Meeting Triumph and Disaster With A Smile

The Big Five who dominated golf in the 1980’s ushered in a new era for the game in Europe. They stood toe to toe with America’s finest and came out on top. Seve, Faldo, Woosnam and Langer have remained, more or less, in the limelight.

We remember the genius of Seve, the dominance of Faldo, the metronomic efficiency of Langer and the ebullience of Woosnam. And now, of course, those four share the distinction of being Ryder Cup captains (so far all are unbeaten in that role).

But what of the final part of the quintet. Whatever happened to Sandy Lyle. The first Briton to win the Open for 16 years when he survived a fluffed pitch at the last to triumph in 1985. Winner of the “fifth” major when he snatched The Players’ Championship in 1987 and the first Briton to win the Masters in 1988.

Sandy Lyle was that good. Indeed Seve has conceded that if every player in the world was at their best then Lyle would emerge victorious.

Unfortunately for Lyle, however, he did not remain at his best for long. In 1989 his game collapsed. Not the gentle decline into the twilight years for him. This was a full throttle trip to the doldrums of golf.

At that time Lyle was in his early 30’s. He was seemingly ideally placed to dominate golf on both sides of the Atlantic. For some reason it didn’t happen. His competitive career effectively ended before he had reached his peak.

In his autobiography, To the Fairway Born, Lyle seems at a loss to explain what happened. He touches on reasons for the initial descent, the fatigue and strain of being Masters champion chief among them. With hindsight he concedes that he spent too long searching for answers through swing readjustments and coaching techniques. He now feels that had he simply gone back to his home course and played golf for fun with his father for three months he would have recaptured past glories.

That is an imponderable “what if” of course. And Lyle, thankfully for those spectators who followed his charming career, does not seem to live in the past. Golf, the strange game that he loved from the moment he could walk, has brought him wealth, allowed him to mingle with princes, queens and celebrities. His achievement whilst his flame shone all too briefly have also brought him immortality in his sport.

Not a bad return. But the charming, shy Lyle knows that all that is worthless unless you have something more: a loving family is the bedrock of his existence.

Lyle’s autobiography recounts these highs and lows with the charm and good humour that have marked his career. You empathise with the bad moments – and it is a mark of the man that his lowest ebb comes when he feels he must withdraw from the 1989 Ryder Cup, he does not dwell on his personal misfortune but you can feel his anguish at the thought of letting down friends and team mates – and share the joy of his achievements. And which Scot could fail to be cheered by the thought of the Champions Dinner at Augusta featuring haggis and Sandy reciting Burns?

Lyle is proof that nice guys can and do win. The friendships he formed throughout his playing career (Nick Price and Ian Woosnam were early rivals, later good friends) and the characters that make life as a travelling pro bearable are allowed to shine. Lyle, as when he was playing, is quite happy to share the limelight.

His diary of the 2006 Ryder Cup when he returned to the fold as vice captain is an excellent insider’s view of that special event. It is that tournament, perhaps more than anything else, that provide Lyle’s most lingering regrets. That, of course, could be easily rectified if the last of that awe inspiring ‘Big Five’ was to get the captaincy in 2010!

There are wilder characters on the tour. And there are more controversial golf books. But for an insight into the rise and decline of a truly great champion To the Fairway Born is hard to beat.

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