As he steps up to hit the opening tee shot in the 147th Open Championship, Sandy Lyle will take a sharp intake of breath to make sure he savours the moment, before using Tom Watson as inspiration to try to produce one last hurrah in golf’s oldest major.
The Scot’s 43rd appearance in the event will be his last unless he finishes in the top 10 or wins next week’s Senior Open at St Andrews, having hit 60 earlier this year and, consequently, seeing his exemption for claiming the Claret Jug at Royal St George’s in 1985 expire.
Only Gary Player, who teed up 46 times, has played in this championship more than Lyle, who was still an amateur when he made his debut at Royal Lytham in 1973, when luminaries of yesteryear such as Fred Daly and Bobby Locke were still in the field.
“There’s been some joys and then there’s been miserable times,” said Lyle as he recalled his Open Championship story, having teed up every year since that first one apart from 1975, when he was injured. “I’ve won, but I’ve also had to retire after nine holes because of injuries and things like that, which are things you don’t like doing.”
As one of Scotland’s favourite sporting sons, Lyle will receive the warmest of welcomes when his name his announced on the first tee at 6.35am before he gets things underway in a group that also includes two-time major winner Martin Kaymer and Andy Sullivan, who played in the 2016 Ryder Cup.
“It is a nice honour,” he admitted. “I did get asked a wee while ago by (R&A chief executive) Martin Slumbers if I was interested in hitting the opening shot. He kind of pulled me to the side when I was playing a round of golf with James Bunch (a Prestwick member who is caddying for him this week).
“He kind of pointed his finger at me and said, ‘I want to have a word with you’. I thought, ‘oh dear, what have I done?’ but it was to ask if I’d like to have the opening tee shot this week. I very quickly, ‘said that would be a lovely idea, thank you very much’. I then said, ‘that isn’t that 6.30am tee-off time, is it?’ and he just sort of smiled and said, ‘yes’.
“I don’t mind an early tee time for links courses anyway. I think you get the best of the greens and a lot of the time the wind isn’t too strong at that time of the day. It’s a nice new tradition and I think the R&A might make more of it as times goes on. I’m one of the earliest to be handed that honour and it’s nice. I’ll see what I can do.”
Lyle overcame being a “complete nervous wreck” in 1973 to make the first of two cuts in place back then. “Unfortunately, I got stuck in a bunker about the fifth hole and got out of it about five minutes later looking rather red-faced and as though I had the whole world on my shoulders. It was doomsday all of a sudden,” he recalled, able to smile about it now.
Nerves won’t be a worry on this occasion. He’s too long in the tooth these days for that. But what are his expectations? “As you get into veteran side of it at 60, it would be great to perform well,” he declared.
“Tom Watson obviously is in the back of my mind and what he achieved at Turnberry in 2009 (when the American came close to becoming the event’s oldest winner at the age of 59). That was absolutely amazing. It gave me a lot of grief from my dear wife as she was saying, ‘see what age he is, almost 60!”