Sandy Lyle, the 1985 Open Championship winner at Royal St George’s, reckons a rejuvenated Tiger Woods can be a Claret Jug contender when the American pays his first visit to the Kent venue in 17 years next summer.
Woods, who returned to winning ways in the majors with a sensational fifth Masters victory in April, missed out through injury when the game’s oldest major was last held at Royal St George’s in 2011, when Darren Clarke claimed the title.
Eight years earlier, Woods got off to a nightmare start as he lost a ball off his opening drive and ran up a triple-bogey 7 before recovering to finish joint fourth, finishing just two shots behind fellow American Ben Curtis.
Helped by that title triumph at Augusta in April, coupled with another impressive victory in the Zozo Championship in Japan at the end of October, the 43-year-old has climbed from outside the top 1,000 as he struggled with back issues to No 6 in the world – his highest end-of-year ranking in six years.
“I think Tiger has more wins in the tank,” said Lyle, speaking in Glasgow as he received the PGA in Scotland Recognition Award at an annual luncheon. “We all wondered a little while ago if Tiger would ever win again, let alone the Masters, and he’s proved us all wrong.
“I think he is swinging as good as I’ve seen him and his rhythm is good and he’s kept himself in good shape. He’s not baulked out too much, so his flexibility is still there. Who knows what his work ethic is at home, whether he’s in the gym all the time. But you can only look at what you see and he’s on the right track. His mental side also looks to be getting stronger all the time. He’s close every time he’s out there right now.”
Referring to Woods having mental scars at Royal St George’s from that opening hole in 2003 then not playing in 2011, the two-time major winner added: “It won’t even enter his mind. It’s astonishing what he’s overcome mentally and physically. So I think there’s a bright future ahead of him.
“He’s still got a swing speed of 120mph so he’s still right up there and he doesn’t look to be wincing (after back surgery) or hurting in any way. That’s a big thing for him, to go out and hit balls and not come off hurting.” One of Lyle’s biggest regrets is not having had the chance to play with Woods since he burst onto the scene when winning the first of his 15 majors in 1997. “I once sat next to him at the Masters dinner and he told me he used to watch me hitting my 1-iron and was always impressed how far I hit it,” said the 61-year-old Scot.
“But he added that, if I used it now with the modern new ball designs, I’d be lucky if I hit it five feet high and not get it off the ground and he was probably right. The older balls had a higher spin rate.”
Lyle, who splits his time these days between a home at Balquhidder in Perthshire and a pad in Ponte Vedra Beach in Florida, has 32 wins to his name and has not given up hope of adding to that tally despite suffering a lean spell since joining the over-50s ranks. In fact, his sole success as one of the game’s golden oldies was back in 2011 in the ISPS Handa Senior World Championship.
“I’m not happy with my performance on the Seniors Tour, not by far. Coming 45th and 55th most weeks is a little annoying,” he declared. “[Bernhard] Langer is still churning out the scores week in, week out and has just won again in the father and son event. He’s winning and winning and winning.
“I would enjoy it better if I was having some top-10 finishes. The early part of the years when I started out in the seniors it was down to poor ball-striking that stopped me from putting good numbers on the board. I had swing issues that I had to get used to. I have sort of ironed out the kinks a little bit. It’s not down to lack of work as I still put my hours in.
“Then the putting wasn’t good this year. I’ve gone up to the mid to high-30s in putts per round. I’m always looking at ways of trying to get the putting average down. I’ve never been afraid of chipping. I’ve never had the yips and that’s a nice thing to have. Earlier this year, I tied for sixth in the Chubb Classic in Naples, having been tied for the lead I think after the first round. I wouldn’t write myself off, no. I think it would be a bit daunting if I ever get in the position on the Sunday. That would be strange. It would be like starting over again after so many years of not winning. Especially if Langer was breathing down your neck or Scott McCarron or some of the others.
“There’s something in there that keeps me going. You know in your own mind that you have a window of so many years. I’m 61 and there are new guys coming in at 50 who are a bit fitter and are always going to be up there in the first few years as you start sliding down that slippery slope. Stopping that is the hard thing. But I think there are a good few years left where I can put some decent numbers on the board.”
Even at the age of 62, Langer continues to do just that. The German won the Senior Open Championship for a fourth time at Royal Lytham in July and has recorded a staggering 40 title triumphs on the Champions Tour.
Asked if he was sick of the sight of Langer, Lyle replied, laughing: “On the scoreboard, yes. You are about nine holes into the first round and up comes the name and you think, ‘he’s there again. why doesn’t he have a day or week off and can’t we send him back to the regular tour?’”
Lyle, who has always been deemed unlucky not to have served as a Ryder Cup captain, said he was humbled to receive the PGA award, having followed in the footsteps of his father, Alex, when he chose golf as his career.
“I presume this award is for my achievements over the years and I’ll hopefully be ready to go for more awards in years to come,” he said, smiling. “This is a nice one to start and it is nice to be recognised when I am still around and kicking.
“I still have my dad’s old PGA badge that used to go on the front bumper of the car next to the AA badge. When my dad was a PGA man, that was the only thing that was around as the PGA Tour hadn’t started. Once you joined the PGA, you were in the syndicate of what was going on in golf.”
Lyle will miss out on a playing return to Royal St George’s next July after seeing his exemption for the event come to an end at Carnoustie last year, but he is hoping to be in attendance at the Kent venue.