Finally, One For The Home Folks

For the first time in 54 years, the home of golf is home for the British Open champ, Scotland's Sandy Lyle
July 29, 1985

When you think of golf, you think of Scotland, and so last week in a British Open Golf Championship that most of the time was cold, wet, windy and gray, the triumph of young Scotsman Sandy Lyle—"Ourrr Sundy"—put a lump in the throat of Brits starved for a champion of their own.

Lyle's first victory in a major was a show of strength, guts and perseverance, for he played only one round below par of 70, returning 68-71-73-70—282, two over on the old Royal St. George's links in Sandwich on the southeastern coast of England, a layout that seemed filled with torment. Lyle, 27, became the first player from Great Britain to win "The Open" since Tony Jacklin had his name engraved on the trophy in 1969—with Lyle watching in the Royal Lytham crowd—and, more important to sentimentalists, the first Scot to do it since Tommy Armour, the Silver Scot himself, prevailed at Carnoustie in 1931.

Lyle finished a shot ahead of America's Payne Stewart, who turned in a final-round 68 early and then repaired to the ABC broadcasting booth. Five others, including David Graham, the Australian who lives in Dallas, and Masters champ Bernhard Langer of West Germany, both of whom began the fourth round tied for the lead at one under par but stumbled to 75s, tied for third at 284.

The 114th British Open provided a course-record score from a fellow with a bartender's figure, Ireland's Christy O'Connor Jr., who shot a six-under 64 in the opening round; a par-5 14th hole that reared up and gobbled golfers, among them Peter Jacobsen, who was leading Thursday until he made a quadruple bogey there; the kind of nasty, soupy weather that discouraged the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros; a streaker at the 18th hole on Sunday; and, finally, a popular champion in the decidedly low-key Lyle, the son of a teaching pro and a player who has been heralded as Great Britain's best for years.

Above all, this was a tournament fraught with frustration. The weather, always a factor, was horrid. The remnants of Hurricane Ana hovered in the vicinity for the last two days. And the par 35-35—70 links was so malicious that not a single player recorded a round without a bogey. Langer and Graham started Sunday's round with bogeys—Langer shot 39 on the front side, Graham had a 37. After playing the front nine in three under par, Tom Kite, never a winner in a major, found himself with a two-stroke lead, but a double bogey on the 10th hole, a 399-yard par 4 that sits like a plate atop a knob, sent him reeling to a back-nine 40 for a total of 285 and a tie for eighth place. Graham regained the lead, but he slipped with four bogeys on the back nine. So who was the leader? Lyle, who quietly made birdies at the 14th and 15th and led the field by a shot as he was playing the par-4 18th.

But he looked anything but triumphant. His tee shot at the 458-yard hole caught the right rough, and his second shot bounced into the rough to the left of the green, about hole-high. Lyle tried a lofted pitch to the crest of a mound on the green, intending for his ball to run down to the pin. But the ball bounced into the mound and rolled back toward the unbelieving Lyle, who threw himself onto the ground and banged his wedge in absolute disgust. The ball stayed on the green about 25 feet from the pin, and Lyle seemed ripe for three putts and a double bogey. But he recovered his composure and rolled his first putt to within 18 inches of the cup and holed out for a bogey. He signed his card and then watched on television—the BBC—in a tournament office as Graham and Langer, who were still a stroke behind after both bogeyed the 16th, played the final two holes.

Their task could not have been more difficult. The finishing holes at Royal St. George's are monsters, the 17th a 425-yarder into the wind, and the 18th, well, the only hole on the course that did not yield a birdie on Sunday. Indeed, it surrendered only 13 birdies the entire tournament. Both players missed long birdie putts at 17, and the British crowd, normally courteous, cheered like football fans when Graham and Langer misfired on their second shots at 18, Langer first sailing a three-iron into the right rough, Graham going into the front bunker.

Graham's blast came up 12 feet short, leaving it up to Langer. He made a bold effort, but the ball grazed the hole and rolled four feet past. Lyle almost fainted, and his wife, Christine, a former player on the women's European Tour, burst into tears. Lyle had been talking to his parents on the telephone, and they, too, were overcome.

For the first time since 1974, when Gary Player led all the way at Royal Lytham, no American led any round. Some Yank apologists, of course, were quick to point out that many of the best Americans, including Curtis Strange, the PGA Tour's top money-winner, had stayed home. In fact, only nine of the top 20 money-winners on the PGA Tour bothered to attend. Some did not want to go through qualifying, a few didn't like the reward/cost equation, and others stuck up their noses at the bump-and-run, ricochet-romance type of golf demanded on Great Britain's links.

Still, Lyle prevailed over a field at least equal in talent to the ones at the other majors. Moreover, his victory—on the heels of Langer's win at Augusta and Ballesteros's at St. Andrews in 1984—was another victory for the Europeans, whose tour only a few years ago was dismissed as a satellite circuit.

Lyle is one of the bright stars in Europe. While this was his first victory of the year, he led the European Order of Merit in both 1979 and '80 and has been among the top five money-winners for the last six years. With his $90,870 first prize, he'll most likely be there again this year. "You don't know him in America because Sandy seems to have something between his ears when he plays there," says Welsh pro Philip Parkin. "But when he gets hot, he plays better than anyone in the world." Last year he won five tournaments, including the Italian Open, the Lancome Trophy in Paris and the World Open in Japan.

Occasionally, Lyle does venture to the U.S. This year he earned $40,452 in 13 spring tournaments. His best finishes were ties for 15th at both the Crosby and Greensboro, although he did shoot a second-round 65 at the Masters, at which he tied for 25th.

Lyle comes from a golfing family. After World War I, his grandfather, a farmer, built the Clober Course near Glasgow. Since 1955, Sandy's father, Alex, has been a pro at a club in England's Shropshire County, where Sandy was born and raised. Last winter he, Christine and their 2-year-old son, Stuart, moved into an 11-room home on a golf course near Sheffield. Lyle, however, is a Scot and represents Scotland in international competition.

Walking up the 18th fairway Sunday to the waves of applause, Lyle said he was choked up by the moment. All day, everyone seemed loath to talk about the obvious—a Brit winning the British Open. Even the BBC television folks, like American baseball announcers who superstitiously won't talk about a pitcher working on a no-hitter, barely mentioned it. The stands, though, erupted with a shower of support. "It was fantastic," Lyle said. "You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. You got earaches from both left and right. I was talking to my caddie and he couldn't hear me."

It may have been a glorious week for Lyle, but the story was quite different for Nicklaus, Ballesteros and Tom Watson, who among them have won the title 10 times. Nicklaus, three times a champion, was miffed over his 3:20 p.m. starting time the first day. "It's the luck of the draw," he said, "but I'm going to ask them to shuffle the cards." Nicklaus had rounds of 75-77 and missed the cut for the first time in 24 British Open appearances. Also, it was the first time in his career that he had missed the cut in two majors in one season; he also failed to play 72 holes in last month's U.S. Open.

"They cannot stay at the top forever," said Lyle, speaking of the superstars who played poorly last week. "The time has to come for new names."

Watson, five times a champion, started Thursday with a double bogey and then meandered along with tepid rounds of 72-73-72-77—294. He had still another new putter, but the same swing that has not produced a victory since the Western Open a year ago. It's official. Watson's in a slump.

Ballesteros, twice a champion, had arrived at Sandwich on a hot streak, with 5-4-3-1-1 finishes in his last five European events, including victories in the Irish and French Opens. But he had a frustrating week. He putted, he said, "like Jose Feliciano." Ballesteros scored 75-74-70-73—292, finished in a distant tie for 39th and must have wondered if he was hexed, catching all the early bad weather. He also set a new standard for sour grapes. "Because of the weather," said Ballesteros, "I think maybe there will not be a very good champion this year." That remark might go down in British history.

Peter Jacobsen might go down in history, too. He started on Thursday with a flourish, going three under par in the first 13 holes before falling victim to the 14th. The hole is only 508 yards, but against the wind, which is how it seemed to play all week, it was nothing but bad news. The big problem at the 14th was the out-of-bounds fence that runs along the right side of the fairway and puts a terrible fright into a golfer standing on the tee. Jacobsen drove left, into the thick hay rough. A search conducted by Jacobsen, his caddie and a large portion of the gallery turned up three balls, none of them Jacobsen's, and he went back to hit another drive. That one sailed out of bounds. He reloaded, pounded the ball safely into the middle of the fairway and ultimately made a quadruple-bogey 9. "I never thought I'd be hitting my third tee shot on this hole until Saturday," Jacobsen quipped to the gallery.

On Sunday, Jacobsen delighted the crowd by tackling the streaker who ran across the 18th green. "He was in my line," explained Jacobsen, somewhat nonplussed.

Thursday's leader was the gray-haired, paunchy 36-year-old O'Connor Jr., whose record-breaking round (the previous mark of 65 had been set by Henry Cotton in 1934) featured 10 birdies, including seven in succession. Both feats are tournament records. O'Connor is the nephew of Christy O'Connor Sr., a pro so loved in his native country that he still carries the rather colorful nickname of "Himself." That his nephew could be leading the British Open was a shocker. O'Connor Jr. had earned only $14,780 this season, and Ballesteros characterized his game as "consistent," at best a lukewarm compliment.

Following his round, O'Connor was told by an almost breathless BBC television commentator, Clive Clark, that he would be receiving a £25,000 bonus from an unnamed source for breaking the course record. Alas, O'Connor later learned the bonus report was bogus. "To say I'm disappointed is a hell of an understatement," he moaned.

O'Connor slipped to a 76 on Friday, his putter having turned to mush. That left him a shot behind Lyle and Graham, who shared the halfway lead at 139, and a stroke ahead of Langer, whom everybody was watching. Langer had played the first two days in the worst of the weather—Seve's stuff—and when he shot a 68 on Saturday after his second-round 69, many assumed he was headed for his second major of the year. But he missed a short putt for par at No. 1 on Sunday, was three over after five holes and never posed a serious challenge until his chip at 18 almost dropped in. As it was, he then missed the putt for par.

For years the British have considered Lyle a bit of a slacker, a mellow fellow who seemingly fades in the big tournaments. Of course, in Europe none of them is as big as the British Open, and Lyle confided to America's Mark O'Meara earlier in the week that the pressure of the Open always exhausted him. Nonetheless, he kept on. "I always thought I would win it," Lyle said later. "I didn't know when."

He had been three strokes behind Graham and Langer at the start of the final round. He said it didn't occur to him that he had a chance to win until he birdied 14. "I knew I was back in it then," he said. "Tears came to my eyes."

Britain's collective heart sank when Lyle bogeyed the 13th after having driven into a bunker. But at the 14th he struck a great two-iron to 45 feet and rolled in the birdie putt. Then he birdied again at the 15th, sinking a 12-footer, to cheers in the press tent.

For a moment there at No. 18, Lyle looked as though he might be a loser. However, if anything was constant at Royal St. George's, it was the inconsistency." The weather, the course, the leader board and finally Lyle. He went down in a heap, but a moment later he was on top of the world.

TWO PHOTOSJOHN IACONOLanger (top left) and Graham (left) spent too much time at the beach on Sunday, but Lyle's game was strictly spit and polish. PHOTOTREVOR JONES/ALL-SPORT[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSJACQUELINE DUVOISINJacobsen's search party at the diabolical 14th turned up three balls, alas none his. TWO PHOTOSJOHN IACONOKite's two-shot lead began to vanish when this pitch to the 10th landed in a bunker.
PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINO'Connor wielded a red-hot putter en route to shooting a course-record 64 on Thursday; Lyle, who didn't establish a beachhead until Sunday, was bunkered but never trapped. PHOTOTREVOR JONES/ALL-SPORT[See caption above.] PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINDefending champ Ballesteros got roughed up early and soon dropped out of contention.