Sandy Lyle’s last-ever Open Championship shot – his 9,504th blow in completed rounds in the event – was one to cherish. Finishing with a birdie on the toughest closing hole in championship golf was a fitting way for the big man to sign off in golf’s oldest major after 42 consecutive appearances and 43 in total stretching back to 1974.
Thirteen years after Jack Nicklaus brought down the curtain on his Open career with a nine-foot birdie putt at St Andrews, Lyle emulated the game’s greatest player. His putt was from 25 feet, toppling into the hole as though the golfing gods were looking down on Carnoustie.
As he lapped up the applause ringing around the 18th-hole arena at the Angus venue, Lyle pulled out a tissue from his pocket and mockingly wiped away tears. He admitted after signing for his final score in this event – a 76 to follow his opening 75 – that it had indeed been an emotional farewell.
“I managed to stay away from crying, but definitely a lump in the throat,” he said.
His two playing partners, Martin Kaymer and Andy Sullivan, hung back as Lyle crossed the Barry Burn to a rousing reception. The stands were by no means full – the 1985 winner has probably outlived a lot of the people now attending this event – but that didn’t stop him receiving the farewell he richly deserved. “I was on cloud nine walking down the 18th. It’s quite a spectacular view to come down there,” he admitted.
The closing birdie followed back-to-back pars. “A great way to finish,” he declared, smiling. “For 20 years, I don’t believe I finished below par on the last three holes. To make that birdie was extra special. It’s not an easy second shot from the right-hand side of the fairway as there’s not much to land the ball on, so it was quite a challenge.”
The two-time major winner had been handed the honour of hitting the event’s opening shot on Thursday. “That was quite special to me,” he admitted. “It shows that they care, and they appreciate what I’ve done in the 40-odd plus years I’ve played in the tournament.”
To be teeing up at Royal Portush in 12 months’ time, Lyle needs to win next week’s Senior Open, which is being played at St Andrews for the first time. “More punishment,” he joked. “No, you want to leave the gates open. There’s always a chance I could play my way back into the tournament. I will try. I won’t totally, totally give up. In theory, though, it seems like it’s the last Open for me.”
If so, he’ll end up two short of Gary Player’s appearance record. “I’d like to have beaten Gary Player one time,” he said. “He had the 65 rule. I didn’t have that to play with,” he added, referring to the age exemption for past winners having now been reduced to 60.
This missed cut was the tenth time he’d made an early exit in the last ten years. “That’s never a nice feeling for any pro golfer,” he said. “And, as you get older, you know it’s going to happen more often and I think it did happen more often than I was used to. It’s frustrating, but I’ve managed to keep it going for 40-odd years and I’m quite happy. Will it take a few days for it to sink in that this is the end of his Claret Jug journey? “No, I don’t think it will,” he said. “I’ve accepted that this is going to be, most likely, the last one. I’m excited it’s coming to an end, but there’s always a chance for next week to perform well if I can make sure Mr [Bernard] Langer is not playing very well. I’ll maybe put something in his water.”
While Lyle’s name may no longer be part of the future in this event, he’s got that replica Claret Jug at home to remind him of his greatest memory from Royal St George’s. “I’ve also got a lot of players’ badges that are in a bag that probably weigh about ten pounds,” he said.