This is a Masters of milestones. It marks 20 years since Greg Norman’s last-round collapse opened the door for Nick Faldo, 25 years since Ian Woosnam became the first Welsh winner and, most memorable of all surely, 30 years since Jack Nicklaus claimed a sixth Green Jacket at 46, the event’s oldest winner.
The day Nicklaus, who had been written off in the build- up to the event, closed with a 65 with one of his sons, Jack Jnr, on the bag to come from four behind and claim a one-shot success is one of the most memorable Augusta National has witnessed.
What few people remember, though, is that the man who watched from close quarters – as his playing partner – as Nicklaus stormed home in 30, producing one of the event’s iconic moments with his celebration after holing a birdie putt at the 17th as he did so, was none other than Sandy Lyle.
On only his fifth appearance, Lyle finished joint-11th, having started the last round alongside Nicklaus, after a closing 71. His own win apart just two years later, seeing history created by the game’s greatest player is Lyle’s favourite memory from the opening major of the season.
“It’s is something that I will always remember as I’ve only played with him that once,” revealed the 58-year-old as he prepared for his 35th outing this week as the only Scot in the field apart from Russell Knox.
“At 46, Jack had basically ‘signed off’, but then the course was still very much playable for slightly older players, as it was a little shorter. Jack didn’t do much the first few rounds [opening with a 74 before adding scores of 71 and 69], but Jack hasn’t won 18 majors – and finished second just as many other times – just by luck. He got a little sniff [of victory] and he just took advantage of it.
“It was great to watch and there were no signs of any kind of deep breathing or backing off of shots or struggling with making decisions or scratching your hair. He played almost clinical golf.”
The memories still appear to be fresh in Lyle’s mind – and not just about that putt at the 17th, which effectively clinched his dramatic victory as Greg Norman, needing a par at the last to tie, carved his tee shot into the crowd and ran up a bogey-5.
“At the par-5 eighth hole, Jack hit this awful tee shot that was like about 25 yards right into the trees,” recalled two-time major winner Lyle, standing under the “Big Oak Tree” outside the Augusta National clubhouse. “For Jack, it was a really bad tee shot and about 1,800 people went in there with him.
“I could just see what was going on and, after pulling out a 3-wood and looking at a gap, he hit a shot that came out cleanly. His ball went all the way to the green and it was a hell of a shot. As Jack walked back towards me, he was smiling from ear to ear. He said, ‘I was trying to go for a gap like about 15 feet wide and instead I went through a gap about five feet and missed a tree by two feet so got away with that shot’. I also remember the noise after Jack made an eagle at the 15th came from all over the place, ridiculous when we got to the 16th tee. Looking back to the 15th green, Tom Watson and Tommy Nakajima were just standing there not even playing and just watching what Jack was doing.
“Even today, he says that the putt on 17 was one of the hardest he’s ever had to read because it was extremely fast. It was one of those putts that had to go over a little swale where you think it could easily go left or it could easily go right. He was almost cold and calculating like a dart player. He was in the zone and he knocked it right in the centre of the cup.”
As a father himself, Lyle appreciates what it meant for Nicklaus to have his son at his side that day. “I’ve had my oldest son, Stewart, caddying for me here and for him to have Jackie on the bag, well, people must be still talking about it now.”
While Lyle – like many others in his generation – felt inspired by Nicklaus coming here after turning 40 himself, he reckons the course has now been stretched too much for him to get into contention, even though he’s no slouch off the tee.
“Jack’s win gives you a sense that at age 50 you are not down and out, and at 55 you are not down and out. But I’m 58 now and some of the holes, like the par-5s, are a little too long for me. Having said that, I’m quite happy with my game distance-wise and good enough to be competitive.”