Monday, 8 September 2014

1989: The decline of Sandy Lyle

February 1989: the start of Sandy Lyle's season on the US tour has continued where he left off in 1988. Two second-place finishes and another in third gives the impression that all is well with Lyle's game, and that he is set for another prosperous year on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether he can repeat his marvellous feats of 1988 is questionable, after all Lyle won the Greater Greensboro Open and then the US Masters, as well as the Dunhill Masters and World Matchplay in a never to be forgotten year. But the early signs are promising.

Fast forward just six months. Lyle is unrecognisable from the man who was ranked world number two and sat third in the US PGA money list. In a relatively short space of time, Lyle's game has dissolved completely, so much so that when Tony Jacklin offers him a place on Europe's Ryder Cup team, Lyle has no other option but to turn it down. How did it come to this?

The first signs of trouble came at the Nestle Invitational played at Bay Hill in March. After an opening round 78 (seven over par) Lyle's Friday was similarly poor, and when he found water for the second day in a row at the final hole something inside Lyle flipped. Choosing to walk off the course before completing his round was the action of a troubled man, the Scot disqualified and fined $250 for his transgression. "I'd had enough. I was playing so badly," Lyle admitted. It was an appropriate messy beginning to the rest of his year.

Missing the cut at the Players Championship was not all that alarming - Lyle had done so in 1988 and it did not seem to have too bad an impact on his season - but a shoddy defence of his US Masters crown was a big wake-up call to the viewing British television audiences. Rounds of 77 and 76 (nine over par) meant that he was just the fourth defending champion to fail to make the cut at Augusta. In hindsight Lyle presenting Nick Faldo with his first green jacket was almost like the baton of top British golfer being passed on for good.

Before the Masters Lyle had been very bullish about his hopes for the future. Time spent working on his swing with both his father and Tom Watson had encouraged Lyle so much that he had made the bold claim that he aimed to try and win at least one major every season for the next ten years. Fighting talk, but as 1989 dragged on, soon Lyle's main goal appeared to shift to simply being able to play tournament golf at weekends.

As spring moved to summer, Lyle's form hit rock bottom. Speaking at the Memorial Tournament - played at Muirfield Village, the location of the 1987 Ryder Cup, which amazingly would be Lyle's last - Lyle spoke frankly about his problems, as he attempted to make the cut for the first time in six US tournaments. "If you told me earlier in the year that I would go through this type of run, I would have told you to stop joking", Lyle noted. He did have the consolation of stopping the rot in Ohio, but it turned out to be a temporary stay of execution.

Another weekend was reached at Wentworth, yet rounds of 78 and 77 saw Lyle finish the PGA in last place after four rounds totalling 300; his defence of the British Masters ended after just two rounds; inevitably at the demanding Oak Hill course, Lyle failed to get to the Saturday of the US Open with rounds of 78 and 74 indicative of the struggles faced by the two-time major winner. "I can't believe that he can go from being the best golfer in the world to a four handicapper in such a short time," declared Lee Trevino in a slightly unsubtle manner. Sadly, this was not far from the truth though.

The problem with golf - and I write from bitter experience - is that it is a sport where so much can go wrong. A fault with anything from your grip, address setup, wrist position, back swing, down swing, impact (and many others) can have a damaging effect upon a shot, and if you cannot solve any one of these issues then your confidence simply drains with every error. As soon as doubt creeps into your game then mentally you are fragile, and the frustration can swamp you.

Things were no different for Lyle. His game began to disintegrate slowly in all facets; tee shots went astray; if he found the fairway then approach shots were often wayward; his short game became erratic; and he began to experiment with his putting grip in order to fix his woes on the green. It's little wonder that Simon Barnes wrote in The Times about the game of eternal frustration in relation to Lyle.

There were the occasional rays of light, however. After working with Faldo's saviour David Leadbetter, Lyle shot a course record 64 at the Irish Open in the first round, eventually finishing in 15th place; he followed this up with a top ten at the Scottish Open and top twenty at the Dutch Open; and he at least played four rounds at The Open, even if he was a full fourteen shots behind the three leaders.

But after the sunshine came the rain for Lyle. An abysmal showing at the Benson and Hedges at Fulford highlighted that Lyle had not turned a corner, in fact he seemed to be back at square one. "My confidence is shot to pieces," Lyle admitted, hardly surprising considering what he had been through. Throughout his agonies Lyle remained positive about his participation in the Ryder Cup, but soon he would be forced to make a brave and selfless decision which would force Tony Jacklin to change his plans.

"I'm not worried about Sandy," Jacklin commented before Lyle's troublesome first round at Fulford. "He's going to give you four or five birdies and an eagle in every round. I know what he can do". In 1987 Lyle had needed a captain's pick from Jacklin, but this was due to his limited appearances in Europe. During 1989 it was a different situation completely, but Lyle, along with Bernhard Langer - who had been suffering putting difficulties once more - were nailed on certainties for two of Jacklin's three picks.

It was at the NEC World Series of Golf that Lyle made the call that would change the landscape of the 1989 Ryder Cup. A twenty minute phone conversation with Jacklin in which Lyle informed Europe's captain that he simply wasn't up to the task of performing in the pressure cooker environment of the biennial event. Jacklin tried his best to persuade Lyle to change his mind, but without success.

"It was my decision to pull out due to my slump over the past four to five months. My play has not been up to the standard for the Ryder Cup, not up to my own standards that I have always set myself". Lyle's frank admission was admirable under the circumstances, Jacklin commending him for what he called "the toughest decision he (Lyle) has ever had to make". Europe's team was judged by some to be weaker for Lyle's absence, yet if Lyle himself assessed that he wasn't fit for purpose, then surely this argument was limited.

Seve Ballesteros was one man who certainly felt that Lyle had been slightly hasty with his decision, an opinion that seemed to gain merit as Lyle subsequently shot 70-69-72-69 in the European Masters and finished 8th at the European Open. Indeed Lyle's muddled mindset was clear for all to see after the European Open when he sounded rueful about his original actions: "I feel a lot healthier and should somebody break a leg or something, then I would be prepared to play in the Ryder Cup if Tony Jacklin wants me". This didn't happen of course, but it is an indication of Lyle's mental fragility at the time.

Europe eventually retained the cup via a 14-14 draw at The Belfry. Whether Lyle's presence would have swung the contest either way is unknown, but without Lyle's actions we definitely would not have witnessed Christy O'Connor Jnr play the two-iron of his lifetime, his "one more good swing for Ireland" as Jacklin requested securing a pivotal point in Europe's defence of the trophy. Indirectly, Sandy Lyle helped to create one of the iconic moments in the history of the great event, and we should be grateful for that.

Interestingly, Lyle did elect to represent Scotland in the Dunhill Cup, although it summed up his year when he let a four-shot lead slip through his fingers with four holes to play against England's Mark James in the deciding match of the quarter finals. Lyle then lost his World Matchplay title in his first match, losing on the 36th hole to Order of Merit winner Ronan Rafferty, after he had led the Irishman by three holes with twelve left to play, and although his fourth place in the Volvo Masters hinted at a brighter future, Lyle's poor showing in the Sun City Challenge in December rounded off his year aptly.

The fall from grace of Sandy Lyle was as shocking as it was sad. From the dizzy heights of 1988 to his terrible torment of 1989, a year so bad that he had to decline a chance to play in the Ryder Cup. Lyle would never again aspire to the highs of 1988, although his work with David Leadbetter began to pay dividends eventually; in 1991 Lyle ended his three-year drought by winning the BMW International Open, and 1992 saw him win both the Italian Open and Volvo Masters. But from 1993 onwards, only five years after his annus mirabilis and aged just 34, Lyle would not win another PGA tour event.

Lyle's name was mentioned in both 1991 and 1993 when it came to Ryder Cup selection, but each time captain Bernard Gallacher felt that Lyle did not deserve a place in his final twelve. So his refusal to play in 1989 was in fact his last realistic opportunity to represent Europe. Only Lyle knows if he regrets his call to Jacklin in August 1989, but for me his honesty should be respected. It can be hard for champions to admit to their weaknesses, yet Lyle was a big enough man to put his hands up for the good of his team at the end of his season of utter frustration.

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