Sandy Lyle returns to Birkdale in better shape than he left it

Sandy Lyle played a fine second round at Muirfield to make the cut on Friday. Picture: Jane Barlow
Sandy Lyle played a fine second round at Muirfield to make the cut on Friday. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THERE are days when he wakes up in his hotel room in Des Moines or Duluth, Savannah or St Louis, Boca Raton or Newport Beach and says to himself that the end of his career can’t come quickly enough.

He shoots 74, 75 on the Champions Tour and nothing makes sense. He thinks of what it would be like if he left the circuit and got on with the rest of his life, a new beginning aged 55. “I’ll probably get up one morning and say I don’t need this any more,” says Sandy Lyle. “I’ve got a good family. They’re all doing well, they’re all healthy, got jobs and no hassles. No grandchildren yet, but that could happen, so there will be times when I think like that, out in America on my own for long stretches in the heat and humidity. I’ll think about what it would be like to be a professional grandfather.”

That was on Wednesday, sitting in the shade outside the players lounge at Muirfield. On Friday, after 27 holes of his Open championship, Lyle stood at 8-over par, three more dropped shots on the front nine of his second round to go with the five he let slip on Thursday. If you were a betting man you would have punted your life savings on Lyle missing the cut – and you’d have lost.

The last five holes at Muirfield feature the three hardest on the golf course, the 15th, the 14th and the 18th, the scene of so much carnage. Lyle played the last five in two under par and made the weekend with a couple of shots to spare, an affirmation that his hard work is paying off, a reminder that, even if there are days when he thinks about the afterlife, maybe that day is a little way off just yet. Lyle can still play. Friday’s comeback was blessed confirmation of it.

This year has been tough. He was in America for an age, holed-up in his base in Jacksonville and plodding along on the Champions Tour. He finished 53rd in Florida, 72nd in California, 61st in Mississippi and 69th in Alabama. His best finish was 22nd in Missouri. Same old, same old. “When you have had the great times I’ve had and then to have such a miserable time year after year and not really able to find the answer, it’s not easy. If I turned alcoholic overnight or I was taking drugs I’d have some sort of excuse, but I haven’t got one. Somewhere along the line I was feeding the computer with s*** information all in the art of trying to get better.”

There are moments, though, when he feels things are clicking again and Friday was one of them. He can build on his survival at Muirfield, he can take that into next week’s Seniors Open at Royal Birkdale, a place that conjures up certain images for him these days. In the first round of the 2008 Open, played in a tempest, Lyle walked off the course and was savaged for doing so.

The walk-off was blown up into a scandal, a vitriolic attack on Lyle by sections of the media, a confirmation, in the eyes of some, that a man who quits could never be Ryder Cup captain, as was his hope at the time.

“I said very clearly to Hazel Irvine on the BBC that I had issues with my right hand, that I had bruising of the inner-nerve ends of my knuckles. I thought it was arthritis because the odd morning I couldn’t even 
close my hand and that week was when it was at its worst. On the first hole I had a 5-iron to the green and I hit the one shot I don’t want to hit, a flicked skank off the neck and it rattled the shaft and my hand and I went ‘Ow!’

“I got to the fourth hole and hit almost the same shot, a semi-shank-cum-block and the club went rattle, rattle, rattle and I went ‘Ow! Ow! Ow!’ The right hand had now just about gone numb. I was 11-over after nine and I thought ‘this is not worth it’. So I made a decision that I was done for, that I was a handicap to the guys I was playing with. I’d spoken to Hazel and thought I had explained it.”

The narrative became that of a quitter, not of an injured golfer and it hurt him, for sure. Hurt his chances of being Ryder Cup captain, you’d have to think. “It shouldn’t be a factor, you know. People have to know the facts.‘Why did Lyle walk off the course? The bugger was hurt’. I didn’t want to use the injury as an excuse. If it did play a factor in the Ryder Cup, then I feel sorry for the people who made the decision.”

It is one of great injustices that Lyle has not been – and will probably never be – Ryder Cup captain. Europe have an age thing now. Lyle is too old. Meanwhile, America appoint Tom Watson for Gleneagles. “Experience is important. You have to respect your captain. We respected Tony Jacklin when he was captain. He’d won the Open, he’d won the US Open, he’d been a great player and if he says this is the way its going to be then that is the way it’s going to be.

“I can’t do anything with it. I won’t go out and complain about it, I’ll only make myself look stupid. It has to come from people’s hearts. I was in the mix this time and I was happy to be in the mix. It didn’t turn out that way and Paul McGinley got it and he’s a very respected player who he’s been around and he will do a good job.”

Birkdale 2008 was the height of his problems, physical and mental. “Round about that time I was ready to chuck the game in. The injury was that sore I couldn’t practise. My hand was just gone. You try and shake hands with somebody and you think ‘no’ and pull your hand back. My head was wrecked. Nothing on the golf course made any sense. I’d try and play a fade and hit a snap hook and Birkdale was right in the middle of it.”

Relief came in the guise of a man called Todd Jones, who looked at his swing and diagnosed the problem. Too steep on impact, too much pressure on the right hand, some new drills on changing the path of the club and, hey presto, ten years of pain had gone. He’s going back to Birkdale this week in much better shape than when he left it five years ago.

How many more Opens has he got in him? He’s saying five. “I’ll be 60 then. Maybe that’ll be the final wave.” What then? Some gardening at home, some grandfather duties he hopes, some course designing if he ever gets a chance. “I did it many years ago but it was a just few visits and a signature. I would want to be more hands-on. I teamed up with a great guy, Scott Macpherson (a Kiwi course designer based in Edinburgh) a few years ago and he’s an architect nut.

“But it’s a very, very hard thing to get into. Golf design in Britain is almost dead. You might find some bits and pieces as regards facelifts but the big stuff all gets swept up by the big names, particularly Jack Nicklaus. Everyone is besotted by the Nicklaus name, the quality that comes with it. But as a golfer, it’s not necessarily the best golf course because a lot of it is done by computer, done by guys who work with Jack and not by Jack himself. He’s not much hands-on. How could he be? He might have 40 projects on the go at the one time. I know Gary [Player] has a lot of things going on and Arnold [Palmer] is never off the course as regards design. Great names and people are prepared to pay for that quality which makes my situation even tougher. We’re just looking for the crumbs, but it’s something I’d love to get into in a serious way.”

That’s for the future. The present seems brighter all of a sudden. Yesterday was a tough day on a brutal track, but the mere fact that he was there at all has given him confidence and has eased the frustration of one of the game’s true gentlemen.

To Birkdale – with hope.