During the PGA Tour's Florida swing, when preparations for the
Masters break into a run, the coming of spring promises renewal.
But Sandy Lyle remembers the four-week stretch of tournaments
from Doral to the Players Championship as the beginning of the
end. Eight years ago on the Sunshine State's flattened
landscape, the supremely talented Scot, who was considered the
best player in the world, stepped off the mountaintop and began
the most precipitous fall of any elite player in the last 25
years. "I obviously went off the boil," the 39-year-old Lyle
says. "I got lost and haven't been able to find my way."
The words are a measure of how fragile even a seemingly ironclad
career can be. A prodigy from the time he began playing under
the eye of his father, a club pro in northern England, Lyle won
the 1985 British Open and the '87 Players. The following year he
won the Masters. By the time he closed out his '88 season by
defeating, in order, Nick Price, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo
to win the World Match Play at Wentworth, England, Lyle was No.
1 in the Sony Ranking. Faldo, his lifelong rival, called Lyle
"the greatest natural talent in the game." Said Ballesteros, "If
we all played our best, Sandy would win." Yet within six months
of his victory at Wentworth, Lyle was a basket case, and he
hasn't been the same since. Among golfers who have won at least
two major championships by the age of 30, only Ralph Guldahl
(the 1937 and '38 U.S. Opens and the '39 Masters) and Tony
Jacklin (the '69 British Open and '70 U.S. Open) disappeared
from the top as quickly as Lyle, although John Daly is
threatening to join the list. "It was as if someone had flipped
a switch," says Lyle. "I wasn't the same player. I'd lost it."
Exactly what happened remains a mystery. Despite his success in
'88, when the 1989 season opened, Lyle felt uneasy. He finished
tied for second at the Hope, tied for third at Pebble Beach and
second at Los Angeles, but he was fatigued from the demands of
the previous year and wasn't happy with how he was hitting the
ball. When he returned home for two weeks, his wife, Jolande,
could sense that something was wrong. "We didn't really know it,
but Sandy was golfed out," she says. "During that time at home
you could see on his face that he didn't want to go back out
there. He should have said, 'I'm chucking my clubs in the corner
for four months, and don't anyone talk to me about golf.'
Unfortunately, Sandy, unlike the other top players, doesn't know
how to say that. If he had done that, maybe he wouldn't have had
all the problems."
When he returned to the U.S. for the Florida swing, Lyle made
the cut at Doral and the Honda, but remembers being "exhausted"
by self-doubt. Finally, at Bay Hill, "something inside snapped,"
he says, and he went through a horrible stretch of 10 U.S.
tournaments during which he made only two cuts, broke 70 just
once, and had a pitiful 74.1 stroke average. At his final event
of the year, the World Series of Golf, Lyle sat in the locker
room at Firestone Country Club in Akron and fought back tears as
he admitted that he had asked Jacklin, the European Ryder Cup
captain, not to select him for the '89 team, which would retain
the cup at the Belfry.
Since then, Lyle's best finish in a major has been a 12th at the
1992 British Open. Before 1989 he had won 22 times worldwide,
but he has had only three victories since, all on the European
tour, with the most recent coming in 1992. On the PGA Tour he
has had just five top-10 finishes in 73 starts, the best being
fifth at Doral in 1993. The decline was made more painful
because it was inevitably compared with the ascent of Faldo,
with whom Lyle has always had a distant and complicated
relationship. "That didn't make things any easier," Lyle admits.
This year there is a sense of urgency to Lyle's attempt to
regain his form because if he doesn't, his playing options will
soon be limited. His 10-year Tour exemption for winning the
Masters expires next year, so Lyle has decided to play more than
20 events in this country, his most ever, rather than split his
schedule between the U.S. and the European tours, as he has
since 1985. Instead of commuting from the 18th-century mansion
he owns outside Edinburgh, Lyle has moved his family--Jolande,
who is his second wife, and their daughter, Lonneke, 3, and son,
Quintin, 2--to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Lyle feels that after years of wandering through the wilderness
of swing theory, he has emerged a better ball striker. That
conviction, plus his belief that he has been steeled by the
deaths of his father, Alex, in February '96, and his mother,
Agnes, five months later, has him convinced that he is on the
verge of a breakthrough. "This is the year I want to get the
name Lyle back on the leader board," he says. "I want to be
recognized as a top player again, not as a has-been."
That will take a lot of doing. In five events this year, his
best finish has been an 18th at San Diego. Last week's result at
Doral, where he placed 45th, was typical. Lyle was among the
early leaders, with an opening 67, but during the third round he
whiffed twice on a ball that had come to rest between two roots
and ended up shooting 78. In his first official round of the
year, at the Hope, Lyle reeled off five birdies and an eagle to
go seven under par through 10 holes and admitted later that he
had begun to think, This is going to be a wonderful year. But
the long putter he has been using since late last year quickly
cooled off, and he finished 73rd. In his next two events, he
missed the cut by a stroke at Phoenix despite making birdies on
three of the last four holes and was 50th at Pebble Beach.
Lyle has come to believe that his difficulties can be traced to
a flawed swing. Even in his prime he had patches when his
powerful shots turned wild. "I always needed good hands, sheer
skill and confidence to get around, and I had that as a young
man," he says. "As you get older, your faults start to take
over. I'd always had the nagging thought in the back of my mind
that something similar to what has happened might just happen."
Without a strong understanding of why his swing worked, Lyle
couldn't head off his slump, particularly when his confidence
left him. "I got to where I had no safe shot," he says.
"Instead, I had two evils--a pull hook and a block. You can play
with one evil, but you can't play with two."
Lyle's search for a cure took him to more than a dozen
instructors, including Jimmy Ballard and David Leadbetter.
Throughout, his most trusted teacher was his father. "He was
always my best friend and my most supportive fan, but I probably
strayed too far from him in terms of my game," says Lyle. "His
messages were always simple. He would point to the practice
range and say, 'If you want to be good, there's your ticket.'"
It was on a practice range in Vancouver last August that Lyle
ran into Mac O'Grady, whose eccentric ways belie the fact that
he's an expert on swing mechanics. Lyle complained that he had
lost his ability, so valuable in his best years, to consistently
fade the ball. O'Grady, dropping the jargon that can make him
inaccessible to the uninitiated, suggested that Lyle try opening
his stance and hitting down the line in the fashion of Lee
Trevino. "What really convinced me more than the words was
watching Mac demonstrate what he meant," says Lyle. "I realized
that that was how I used to hit the ball, with nice thin divots
instead of the gouging I've been doing. Essentially, Mac wanted
me to block the ball the way Trevino, Fred Couples and Tom
Lehman all do. It works if you are strong enough. It was like a
light went on."
In his first round using the new approach, at the Greater
Vancouver Open, Lyle holed a five-iron shot on the 2nd hole and
later hit the flag on a par-3. Three months later at the Kapalua
International on Maui, Lyle finished sixth and received some
positive reinforcement from Couples, who complimented him for
getting back on track. "From Fred, it was especially nice
because he's the type who doesn't say something unless he means
it," says Lyle. "I've had a lot of false starts in the last few
years, but I honestly believe I'm going forward. In a way, it's
all so annoying because it seems bloody simple now. Everything
I've done in life, I've done by slow, not by quick. I feel like
I've wasted five years of a good career."
His struggle has been difficult for his peers to watch because
they regard the self-effacing Lyle as a man of quiet dignity, a
"Labrador retriever, a sweet spirit," says O'Grady. "Oh, Sandy's
a nice guy," says sports psychologist Deborah Graham. How nice?
After giving autographs, he always says thank you.
Without resistance Lyle has good-naturedly accepted the nickname
Sleepy Sandy, and he will play along when he's called the
Forrest Gump of golf. For example, after blithely answering,
"I've never played the course" when asked, in 1992, what he knew
about Tiger Woods, Lyle allowed the joke to be on him even
though he knew all about Woods and was just being clever. When
he got so turned around during the 35-mile trip between Miami
and Fort Lauderdale that he ended up driving 120 miles across
the Everglades to Naples, Lyle enjoyed telling the story on
himself. "He seems to drift along in a state of unconscious
competence," TV commentator Peter Alliss has said.
But for all of Lyle's soft edges, there's steel inside. Jolande
also lost her father in 1996. "It was a horrible year for both
of us, but Sandy was always there for me," she says. "He's
strong like an old, favorite oak tree." Says Graham, "Most
champions are selfish people--it's actually an asset--but Sandy
isn't. He has a lot of courage."
Persisting in the face of adversity has become a matter of pride
for Lyle. "I wouldn't have won what I've won if I wasn't a
competitor," he says. To reinforce the point, he says how his
first wife, Christine, chose the eve of the final round of the
'87 Players to tell him she was taking their two sons and
leaving him. "I went out the next day feeling fed up and
frustrated, but I won the tournament," Lyle says. "I only say
that to show the sort of hard character I can be." Lyle sees the
boys, Stuart, 13, and James, 11, only twice a year. "That's been
very difficult for a man like Sandy, who loves children," says
Dave Musgrove, Lyle's friend and former caddie. "He never
complained about it, but his close friends could see an effect.
I'm sure it hasn't done his golf any good."
On March 27, when the Tour rolls into Lyle's new home in Ponte
Vedra and he marks the 10th anniversary of his victory in the
Players Championship, it's unlikely that he'll be mentioned
among the favorites. Instead, he'll probably be asked if he made
any wrong turns on the drive down from Orlando and the Bay Hill
Invitational. That will make him only more determined. "I don't
mind that people underestimate me. I enjoy surprising them a
bit," says Lyle, an amateur magician who loves to perform tricks
He might need some magic in Florida, but if he does find his way
after being lost for so long, everyone in golf will enjoy the
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Lyle didn't have a prayer before trying a long putter in '96.[Sandy Lyle]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Lyle (with Larry Mize) got off to a hot start in '88 when he won the Masters and ended his year No. 1. [Sandy Lyle, wearing Masters' green jacket, with Larry Mize]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID CANNON/ALLSPORT Although his confidence has been restored, Lyle's still not out of the woods. [Sandy Lyle taking golf shot]