Interview: Sandy Lyle, the Scots Shropshire lad who conquered Augusta

Sandy Lyle celebrates his Masters-winning putt on the 18th green at Augusta National in 1988. Picture: Getty Images
Sandy Lyle celebrates his Masters-winning putt on the 18th green at Augusta National in 1988. Picture: Getty Images
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Fire away, he says. It’s just after 8am US time and Sandy Lyle is on Skype.
His wife, Jolande, has overcome our technical difficulties from the previous afternoon and not only am I ready to chat with the two-time major winner but there he is in front of me on my laptop screen. He’s wearing a T-shirt that is almost Masters
green, which seems appropriate.

After all, our transatlantic chat has been set up – with the help of big 
Gordon Sherry, who managed Lyle for a spell and remains a close friend – to talk about that event. Next week’s
staging marks the 30th anniversary of Lyle winning at Augusta National, becoming the first British player to have a Green Jacket slipped over his shoulders.

Only two Europeans – Seve Ballesteros (twice) and Bernhard Langer – had achieved that notable feat before Lyle became a Masters champion, while just three British players – three-time winner Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and, just two years ago, Danny Willett – have managed to pull it off since. If he wasn’t such a laid-back character, Lyle would probably be excited about what he did back then and the prospect of having all those special memories come flooding back next week.

“No, it doesn’t… it feels like 60 years,” he replies, laughing, to being asked if he can believe it was 30 years ago that he became a multiple major winner, having made the breakthrough at the highest level in golf three years earlier when claiming the Open Championship at Royal St George’s. “It’s amazing, really, how it has gone so quick. It’s been even longer, of course, since I won the Open Championship. To be honest, both those victories are still quite fresh in the mind as you are always getting reminders, especially in the build up to anniversaries like this one at Augusta.”

At Royal St George’s, Lyle got his hands on the Claret Jug despite ending up on his knees and hitting his club into the turf in frustration as his third shot ended up almost back at his feet at the side of the last green. In contrast, he raised his arms high in the air before doing a celebratory jig on the 18th green at Augusta. That followed him producing one of the event’s greatest-ever shots – a 7-iron from close to the face of a bunker – before rolling in a tricky ten-foot downhill birdie putt to beat Mark Calcavecchia by a shot.

“It probably won’t come as a surprise for me to say that I play with guys in pro-ams most weeks who remember that bunker shot and that is nice,” admitted Lyle. “It’s not everyone who has produced a shot that has made an impact like that on people. For me, though, all the hype surrounding this being the 30th anniversary of my win will be like water off a duck’s back. As has been the case throughout my career, I will be aiming to get on with things without any real fuss. All I am really interested in is going there and giving a good account of myself.”

Wait a minute, though. He can’t get away without passing comment on that little joyous shuffle back in 1988. “It wasn’t quite ready to get me on Strictly Come Dancing, let’s put it that way,” he said, laughing. “To be honest, I was just basically out on my feet because the last two or three holes was probably like running a marathon. In my head, I was probably thinking that I would do a somersault on the green if I won but my legs had gone and my arms were heavy, so that’s the best I could manage. To be honest, I could just have sat down in that spot for a couple of minutes and soaked up the occasion.”

His parents were there that day. Dad Alex, who’d introduced him to the game through his role as a club professional at Hawkstone Park in Shropshire had good reason to feel an extremely proud man (Sandy was born in Shrewsbury and played for England as an amateur but, christened Alexander Walter Barr Lyle, there’s no denying his Scottish bloodline and few have been better ambassadors for Scottish sport). “I remember a lot of things straight afterwards and it was pretty hectic, that’s for sure,” recalled Lyle. “I also remember feeling very tired and that’s because it is a tough week mentally, especially when you are in contention. When that final putt dropped, I could feel the tension flowing away from my shoulders and neck muscles.

“Winning a tournament [the Greater Greensboro Open] the week before in a play-off was very stressful and then having the media attention most of the Masters week took its toll, too. The last nine holes was also a bit of a roller-coaster. I had a lead then lost it. I then had to do the chasing and just tried to hang in there as long as I could.

“The last hole, of course, wasn’t as straightforward as I would have liked it to have been due to my tee shot ending up in the bunker and, in truth, it was unbelievable that I made a birdie from there. It was probably one in a thousand to do that, especially under the circumstances, and I’m glad I did as it was a pretty memorable feat, that’s for sure.”

Two years earlier, Lyle had the privilege of watching from close quarters – he was his playing partner in the final round – as Jack Nicklaus pulled off one of the greatest achievements in sport by winning a sixth Green Jacket at the age of 46. “For me, and I’ve talked about this quite a lot over the years, to have experienced Jack’s win that year and seeing a pro like him go about his business in the last round of the Masters was massive,”
said Lyle, who finished in a share of 11th. “He made a very good impression on me, especially the way he went about everything that day. He never sped up and he never slowed down. It was as though he was on autopilot.

“Sometimes you can see people getting excited and they make mistakes because of that. There was no hint whatsoever of that from Jack that day. He knew exactly what he needed to do and he didn’t change anything. He just did it and that’s what really impressed me. It actually felt as though we were going out for an afternoon stroll. There was nothing in the air to suggest he was going to shoot 65 and win that day. He turned a possible one or two-over for the first nine holes into two under and it all started from there. The rest, as they say, is history. He was 46 at the time and I was 28 when I won. So I knew that, if a guy at 46 could win at Augusta, even when it is Jack Nicklaus, I felt confident that I could, too.”

Lyle, who has lived in Balquhidder, which sits north-west of Callander, for the past 18 years and also has a base at Ponte Vedra Beach in Florida, went into the 1988 event on a high, having won the aforementioned Greater Greensboro Open for a second time in three years. Add in that Open Championship success as well as him having landed the so-called fifth major, the Players’ Championship in 1987, and it certainly wasn’t a bolt out of the blue when he received his Green Jacket from Larry Mize, the previous year’s winner, in the Butler Cabin.

“Anyone who has won a Masters feels very special and it’s great to be able to join the other past winners at the Champions Dinner every year,” he said. “It’s something you grab with both hands every time. It’s an experience that is hard to put into words, to be honest. You’ve got guys who’ve won it a few times and others like me who managed it just once yet on that night we are all on the same level.

“It is very low key. There’s no long speeches. Last year, of course, was quite emotional due to it being the first Masters since the death of Arnold Palmer. Guys got up and told their 
stories about him and it was very much a tear-jerker that night. But there are other times when the room is filled with laughter. Many years ago with Sam Snead, for instance, who was let loose for five minutes and told some of the dirtiest stories you’ve ever heard [laughing].”

No laughing matter is the fact Lyle is the sole Scot in this year’s field. The last time that happened was in 2010, having had Colin Montgomerie flying the 
Saltire, too, for a good few years as well as Paul Lawrie, Stephen Gallacher and, most recently, Russell Knox in 
addition to the likes of Bradley Neil, Richie Ramsay, Stuart Wilson and Craig Watson when they were in the line up either as Amateur or US Amateur champions.

“It comes in waves with the Masters,” said Lyle in trying to stay optimistic. “Some years there have been two or three Scots playing and other times it’s been me and you’ve just reminded me the latter will be the case on this occasion. I’m a little surprised about that, but, in five years’ time, there could be ten Scots in the field. You just don’t know. There’s no guarantee in this game but hopefully the younger ones coming along will be watching this year’s event on TV and feel determined to be playing in this event in years to come. It’s not an easy event to get into but I am confident it will happen.

“Hopefully some of the attention I might get this year due to it being 30 years since I won will help inspire the next generation of Scottish golfers. Just look at the impact Tiger Woods has had on the game over the years. It was down to him that so many youngsters got into golf and he’s helped change the game. I hope that replays from 1988 will maybe inspire young people back in Scotland to get into golf and make a name for themselves.”

This will be Lyle’s 37th appearance in the season’s opening major. Since winning, his best effort was finishing in a tie for 20th behind Angel Cabrera
in 2009. He’s missed the cut the last three years, yet is heading back feeling quietly confident that he can mark that anniversary by making it to the weekend.

“What are my expectations? Playing well and making the cut would be the cherry on top of the cake for me on this occasion,” said Lyle.

“I know the course pretty good after all those previous visits, though it has certainly changed quite a bit over the years, especially in terms of length. Unfortunately, the course is now playing a lot longer whereas I’m getting shorter so that provides an additional challenge these days. I can’t reduce it the way some of these young guys do now, especially with their driving ability.

“I’m going to have to try to make birdies the old-fashioned way. I am going to have to lay shots up in good spots and try to make the putts. I think I can have a chance of at least making the cut. That’s my main goal. If I can get off to a good start by getting round in 70 or 71, that would set me up nicely for the second round. I will try and keep things to what has become my normal preparation. I’ve got a few family members going to be there. In fact, it is going to be a family-orientated week. I feel good about my game right now and hopefully I will put in a good showing.”

Is there a possibility that this could be his Masters swansong, as will be the case in this year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie unless he finishes high enough to be in the field again at Royal Portrush in 2019 as his exemption for the game’s oldest major is due to run out in July?

“It is very much a year-by-year thing for the Masters,” he said. “I know that the decision is getting easier with each passing year, but I will assess every year once the dust has settled. If I feel I am not close to still having a chance of making the cut, I think it will be time to call it a day. But, as has been the case up until now, I am heading there this year believing that I can still make it to the weekend and that will be my goal for this anniversary appearance.”

Never has it been more fitting to end a conversation by thanking someone for not only doing a country proud but also being one of life’s true 
gentlemen.