SANDY Lyle has recalled the moment he thought he was in for a rollicking from Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National, only to be pleasantly surprised to learn that his bunker shot in 1988 is still a big talking point in Masters folklore.
A new generation of golf fans may marvel in moments such as Tiger Woods chipping in from behind the 16th green in 2005, Phil Mickelson hitting it on to the green at the 13th from the pine straw in 2010 and Bubba Watson producing his banana shot from out of the trees two years ago.
Fully 26 years on, however, Lyle’s majestic 7-iron blow from a fairway bunker at the 18th that set up a birdie to become the event’s first winner from the United Kingdom remains one of the event’s iconic shots, as the Scot will no doubt be reminded when he attends tonight’s Champions’ Dinner, hosted by Adam Scott.
“Billy Payne usually sits next to me at that,” revealed Lyle, who went on to reflect on the occasion he genuinely feared he’d landed himself in hot water with the host club’s top official. “We had just finished our last course and he looked at me and beckoned me over. I thought, ‘what have I done now?’
“However, he said, ‘I just want to tell you that I take a lot of people out (on the course) nearly every week and they all want to see your bunker. ‘It drives me mad!’ ”
Lyle marked the silver anniversary of that memorable occasion by ending a run of three missed cuts in the event 12 months ago. Then, the two-times major winner had a couple of compatriots for company, Paul Lawrie and Martin Laird. This week it’s down to one in Stephen Gallacher, an Augusta National debutant.
Encouraged to do so by his uncle Bernard, Gallacher asked Lyle if he could join him for practice round on Saturday, using the opportunity to pick the 56-year-old’s brains about a course where shot placement, both on fairways and greens, is imperative. By the looks of things, Lyle can still find those spots himself – and hole the putts, too. “Had seven birdies in practice round today,” he wrote on Twitter of an outing on Sunday, adding: “Feels great to be back.”
Not since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 has a player making his debut won The Masters. With the likes of Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth and Victor Dubuisson among the rookies this time around, there’s a chance the record books could be re-written on Sunday night.
Whether Gallacher can do that remains to be seen – and there’s no reason to write him off – but Lyle, for one, is confident the 39-year-old has the best years of his career lying ahead having watched him break into the world’s elite after becoming the first player to successfully retain the Dubai Desert Classic in the event’s 25-year history.
“I’ve played a little bit with Stephen over the years,” he recalled. “He’s a great striker of the ball, but lacked a little bit of momentum and confidence. However, he seems to be getting his putting going, and confidence from that breeds success, and success breeds confidence. He’s now got the taste for it, winning in Dubai for a second time. His tail has got to be up.”
What has Lyle told Gallacher that may prove particularly helpful when the gun goes off on Thursday? “You can never be too blasé about this course,” he stressed. “It can show its teeth real quick. It’s a patience game out there.”
When the doors opened to spectators for the first time this week yesterday morning – the course was cleared just after 10am as bad weather quickly closed in – one of the first places they headed was down to the 17th to see how it looks now after the loss of the famous Eisenhower Tree in an ice storm earlier in the year.
Typically at an event where perfection is the hallmark, there’s scarcely a mark to show there was anything ever on that spot, though Lyle acknowledged it’s a feature that will be missed, certainly in terms of making the hole the challenge it used to be.
“It has changed the character of the hole,” he admitted. “I think with the tee going back that extra 20 yards, the big drivers are going to find it much easier now because the ball was reaching its peak coming towards that tree. When we had the tee further forward, it was actually more in play because you could drive straight into it if you weren’t careful.”
Despite the significant change to its appearance, though, Lyle is adamant the hole will still have to be treated with respect. “It remains a very tight hole and Tiger [Woods] has certainly had his troubles at that hole down the left,” he noted. “Before this happened, they’d been adding trees down the left, so it’s pretty thick. When [Jack] Nicklaus won in 1986, he hit it way left off the tee, but, with the trees sparse then, he had a clear view to the green and was able to hit a pitching wedge to the green.
“That wouldn’t happen now. Hit the same drive and you would be struggling to get to the green. It’s a much tighter hole and the 18th is tighter, too.”
Change has certainly been evident in golf from the time Lyle turned professional in 1977 to becoming the elder statesman he is today. He remains one of Scotland’s sporting treasures, as the aforementioned Bernard Gallacher reminded the audience at the Scottish Golf Awards in Glasgow in February.
While Gallacher was the man receiving a lifetime achievement honour, the first thing he did in accepting that was pay tribute to Lyle and highlight exactly why his compatriot was held in such regard by none other than Seve Ballesteros.
“My first tournament was as a 19-year-old in South America and was before I got my Tour card,” recalled Lyle of a glittering career that shows no signs of slowing up as he continues to play on the Champions Tour. “One of the Chillas brothers – David, I think it was – was out there, too. There was no air conditioning, so I slept with the windows open and got absolutely clobbered by mossies. They just ate me alive. I had 90 odd bites on one arm and was covered all over. So I wasn’t in a great state – welcome to the Tour!”