Monday, 1 April 2013

1988 US Masters: Sandy Lyle

European golf was certainly in rude health during the 1980s, a fact reflected in one major tournament in particular; the US Masters. From Seve Ballesteros' victory in 1980 through to Nick Faldo's win in 1989, the green jacket sat on the shoulders of a European golfer five times, as the Augusta National became a home from home for the continent's finest players. By the time of the 1988 tournament, Ballesteros had won the tournament twice - and should and could have won again in 1986 and 1987 - and Bernhard Langer's first major in 1985 was the ideal start to a year in which Europe won back the Ryder Cup after a 28-year hiatus. Despite this success, there was one thing was missing for British golf fans, namely a first winner from the home nations. Step forward Sandy Lyle.

Lyle was definitely in good form prior to arriving at Augusta, having beaten Ken Green in a play-off the Sunday before to win the Greater Greensboro Open in North Carolina. A course record of 63 during the second round set up Lyle's win, although he could be thankful that Green three-putted the last to force the play-off, allowing the Scot to birdie the first extra hole and take the £100,000 prize. Lyle's second US PGA tour win took him to the top of the US money list, and gave him the perfect boost before his US Masters bid, even if Lyle did admit that the day was exhausting: "Winning in such a tension-packed day has drained me a little, but I feel ready for Augusta." At 18/1 he looked a decent bet for his second major, although all the usual suspects were gathered in the field to challenge for the coveted first major of the season.

Greg Norman was the tournament favourite at 7/1, hardly surprising as he had come so close in both 1986 and 1987, losing out to the inspiration of Jack Nicklaus in the former and the heartbreaking destiny of Larry Mize and that chip in the latter. Seve's recent record put him at 8/1, but the British duo of Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo were not heavily fancied, at least not with the bookies (33/1 and 40/1 respectively). Woosnam's 1987 form had left him completely, his switch to new clubs not paying dividends (note to Rory), as missed cuts at the recent Players' Championship and Greater Greensboro Open emphasised. Faldo had at least made the cut during Lyle's win the weekend before, but his form was such that he finished a massive 27 shots behind the Scot, hardly suggesting that he was about to mount a serious push for the Masters. Tom Watson, Curtis Strange, and Ben Crenshaw apart, the Americans did not seem to pose a great threat, highlighting the relative lack of strength in their ranks at the time.

If Lyle needed an omen, then if he looked hard enough he could have spotted it in the fact that one of the tournament starters, Sam Snead, was the only man to pull off the Greater Greensboro/US Masters double in 1949, but as the first round got under way in windy conditions, the early running was made by reigning US PGA champion Larry Nelson, and the unknown Robert Wrenn. Both men would shoot 69 (three under par) and held a two stroke advantage over Lyle, Langer, and Americans Mark Calcavecchia and Don Pooley, the only men on the course to break par on a testing Thursday. Lyle's round included five birdies, and on a day where the rest of the field struggled in the wind, he was content with his work: "I've got to be fairly satisfied in those trying conditions."

The other main contenders however, experienced varying fortunes: Norman shot a 77, but that paled into insignificance in comparison to Woosnam's debut Masters round of 81, leading the Welshman to leave the course immediately afterwards expressing the desire to be left alone. Ballesteros' 73 put him well in the mix, although a four-putt at the short 16th tarnished an otherwise impressive round. Crenshaw and Watson went round in level par 72, yet Strange (76), Mize (78), Ray Floyd (80) and Lee Trevino (81) were already struggling. A 75 by Faldo meant he sat in the top-30, along with Scotland's Ken Brown, who was enjoying a much better Masters debut than Woosnam. Paul Mayo, the current British amateur champion, shot an 81, faring a lot worse than the previous winner David Curry, who could be mightily proud of his 74.

Fortunately for the players, Friday would bring much better weather, and generally the scoring was down as a result. Lyle made the most decisive move, his 67 containing six birdies, including a run of five threes in six holes on the front nine, as he reached the turn in 33 shots. "I couldn't have asked for a better or more solid start," said Lyle, in a rather understated way, his 36-hole total of 138 giving him a two shot lead at the halfway point over Calcavecchia. Two shots further back was a very grumpy Fuzzy Zoeller, his round of 66 apparently not enough to please the 1979 champion. "It's like war out there. It's a joke - nobody's having any fun," moaned Zoeller, who went on to complain about "tricked-up greens" and bored spectators, obviously unaware that Lyle was probably having a whale of a time.

Other Americans prospered in the more benign conditions during the second round: Fred Couples' 68 pushed him up to a share of fifth along with Watson (71), Chip Beck (70) and Langer (72). Craig Stadler matched Calcavecchia's 69, and was seven shots behind Lyle, alongside Ballesteros and Crenshaw. Ray Floyd's 69 ensured he would be staying for the weekend, but for overnight leaders Nelson and Wrenn the day was not so cheerful; their rounds of 78 and 75 proving to be a sign of things to come for the pair.

The cut-off mark fell at 151 (+7), which meant an early departure for Woosnam, Trevino, Curry and Mayo. Nicklaus, Faldo and Norman all made the weekend, yet realistically their chances were slim, unless they could tear up the course in the next two days. Ken Brown scraped through right on the cut-off point, hoping for a solid weekend to push him into the top-24 and an automatic qualification spot for next year's event (his final round 78 ended any hopes of a return though).

For a period on the Saturday, all looked rosy for Lyle. He reached the 13th tee holding a four-shot lead over Calcavecchia, with an ideal chance to stretch his lead further on the very birdieable par five. Not for the last time over the weekend though Lyle found the most inopportune moment to locate water, his tee shot ending up in a ditch, the resulting bogey almost feeling like a couple of dropped shots. Although Calcavecchia bogeyed 14, his eagle at 15, coupled with another dropped shot at the 16th by Lyle, cut the lead down to just one and bringing with it a sense of unease to British golf fans watching the excellent BBC golf coverage at home. A Calcavecchia bogey at 17 restored Lyle's two-shot lead held from the previous day, both men eventually shooting 72 to stay at the head of the leaderboard. Calcavecchia may not have ultimately made up any ground on Lyle, but the rest of the pack were circling behind.

Crenshaw's run of three birdies in the closing five holes in his round of 67 put him level with Calcavecchia, the 1984 champion handily placed for a charge on the Sunday. Couples, Zoeller and Langer were four shots off the pace, with Stadler, Ballesteros and Pooley a further shot adrift. Even Ray Floyd had dragged himself back into the reckoning, his superb 68 meaning that even after his disastrous opening round of 80, the American was now within seven of Lyle, a not insurmountable deficit in a major, as we have learnt down the years. Despite the gathering menace, Lyle was remaining focused, his words prior to the final day extremely prophetic: "Sunday is the day. I've got to win it now. If I take a real kamikaze dive, I've got to try to slow things down and come out of it." How true.

Sunday April 10. A day indelibly etched into the mind of one Alexander Walter Barr Lyle, thankfully for the right reasons, but at certain stages during his round it looked as if the wheels were about to fall off in a spectacular way. Everything was going so well; after ten holes of the final round, Lyle had stretched his lead over Calcavecchia and Stadler to three shots, but soon Watson's words of the previous evening were sounder wiser by the second: "If you don't feel that heavy pressure on the back nine, you're not human." Lyle was about to discover that back-nine feeling on the final day of a major, with Amen Corner - holes 11, 12 and 13 at Augusta - proving particularly savage.

A bogey on 11 was just an appetiser to the perils of the short 12th hole. As Lyle's tee shot found water - and my dad uttered a few expletives in front of the television - the look on the face of Lyle told the full story. His double-bogey five spelt danger, as up ahead first Stadler made it a three-way tie at the top of the leaderboard, before Calcavecchia's birdie on the 13th gave him the outright lead for the first time on five under par. Lyle's nightmare was unfolding in front of millions of distressed British golf viewers and with Langer and Pooley also moving to four under, the scene was set for a shootout between the leaders over the remaining holes.

The next few hours were bad enough for me to try and sit through, trying with all my might to prevent myself chewing all of my finger nails off, so I'm not totally sure how Lyle, Calcavecchia, Stadler and the rest managed to survive the crushing pressure of the final few holes. Greg Norman had set the score to beat in the clubhouse, his storming final round of 64 coming a little too late to matter, although his three under total of 285 was at one point looking promising, as the on-course leaders were only three in front of the Great White Shark.

The closing holes at Augusta have always been synonymous with drama and the conclusion of the 1988 Masters was yet another chapter in the rich history of the tournament. The 15th and 16th holes in particular would be pivotal; Langer's chances were extinguished when he bogeyed 15 after his second shot found water and Pooley dropped shots at both 14 and 15 to fall from the pack. Stadler birdied 15 to join Calcavecchia on six under, but immediately gave the shot back after a poor tee shot at 16. Calcavecchia himself fluffed a chip at 15 and would have to make do with only a par, yet Lyle did not take advantage, his eagle chip shaving the hole on 15 and his birdie putt also slipping past. Crenshaw moved to within two of the lead at 15, to leave the leaderboard reading Calcavecchia -6, Lyle and Stadler -5, Crenshaw -4, with Couples also moving to -4 at hole 17.

Lyle needed a moment of inspiration and it arrived at the par three 16th. His 7-iron - not for the last time in the tournament - was struck sweetly, as was his birdie putt that brought him level with Calcavecchia. All of the leaders played par golf on the closing holes, Calcavecchia's total of 282 now the benchmark, meaning that Lyle stood on the last tee needing a par four to force a play-off or a birdie three to win the title outright. Unsurprisingly, Lyle erred on the side of caution, opting for a 1-iron for accuracy off of the tee, but perhaps understandably under the intense pressure, tugged his tee shot into a bunker. Holding his hands behind his head and looking visibly deflated, Lyle's hopes now rested on the lie of his ball in the sand. Fortunately lady luck was smiling upon him.

On approaching his ball, Lyle must have been delighted with what he found. His ball was sitting up on the upslope of the bunker, and although the situation was not ideal, it could have been a lot worse. Reaching for his trusty 7-iron once more, the world looked on as Lyle addressed his ball for the shot that would arguably define his career. He needed a good contact, and my did he get one.

Picking the ball off the sand perfectly, Lyle watched in anticipation, following the flight with intensity. As the ball flew directly over the flag and landed twenty feet past the flag, BBC commentator Peter Alliss immediately assessed the situation perfectly: "That could spin. It could spin". He wasn't wrong; Lyle's ball began to check back towards the hole, the natural slope of the green and the inch perfect approach combining to bring the Masters title ever closer. Lyle had been slightly unsighted on playing his second shot due to the contours of the last hole at Augusta and on hearing the huge cheers of the galleries, later admitted to wishfully thinking that he might be only two-feet away. The reality however was that Lyle was now faced with a ten-foot putt to become Britain's first Masters champion.

As soon as Lyle sent his ball on the way to the hole it never looked for a moment as if it was going to miss. Lyle immediately raised his arms to the air, beginning a jig of delight on the final green and embracing his caddie Dave Musgrove in the immediate aftermath of his triumph. His winning birdie was the first time since Arnold Palmer in 1960 that a man had reached the last requiring a birdie to win and achieve this feat, an indication if any was needed of the prestigious company Lyle was now joining.

Lyle's father Alex had been with his son every step of the way, and was probably the proudest man at Augusta as Larry Mize presented Lyle with his green jacket. "I have always dreamed of winning here and now I have. What a moment. It's unbelievable. I feel simply great," an elated Lyle said in one of his many interviews after his second major win. He faced his struggles along the way, but contained enough mental strength in his locker to drag himself across the line. And who could ever forget that masterful bunker shot at 18 that ultimately proved the difference in the end? 'Yankee Doodle Sandy' trumpeted the Daily Mirror headline, as British sports fans delighted in such an historic moment, which would turn out to be the first of four consecutive wins by a Brit at Augusta.

1988 would continue to provide much joy for Lyle; he won the British Masters at Woburn and rounded off his year nicely by winning the World Matchplay at Wentworth, after being a losing finalist four times previously. 30-year-old Lyle appeared to have the golfing world in the palm of his hand during his marvellous year but such is the fickle nature of the sport that amazingly he would never scale such heights again. Indeed his form would dip so dramatically that he missed the cut whilst defending his Masters title in 1989, and failed to even make the Ryder Cup team that successfully retained the trophy at the Belfry.

It would be churlish though to end this blog on such a negative note. I for one will always be grateful for the fine memories Sandy provided during his stellar career, and the roller coaster of emotions that he put us all through on that final Sunday at Augusta, complete with one of the most memorable shots and stunning final holes ever in major championship history.

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