In 1969, the last time a home boy won it, the British Open was played at Royal Lytham & St. Anne's on the Irish Sea. Tony Jacklin had the championship locked up even before he stood on the tee at No. 18, and as he strolled leisurely down the final fairway, the celebratory roar of the crowd made it seem as if he was on his way to his own coronation.
After sinking the putt that made it official, Jacklin plucked the ball from the hole and joyfully hurled it into the stands, where a self-described "golf mad" 11-year-old boy, born in England to Scottish parents, just missed catching it. Feeling rather swept away by the emotional current of the moment, the boy thought to himself how really, really nice it would be to someday play in that tournament.
That boy was Sandy Lyle.
And not only would he someday come to play in the British Open, on Sunday, he came, after a fashion, to win it.
Not like Jacklin.
Not until David Graham, Bernhard Langer and Tom Kite seemed to conspire to hand it to him.
And not until he almost handed it right back.
Lyle didn't stroll down No. 18 as much as he staggered. Yes, his reception was laudatory; the ovation was such that he got "earaches in both my left and right ears," Lyle said. But Lyle's lead over Graham and Langer -- playing two holes behind -- was a thin two shots, and his second shot on the par-4 was squatting in the high fringe to the left side of the green. Not the worst place to be, but certainly not the best.
"I really thought I had to make 4 to clinch the tournament," Lyle said. "I make 5, there'll be a playoff." From the fringe, he had to negotiate about 40 feet to get up and down and save par.
He got nine.
"Very weak," Lyle said of his chip shot, a rather understated description.
Pit City is more like it.
Immediately after he hit the shot, Lyle dropped to his knees in despair, slammed his sand wedge into the ground and stayed there, bowed on all fours with his head scraping the fringe, as if praying for forgiveness. Lyle recalled thinking to himself, "Don't three-putt now."
Two putts later, he was in at 282.
Even par for the day, two over for the tournament, his lead down from that thin two to this skinny one.
Not to worry. Graham and Langer were only too happy to close the window Lyle had opened for them by bogeying 18 themselves.
"I was disappointed at 18, but it was good enough to win," Lyle said, the Open safely in tow; this giveaway major won, fittingly, by someone limping in with a bogey.
But a major nonetheless.
If it hasn't necessarily shown the world what Lyle can do with a golf bag, it is at least, he tactfully allowed, "a step in the right direction, isn't it?"
At 6 feet 1 and 190 pounds, Lyle is a big man and a powerful player. With his appropriately sandy blond hair, he looks like a member of the Nicklaus family. But until now, he'd never shown anything resembling Jack's competitive fire. In fact, it has been said of Lyle, 27, that he has all the requisite talent to win championships but not the requisite drive. "He's got so much talent and skill, it's scary; when he's hot, honestly, I've never seen anyone play like him," said the young British pro, Phil Parkin. "But you rarely see him play with aggression. Most of the time it looks like he doesn't even care."
To give you an idea of how nonchalant he can be, last month in the second round of the Irish Open Lyle five-putted one hole and only the fact that he mistakenly picked up his ball in the 18th fairway saved him from officially posting a score that would have been "94 -- at best." Yet Lyle said the ludicrous score didn't faze him. "I've always thought if I didn't do well this week, I might the next." A placid, amiable man, Lyle said of himself, "I've always been pretty calm." Then, smiling shyly, "Got big shoulders, you see."
Lyle's father Alex is a golf pro in the English Midlands, and Alex Jr. (Sandy is a nickname) was more or less born with a wooden spoon in his mouth. Although he has been a big winner on the European tour -- the leading money winner in 1979 and 1980, and in the top five each year since -- Lyle hasn't performed nearly as well against the big boys on the U.S. tour. In the 13 PGA tournaments he played this year, his best finishes were ties for 15th at the Crosby and the Greater Greensboro Open. "It's been a struggle," Lyle conceded, "but I felt it was a good grinding. I think it set me in good stead for the last few holes today."
Going into the last round Lyle had few expectations of winning. Knowing he was already three shots down to Graham and Langer -- players who had proven they knew how to win majors -- Lyle thought he "needed a 67 for a good chance." There was no reason to anticipate Graham and Langer charging back to him like that; to the rear, march!
Birdies on 14 and 15 launched him to the lead for the first time in the tournament, and he desperately -- if not gracefully -- held on. The birdie on 15, he said, "was so emotional, I nearly burst into tears." From that point on, his whole attitude changed. "It never really dawned on me that I had a chance to win until the last four holes," Lyle said. "Then I took it in both hands, as they say."
And almost in the throat.
But others beat him to it.
So he is drinking champagne and signing autographs. The toast of Britain. Living proof that the Empire Strikes Back!
"He'll be such a hero," Parkin was saying with respect, admiration and not a little envy, "he won't believe it."
Starting here. Starting now.
Everything's coming up roses.