Sunday, 23 February 2014

1988: Suntory World Matchplay

Come the end of the 1980s, British wins at the World Matchplay golf were very much like buses. After a 23 year drought, Ian Woosnam had finally ended the British wait for a winner of the autumnal tournament played at Wentworth, by winning the 1987 event, and in 1988 another Brit was about to see his name join an illustrious set of winners such as Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Ballesteros and Norman. For Sandy Lyle, his win at the 1988 World Matchplay capped off a fine year, and put an end to his frustration in the tournament.

Four-times previously Lyle had lost out in finals - twice to Greg Norman, once to Seve Ballesteros, and in 1987 to Woosnam - but crucially in 1988 he was a seeded player, meaning that he only had to play a potential six rounds of golf in three days compared to eight in four days for the non-seeded players. Along with Lyle, the other seeded players in Woosnam, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo were handed a bye, although this decision upset the Masters champion.

"It's degrading for the US PGA champion not to be seeded," complained Lyle, in defence of Jeff Sluman, who had missed out in favour of Nick Faldo. Tournament organiser Mark McCormack was adamant though that nothing untoward had taken place: "The US PGA winner has never received an automatic seeding and in this case the fourth place was given to Faldo because he has a higher world ranking than Sluman". McCormack had a point; seeds had always been allocated to the defending champion, and current Masters, US Open and British Open holders, but in the absence of Curtis Strange, Lyle also had a case for his argument.

This row aside, the main talk before the tournament revolved around the growing influence of European golf. In truth, none of the American big hitters were present, but the press were convinced that the forthcoming tournament would be further confirmation of a shift in power to the continent. Open champion Ballesteros was the 9/4 favourite, although falling off his bike a week before the event - "I was frightened my arm was broken" - was hardly the ideal preparation.

Defending champion Woosnam had won three events on the European Tour that season, to back up his superb 1987, and Lyle was flying high in the US PGA money list. Faldo was Mr Consistent, a runner-up in seven previous tournaments during the year, including the US Open. It was hard to look beyond the four seeded Europeans for a winner.

Unsurprisingly in October, the weather would have its say through the tournament, with play delayed for an hour on the first day after torrential rain flooded the course. Swirling winds would also have an impact, although it did not seem to bother the American contingent. Sluman easily saw off Japan's Nobuo Serizawa 6 and 5, US money list leader Joey Sindelar defeated Scottish Open champion Barry Lane 5 and 4, and Mark McCumber scraped past Mark McNulty on the final green, after being one down with four to play. For McCumber, it set up the prospect of a quarter final with Ballesteros, much to his delight: "When I saw the draw I was tickled to death. I didn't come here to make money, only to win. I just hope our match is an exciting one".

Nick Price, who had pushed Ballesteros so close at The Open at Lytham, succeeded where his fellow Zimbabwean McNulty had failed, battling to a 2 and 1 win over Australia's Rodger Davis. Price had gone to lunch four-up, but gradually Davis clawed his way back, and when Price three-putted the 34th hole to go back to one-up, many started to ponder if he was going to collapse as he had done at the 1982 Open. A birdie four at the 35th won the match though, setting up a clash with Lyle in the quarter final. "I will be the underdog against Sandy and matchplay, to my mind, favours the underdog," declared Price, who thirteen years previously had beaten Lyle 3 and 2 in the British Amateur Championship at Hoylake.

If McCumber had wanted an exciting clash with Ballesteros, then he got his wish. Unfortunately for the American, it would be yet another example of the Spaniard's fighting qualities, as the Open champion somehow scrambled his way around the course, winning on the first extra hole. Ballesteros won the first hole, lost the second, and did not take the lead until the final putt of the match; McCumber must have wondered how he had lost.

"I didn't play well," admitted Ballesteros. "I was never comfortable and the entire game was in Mark's hands". Very true. McCumber had reached the halfway point four-up, and had maintained that lead with just 11 holes to play. Three-putts at 11 and 14 gave Ballesteros a sniff, and another bogey at 16 saw McCumber in danger of throwing the match away completely. The 37th hole demonstrated the genius of Seve; his drive found the light rough, but his three-wood approach shot to ten-feet set up a birdie, for a victory that was barely deserved, but was probably earned through force of personality alone.

Like Ballesteros, Lyle would also have a struggle. Trailing Nick Price by five holes with just 15 left, Lyle had to use every bit of his local knowledge - both Lyle and Faldo were Wentworth members - as gradually he dragged himself back into the match. Winning five holes in seven, Lyle fought back to square the match, as the pendulum swung back in his favour. "When I began to pull shots back I think that had an adverse effect on Nick's game," claimed Lyle, as the wheels well and truly came off Price's wagon.

Losing the 12th after a wayward drive and the 13th to a Lyle birdie, Price's subsequent three-putt at 15 was the final nail in his coffin, Lyle eventually winning 3 and 2 in a staggering comeback. "Getting out of the grave I'd made for myself today has given me a great boost," Lyle informed the press, as the mouth-watering prospect of Lyle v Ballesteros now awaited in the semi-finals.

The other Brits had things much easier. Faldo beat Sindelar 5 and 4, and Woosnam defeated Sluman 7 and 6, before becoming embroiled in a row over his decision to snub playing for Wales in the World Cup in December, choosing instead to rest after the Million Dollar Challenge in Sun City. "Unsanctioned events are becoming the cancer of true professional golf," blasted PGA European Tour chief executive Ken Schofield, who also bemoaned the role of agents in Woosnam's decision.

As Woosnam was expected to receive an appearance fee of $50,000 for the Sun City event as opposed to nothing for the World Cup, you could see the logic behind his choice, yet above all else it was shame that Woosnam would not be present to help Wales defend the cup that he had won the year before with David Llewellyn.

For the first time in the history of the World Matchplay the semi finals were an all European affair, as Lyle faced Ballesteros, with Woosnam playing Faldo. Lyle may well have been rusty in his previous match, but he made up for it in a stunning display, crushing Ballesteros 7 and 6. Lyle fell behind at the third, but would card an eight-under-par total of 64 to hold a three hole lead at lunch, and a further four birdies and one eagle in the afternoon session gave him a 30 hole total of 13-under-par. In this form, Lyle looked odds on to end his World Matchplay hoodoo.

The Woosnam-Faldo match was much more of a contest. Trailing by three holes after 15, Faldo managed to get a couple back to only trail by one at the break. However, with ten holes to go Woosnam had restored a three hole lead, Faldo desperately in need of a response with time running out. Birdies at 9, 11 and 12 were just what the doctor ordered, and when Woosnam bogeyed 13, Faldo moved into a one hole lead to complete the turnaround. Back came Woosnam though, a birdie at 16 levelling the match, before Faldo landed the decisive punch at the next, his birdie putting him one up, and when both players shared birdies at the last, Woosnam's brave defence of his title had been ended.

The all-British final was scheduled for the Sunday, but the very British weather ended that hope - cue photo opportunities of Faldo and Lyle standing by flooded greens that resembled ponds - with the Woosnam-Ballesteros third-place play-off cancelled, both players picking up £25,000. When the final began a day later, in front of a much reduced gallery, the match would become a case of one hot putter versus another much colder one. For Faldo this had been a problem all year, costing him a chance of winning the US Open, the Open, and the US PGA, and in a final where Lyle seemingly could not miss from close range, it proved to be the difference.

The first nine holes were nip and tuck, both players winning a hole each with birdies on par fours, and then giving one back by bogeying separate par threes. Birdies at 16 and 17 would give Lyle a two-hole advantage, and demonstrated the varying fortunes of both players. Whereas Lyle drained putts from 21 feet and 35 feet on 16 and 17, Faldo would miss six times from within ten feet during a round which neatly summed up Faldo's year. To wind-up Faldo even more, Lyle would chip in from 20 yards on the 18th to rescue a half and to lunch two-up, during a round in which he would single-putt on eleven occasions.

A lesser man than Faldo may have felt sorry for himself, but Lyle helped matters when he bogeyed holes 2 and 3 to square the match, and the scene was now set for an epic clash over the back nine. Faldo took the lead on the 11th, Lyle's putter temporarily letting him down, and although Lyle won the next, another three-putt on the 13th saw Faldo one-up with five to play. And then came a crucial moment that would go a long way to determine the outcome of the 1988 World Matchplay final.

Playing the 179-yard par-three 14th, Faldo drilled a fine five-iron to just ten feet, and with Lyle's tee shot 32 feet away, the Masters champion was in very real danger of slipping two behind. But in a classic matchplay moment, Lyle sunk his putt and Faldo missed, in what must have almost felt like a two-hole swing for the Englishman. Lyle then birdied the next, his four-iron from 214 yards ending up just three feet from the pin, and when Faldo three-putted, Lyle led by one-hole with just three remaining.

The quality of golf was impressive, considering the pressure both players were under. Faldo birdied 16, finally making a putt from seven-feet, but Lyle followed him in from a foot closer, to preserve his lead. The par-five 17th would see the conclusion of the final, Lyle firing his third from the fringe a full 15-feet past the hole, yet fittingly making the return putt to emphasise the difference between the British finalists. Lyle's 2 and 1 victory saw him take the cheque for £75,000 and pushed his earnings past the $1 million mark in 1988. And of course it was a case of fifth time lucky in the World Matchplay final, as Lyle at last triumphed at Wentworth.

"I never gave up hope of winning at this event and knew that if I continued playing as I had for the last couple of years then my time would come," declared a beaming Lyle as his 1988 went from good to better. Faldo on the other hand admitted disappointment at playing solid golf and not converting his opportunities, a problem in matchplay, and throughout his year, the £40,000 he earned for being runner-up the eighth time in the season that he had finished second. Faldo may have gained revenge in beating Lyle a week later and helping England to reach the semi-finals of the Dunhill Cup, but there could be no doubting about who the year had belonged to.

Fast forward a year though and the difference could not have been more marked. Lyle's game had dissolved completely, missed cuts at the Masters and the US Open highlighting his travails, and such was the state of his golf and his mind, that Lyle would pull out of the Ryder Cup after being selected by skipper Tony Jacklin. Lyle was succeeded as US Masters, British Masters, and World Matchplay champion by the very man who he had pipped at Wentworth in 1988, as Faldo ultra-consistent game was rewarded in spades.

This was in the future, however, and as Lyle stood with the World Matchplay trophy in 1988, one of the stars of British golf in the 1980s had delivered once again. Lyle richly deserved his success at Wentworth, and his name does not look out of place in the list of the many legendary players that have won the event. A glorious end to a glorious year for a player who may not be ranked as an all-time great, but was definitely one who achieved greatness.

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