Sandy Lyle masters art of lumberjacking as Augusta return is put on hold

He’s been watching daffodils bloom rather than azaleas and swinging an axe as opposed to a golf club. Thirty-two years after becoming the first British player to have a Green Jacket slipped on to his shoulders, Masters week has certainly been different for Sandy Lyle at his home in Balquhidder, close to Rob Roy’s grave, in peaceful Perthshire.

Sandy Lyle in his green jacket after winning the Masters. Picture: Getty

“It is strange times indeed,” the 62-year-old told Scotland on Sunday in a Skype chat that almost didn’t happen due to a combination of Lyle and his interviewer not exactly being technological whizz kids, having to rely on their respective spouses, in fact, to be able to both see and hear each other.

“I can imagine it is almost like being back to the old war days, when they had lock up zones at 8 o’clock or something like that. It’s quiet around here. But, at the same time, life needs to go on. Animals need to be fed, so there are farmers moving about doing their work as normal.”

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Normal for Lyle at this time of year has been flying the Saltire in the season’s opening major at Augusta National Golf Club. On the back of topping the European Tour Order of Merit the previous year, he made his Masters debut in 1980 and has teed up in the event every year since 1985.

“It’s nowhere near the norm for me in early April,” he added of being at home instead due to this season’s event, scheduled to have been coming to a conclusion today, having initially been postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak and now re-arranged for November.

“It’s the first time since I’ve been up in this area, I think, that I’ve seen the daffodils coming up and also blooming (laughing). Normally, I see them coming up just about and I come back from the US about three months later and they are lying on the ground.”

Lyle may be one of the most laid-back individuals you’ll ever come across, but he’s certainly not been sitting at home with his feet up in front of the TV feeling sorry for himself about missing out, for the time being at least, on his 39th Masters appearance.

“There’s always a lot of things to do on the farm, if you want to call it that,” he said, speaking from his kitchen in the beloved home he shares with his wife, Jolande. “There’s ditch digging, repair work and things you have put aside, having thought, ‘I’ll catch up on that eventually’. I’ve been doing quite a lot of lumberjacking. We burned a lot of wood over the winter, so I have been re-stocking the stockpile. I’ve been keeping myself busy doing that.

“Am I good at that type of stuff? Oh yeah. I am pretty handy with chainsaws, wood splitters and all that kind of thing. I’ve also been swinging an axe as well to work on my swing (laughing again).

“I’ve actually shut that down, to be honest. I’ve been trying to keep myself busy in other ways and also keep myself physically strong. I’m not sitting around watching television. I’ve hardly seen any television, actually. We only have one TV in the house. It’s at the far end and we are normally in the kitchen at the other end.”

In a week when Masters’ memories have been prominent on social media and television, Lyle admitted that he was hoping to catch a glimpse of one re-run in particular. “If the ’88 one is shown, I might sit down and get sweaty armpits again,” he said, laughing once more, of perspiring heavily as he raised his arms in celebration after following one of the event’s iconic shots from a fairway bunker by trundling in a devilish downhill birdie putt to claim his historic victory 32 years ago.

Set to be the sole Scot in the field for the second year in a row, Lyle was especially looking forward to this week’s Champions’ Dinner, due to be hosted by Tiger Woods following his sensational fifth success in the event 12 months ago. “The last time Tiger was defending champion, we had a cheeseburger and a milkshake to wash it down. I was hoping it was maybe going to be a double cheeseburger this time,” joked the affable Scot.

“It’s the whole thing you miss, really. Augusta National Golf Club makes a lot of money from The Masters. But, at the same time, they pour a massive amount of money into the tournament. If it’s not just prize-money, it’s making sure the media have a nice place to work during the week. All the facilities around the course, too. It’s like a city of its own and it always seems to have been expanding in the last few years.

“I used to like going to a Mexican restaurant every year, but that has closed down the last couple of years due to corporate stuff taking its place. I’d been going there for over 20 years. I’d get there at the weekend and meet friends there who couldn’t get access to the clubhouse area. We’d always rendezvous there.”

One of the best pictures posted on social media this week was one of the so-called “Famous 5” of European golf. Born within a year of each other, Lyle, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam won 16 majors between them and this particular image was a celebration of them all becoming Masters champions as they stood together in their Green Jackets.

“You’ve got to put the finger towards Ballesteros,” said Lyle of a purple patch that saw the season’s first major fall to a European player ten times in 17 years in the 80s and 90s. “He was the first guy who broke ice.

“I always felt that Augusta National was a place where Europeans had a chance to express their golfing abilities.

“For the US Open and US PGA Championship, it was a totally different golf course in terms of the challenge, with hot weather, very narrow fairways and thick rough. The Masters is completely opposite and it was always suited to Europeans. After Seve landed his first win in 1980 and then repeated the feat three years later, it was like all the other Europeans – whether it was Olazabal, Langer, Woosie or Faldo – thinking, ‘bloody hell, if Seve can win round there, then we’ve all got a chance’.

“That was it. Langer won for the first time in 1985 then I won in 1988. Faldo then pulled off back-to-back wins after that, then both Woosie and then Jose Maria Olazabal won as well at Augusta. I think Woosie was inspired by my win because he’d beat me many times over the years. He’d have been saying, ‘if Lyle can win round there, then I’ve definitely got a chance’. The type of course it is and the momentum gained from Seve and Langer, it all sort of flowed and we all came good at the right time.”

In a time offering a chance for reflection, Lyle is glad to see so many people standing up and taking notice of that golden era for European golf. “I think it is definitely worth looking back to see what the guys have done in the past,” he said. “I like to see what Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead did to get the ball rolling, so to speak, in golf and, of course, Arnold Palmer, too, as he was the king back then.

“I often have people come up and say, ‘I didn’t realise you won this or did that or lost in that play-off’. The Golf Channel aired a programme called the ‘Famous 5’ a couple of years back and it was great to see that there were a lot of good comments about it. It is nice that they have a little bit of respect for what we did in the 70s and 80s in the game.”

Lyle, of course, is no longer exempt for The Open, meaning he was already set to miss out on a playing return to Royal St George’s, scene of his Claret Jug win in 1985, before the event in July was cancelled by the R&A earlier this week. “I think it is a sensible decision,” he said of that call.

As for what might lie ahead in a novel November date for The Masters, he added: “The golf course is not really designed for the event being played at that time of the year. The grasses normally start dying off two months from now. Normally, the members don’t get on the course until November due to the seeding and stuff like that after The Masters. I think that could be a real scratch of the head problem and we will just need to hold our breath and see what awaits.”

The same could be said, of course, about golf in general, but Lyle is optimistic on that front. “I would say golf can still be very strong at the end of this,” he declared. “If we’ve got the likes of Tiger and Rory McIlroy around, it will certainly still be strong from a spectator and television perspective.”

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