Sandy Lyle wants to “kick Augusta’s butt” one final time. Next year would do nicely. That event, after all, will mark the 30th anniversary of him becoming the first Briton to win the Masters. That’s some achievement to have on any CV. As is holding the record for the most appearances in this event by a European.
Lyle has now teed up 36 times in the season’s opening major. To put that into perspective, the Scot was the most experienced Masters campaigner in its 81st staging. Bernhard Langer and Larry Mize, both with 34 appearances, were next on the list, followed by Mark O’Meara (33), Fred Couples (32) and Ian Woosnam (29).
Lyle has now played here eight times more than Seve Ballesteros did and 13 times more than Nick Faldo. The 59-year-old, in fact, isn’t too far behind some of golf’s greats. Gary Player teed up at Augusta National 52 times, Arnold Palmer played in the event on 50 occasions, Jack Nicklaus claimed his record six wins from 45 starts and Tom Watson was in the field 43 times before calling it a day 12 months ago.
When it comes to Scots, Lyle is in a league of his own here. Colin Montgomerie played 15 times, Paul Lawrie has been here as a competitor on seven occasions while Sam Torrance and Bernard Gallacher made just four and one appearances respectively.
Lyle is probably just coming out of Amen Corner in terms of how much longer we’ll see him amidst the azaleas each April. Next year will definitely keep his juices for this event flowing, though, as he gets to mark one of the greatest achievements by a Scottish golfer.
Winning the Masters was one thing. Doing it in style with a closing birdie, set up by a brilliant 7-iron shot from a fairway bunker, made it even more special. Lyle might have been disappointed to miss the cut this week following rounds of 77 and 83 – the third year in a row that he’d suffered an early exit – but he’s already looking forward to that drive back up Magnolia Lane in 12 months’ time.
“It feels like an eternity right now,” he said, laughing, when asked by Scotland on Sunday if he thought time had flown by as he prepares to mark that 30th anniversary, before adding: “No, it has gone quite quick, actually. It is frightening to think it will be 30 years next year since I won it and it is something that not many people have the chance of doing (in any tournament, far less a major). I’m looking forward to it. That will be nice.
“That will also be my 37th appearance here. The fact it has gone quick is a good sign because it means you have enjoyed the experience. Augusta has kicked my butt many times, but I want to kick its butt one more time before I finish up here.”
Lyle had hoped that might happen this year only to be “killed” by making just one birdie in 36 holes. For a man who had registered 307 of those here prior to this week, that was hard to swallow even allowing for the testing conditions over the opening two days.
“I felt my game was in shape this time to give a decent account of myself,” he insisted. “I got my irons tuned in quite nicely. I was timing them pretty good and that’s half the battle round here. If you can hit nice solid iron shots and get your distance control working, you should be in with a chance.
“I did a bit of tweaking with the clubs a couple of days before we started and I was really happy with the way the divots were coming out. That part was fine. I just had a little hiccup with the driver, which was frustrating.”
Showing no signs whatsoever of slowing up, Langer could go on to eventually claim that appearance record by a European, but time is nearly up for Woosnam. The 1991 champion has already announced one Masters retirement. “That’s my last go,” he declared after missing the cut last year. The Welshman was back this week, though. “My wife made me come back,” he revealed. “She said, go and play. So I thought I’d come back and have another go.”
Suffering from ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease that causes the vertebrae in the spine to lock together, he admits that the end is indeed nigh as far as playing here is concerned. “I find it very difficult walking around here,” added Woosnam. “I get tired. But it’s my putting that lets me down. That’s what’s going to stop me from playing.”
Next year’s event also marks a special anniversary for Mark O’Meara, who won here in 1998, the same year he became Open champion at Royal Birkdale. Having turned 60 in January, the American may be about to bow out here. “It’s been a dream come true to play here,” he said. “This is my 33rd. When the time comes, it comes. It’s right around the corner. More than likely next year will be my last one, if I play at all. I think a lot of my family members want me to play.”
At 47, Ernie Els, pictured, isn’t ready for giving up but a 23rd appearance this week could be the end of his Masters career. The five-year exemption he secured when winning the Open Championship in 2012 runs out this season. Els needs to finish in the top 12 and ties this weekend to be back for Lyle’s party next spring.