Sandy Lyle's 1988 bunker heroics endure
Before Bubba Watson bent his ball out of the trees on No. 10.
Before Phil Mickelson blasted out of the straw and around the pine tree on No. 13.
Before Tiger Woods’ U-turn chip tumbled into the cup on No. 16.
Before most of the iconic shots that Masters Tournament champions have made en route to the green jacket, there was Sandy Lyle’s fairway bunker shot on No. 18 that set up a birdie to win in 1988. Just a year after Larry Mize’s astonishing chip-in on the 11th hole in a playoff crushed Greg Norman’s heart, Lyle provided another climactic shot for the ages.
“That was one of the most incredible shots that I’ve ever seen over there,” said Ben Crenshaw, who played with Lyle in the final round. “He took a 7-iron and took a very aggressive swing, and the ball was contacted just perfectly. He didn’t take much sand, and the ball just rocketed out of there straight up in the air.”
“Every time I play the hole, I look over there and shake my head,” said Mark Calcavecchia, who finished second by a shot to the rangy Scot.
Twenty-five years later, Lyle says a day rarely goes by that he’s not asked about Sandy’s miracle sandy that won him the Masters.
“Even to this day when I play in pro-ams, they all remember this bunker shot,” Lyle said.
He never tires of talking about it – or about his roller-coaster back nine that made him the last Masters champion to survive a Sunday double bogey on the perilous 12th hole.
“You couldn’t really write the script on that one,” said Lyle, who also won the 1985 British Open at Royal St. George’s in his Hall of Fame career. “I always felt that if I was going to win a major overseas, Augusta was one of the courses I felt reasonably comfortable I could do well on. I’d played U.S. Opens and PGAs and just couldn’t get my head around the setup of the golf courses. The narrowness of the fairways, the heavy rough – I felt like I was handcuffed. I just didn’t play well enough in them. My record in those tournaments was appalling. But the Masters I would always tend to find a reasonably good rhythm there and managed to win it once.”
Lyle became the first Masters champion from the United Kingdom, sparking a four-year British invasion, with England’s Nick Faldo winning in 1989-90 and Ian Woosnam, of Wales, winning in 1991. They were at the heart of a two-decade European reign at Augusta – 11 wins in 20 years – that included Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal.
“Seve was the forerunner who made us all believe in ourselves,” Lyle said. “There was a guy that we played most weeks in Europe and he’s gone over and won the Masters several times and gave of us a lot of hope that it’s not always going to be controlled by America’s golfers. There is a chance the European or British golfers could achieve it. It all sort of snowballed in that late ’80s.”
Lyle set his Masters victory in motion by winning the week before in Greensboro, N.C. – a feat not accomplished again until Phil Mickelson won in Atlanta and Augusta in 2006.
That sustained level of high play left Lyle exhausted after his remarkable sand shot to 10 feet.
“Very simply, it had been such a packed week of emotions and trying to maintain a level of golf in the afternoons,” he said. “I’d won the week before in Greensboro, and that was obviously a busy week and a lot of attention. Then the media attention the week of the Masters. It was an ongoing effort to try to keep the adrenaline going.”
After rolling in his birdie, he did a bit of a Scottish jig with his arms and putter raised high.
“I don’t think it meant to be kind of a somersault, but I had no legs left, nothing left in the tank at the end of that 72nd hole,” he said. “The dance was just happiness, emotions. I really could have just melted into a blob right there on the green and been quite happy for the next few hours. It’s something you can’t really explain unless you’ve experienced it, the sheer tension of that whole week trying to keep motivated and keep everything going forward and win the tournament. … When that final putt goes in you start to realize, ‘I’ve done it.’ I could feel everything just sort of draining away from my shoulders. It was time to enjoy it.”
Lyle held a three-shot lead standing in the middle of the 11th fairway, but a mud ball led to a bogey there. His 8-iron on No. 12 hit the crest of the bank and trundled back down into Rae’s Creek, leading to double bogey. Suddenly he was tied with Calcavecchia and in desperate need of rekindling his confidence.
“I needed another two feet in the air and it would have been perfect,” Lyle said of his shot on No. 12. “As it was, I said at least I’ve got two par-5s coming up (which he failed to birdie). I’m tied with Calcavecchia. Still some room to gather speed and stay in touch with the leader at the time. Managed to pull it off with birdie at the 16th and 18th holes.”
Despite his bogey-double combo in Amen Corner and failing to birdie either par-5 and shooting an inward 37, Lyle never buckled and managed to win anyway.
“He kept his head about him,” Crenshaw said. “Obviously he was playing well, but his mental capacities were such that he could shrug off mistakes and go on. He did a beautiful job of doing that.”
Lyle prefers being remembered for his heroic bunker shot than being the guy who won after making double at No. 12, but he appreciates what recovering from that setback means.
“It does take a bit of handling when you’ve had that lead for so long and you just see it sort of slip between the fingers," Lyle said. "It makes great theater for the television and the picture and emotions involved. Heartbreak and elation, all that rolled in a little package.”
Lyle presided over the Champions Dinner the next April wearing a Scottish kilt under his green jacket, piercing the haggis with his sword to serve his peers.
Carrying the title of Masters champion still means the most to Lyle as he returns for his 32nd Masters start this week.
“It’s been a huge, big bonus for me to win it,” he said. “I play obviously worldwide, and I’ve won a lot of titles around the world and in Europe, but the Masters seems to have that elevation – like a gold medal in the Olympics. It means so much to me.”