Sandy Lyle's 43rd Open
By his own admission Sandy Lyle is not an emotional type. But when he hits the first shot of The 147th Open at Carnoustie at 6.35am tomorrow it is just possible that he will have a tear in his eye.
This will be Lyle’s 43rd Open, his 42nd in succession, and it is probable that it will be his last. As a former Champion Golfer, he has been eligible to play in the oldest of all the majors since his victory at Royal St George’s in 1985. But now, having turned 60 in February, his exemption is in its final year.
“You know in the back of your mind that there’s going to be a time when you’ll have to salute and say ‘goodbye’,” he said before heading off for a practice round with Retief Goosen and Anirban Lahiri.
“I’m not complaining, though. I’ve still got a bit of fight there and my target now is to make the cut and do really well at the age of 60. We saw Tom Watson do it at Turnberry (in ‘2009) and that’s always in the back of your mind. It’s feasible.”
A prodigy, Lyle first played in The Open as a teenager. Ask him about that week and it is as clear in his mind as if it were yesterday. “I remember the first one at Lytham (in 1974) very clearly,” he said. “I was a 16-year-old amateur. I made the first cut and then missed the 54-hole cut. Not many people remember that there were two cuts in those days.”
Together with Severiano Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam, Lyle became part of what was dubbed Europe’s Big Five. All five were born within 12 months of each other, and all five went on to become major champions.
Needless to say, the Scot’s best memory of The Open was that magic week at Royal St George’s. “It was a very special time,” he said. “I had the ball on a string with a driver and it made a huge difference. It’s a very demanding course, but if you’re driving well and getting it on the fairway it opens up the whole course.
“I was playing with Christie O’Connor Jr. in the last round and I surprised myself with how steady I was and how many chances I was creating. But I couldn’t make any putts. Nothing was happening.
Then it all came together over the last five holes. In my mind, that’s really my whole Open.
“It’s not like I did anything spectacular, but I finally landed a big putt for a birdie at the 14th and did the same at the 15th. Then it hits you: you’ve got a one-shot lead in The Open.
“I was excited, but you don’t know how you are going to react in that position. You could go to jelly and make a complete hash of it. As it was, I made a good clutch putts at 16, 17 and 18 and then had to wait for half an hour to see if I’d done enough to win.
“I had to stay focused, though. We all know what Bernhard Langer is capable of – and he was playing in the last match. He’s always going to fight to the last putt. He nearly made birdie with a chip shot at the last which would have meant a play-off.”
The last British player to have lifted the Claret Jug was Tony Jacklin in 1969, so Lyle was delighted to be the first to follow in his footsteps. “It was also nice to get the monkey off the back, to win a first major,” he admitted. “You’d get labelled for years and years if you didn’t win one.”
As well as The Open, which he won by beating Payne Stewart by one shot, Lyle also became the first Briton to win the Masters, when he triumphed at Augusta National in 1988. It is The Open, however, which stirs the juices. He hasn’t given up on qualifying to play at Royal Portrush next year, but first he needs to win the Seniors British Open at St Andrews next week.
“Anything’s possible,” he said.
Indeed it is.