to just Jeff Sluman and myself.”

Lyle sneaked one in the left side at the 16th, the first play-off hole, and gave a faint smile. At the next the American sent one in to six feet but, just before he was about to pull the trigger, a likely well-lubricated fan did what the players had managed not to do and found the water.

“That was obviously a distraction. Jeff had a six-footer to win and someone jumped in the water so he had to back off. There were lots of oohs and aahs but we’ll never know whether he would have holed it had he not backed off.”

And so to 18 and a shot that gave him more ‘heebie-jeebies’ than even that 7-iron from the sand at Augusta’s 18th hole a year later.

With the light closing in Lyle laced a 1-iron down the middle to leave an approach of around 210 yards to a flag that he couldn’t even make out, with water down the left and a 10- year exemption to the PGA Tour on the line.

“It was almost pitch dark which the cameras gave no idea of. I could hardly see the ball let alone the pin and we were close to saying ‘let’s come back the following morning’ but played one more in the hope of nishing it.

Sawgrass

“It was the scariest shot I have ever hit, my depth perception had gone.”

The shot was played with consummate ease. Both balls nished just off the green
to the right of the pin, away from the water. Lyle was true to his roots, playing a chip- and-run while Sluman went the aerial route. Neither nished inside eight feet.

“I played my chip to encourage the ball to release and it ran eight foot past. Jeff was chipping from the same area but because
it was so dark he must have thought he needed to get the ball up in the air a bit but it stopped 10 to 12 feet short. So he had to putt rst and missed. I made mine but even that was a scary putt.”

The prize money was a whopping $180,000, $18,000 more than Mize would collect for winning the Masters a few weeks later, but it was the exemption that was the real kicker for Lyle.

“That was what I wanted, it meant that I could play anywhere and I wasn’t pressured to keep my card over there. Obviously you didn’t know how the tournament would grow, it was the tour’s baby and they wanted to grow it. The commissioner Deane Beman wanted a purse of at least $4-5m but they said no as the Masters and US Open was less. So they had to keep it to a certain level, but he got his way in the end.”

Within 10 years the winner Steve Elkington picked up $630,000.

“I would put the win up there in my top three. I go back most years as I have a place there and do some bits. They used to have a past champions’ dinner at the club or in a nearby restaurant but not that many were turning up, it’s a long way to travel to go to a dinner. At the Masters you at least play in the tournament and the Par 3.”

And with still an hour’s light left in the day, Sandy, now 59, leaves to hit some practice balls in preparation for a 40th season out on tour.

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