IT ENDED in 1988 with a jig of joy; it started 25 years later with the same pair of feet dunting the same manicured turf in frustration.
First on the tee in the 77th Masters – if you don’t count honorary starters Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – Sandy Lyle just missed the fairway on the left with his opening drive, but he was soon cutting the look of an exasperated figure.
His approach brought about the event’s first cry of “Fore”; his wedge was then hammered into the ground in frustration after a heavy touch had sent his ball trundling off the green at the other side. Having not lost his turn, the 55-year-old almost holed the next one and knocked the putt in for an opening bogey-5.
The implement he used to do that, however, was surely one of the most hideous-looking clubs in the game’s history. It has the head the size of a frying pan and, given the time of day, you were half expecting someone to ask Lyle to knock them up a couple of eggs on it. “Holy cow,” exclaimed one patron later in the round and that was apt given the club looks like a massive branding iron.
Also attracting some strange looks among those following the first group was Nathan Smith’s choice of golf bag for the American’s fourth appearance in the event as an amateur. Seriously, it looked as old as Lyle and was a throwback to the days when this famous event was inaugurated by Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones.
The natural swing that enabled Lyle to become the first British winner of this event in 1988 – three years after he’d also won the Open Championship at Royal St George’s – is long gone. These days, he pauses halfway through his backswing. It’s not pretty and, early on at least, it wasn’t having the desired effect on this occasion.
The driver was dunted into the ground after a tugged tee shot at the second; his arms were thrown out in frustration after missing the third green with his approach and it was the same after he found sand at the short fourth. The latter is named “Flowering Crabapple”; Lyle was certainly crabbit as he left the green after a second dropped shot of the day.
By the time he’d reached the turn, however, his mood had brightened a bit, just as the weather had, too, after the early starters had set out with a mist shrouding the trees. The par-5 eighth had brought his first birdie of the day from eight feet and a second could easily have followed at the ninth. There, his approach was straight at the flag but a pushed putt from around 12 feet, which was followed by a groan, meant that went unrewarded.
Covering the front nine in 37, however, was a respectable effort and, despite giving the impression that he was constantly fighting demons in his swing, he then started back with five straight pars, birdied the 15th before dropping his first shot in 13 holes with a three-putt at the 17th. A one-over 73 – 13 shots better than his first round 12 months ago – was still a satisfactory start, though, given that scrappy opening.
“Three-putting the 17th, where I whacked it past ten or 12 feet, was rather annoying, but 73 is a nice start,” he said afterwards. “Making the cut is my main objective and I haven’t blown myself out of it.”
The putter, which soon became the main topic of questioning, is called a “Black Swan”, though Lyle himself admitted it was more like an ugly duckling. “It wouldn’t win a beauty contest, I know that,” joked the 55-year-old. “But I used it at the PGA Seniors last year and I had a very good putting week on greens similar to this in terms of undulations and speed as well.
“It’s been sitting in the closet for quite a while and, having been putting terrible this year on the Seniors Tour averaging 33-35 putts and very seldom getting below 30, I thought I’d bring it out here and see how it worked.
“I went out on Sunday with a guest and I went around with six birdies and 26 putts. So I thought, ‘hmm, that’s going to be in the bag again, I think’. And I putted quite well today. I felt very comfortable with the putter. It does the job pretty good.”
Lyle particularly likes its moment of inertia and believes it is an implement that could help amateurs become better putters. “It’s heavier than most, I think. But not too heavy,” he added. “It’s made of aircraft alloy and it looks big and cumbersome, but it’s not.
“It’s got a very good MOI and it rolls the ball very good. I have a board back at home inside the house which has got velvet on it and, when you putt from over four or five feet, you can see what the ball’s doing.
“If you’ve got a putter with too much loft on it, he ball will start to bounce and you can see it on the board. With my putter it just rolls it right off the bat straight off. There’s no deviation or any little thing that makes it go whoosh. It’s also good for amateurs because you can set it up.”
As Lyle was finishing his day’s work in his 32nd appearance here, 14-year-old Chinese player Guan Tianlang was hitting his drive at the first on his debut. The Scot said he’d been off a low handicap at the same age himself but admits it’s becoming extremely difficult for him to hold his own in events like this these days.
“It gets tougher and tougher, unfortunately,” he declared. “When you finish 18 holes around here you know that it’s been a pretty tough old battle. And today I didn’t really play anywhere near my best golf as far as the quality of the iron shots was concerned. So I need to go and see if I can iron out some kinks.”