The Shropshire Scot Who Conquered Sawgrass
Sandy Lyle was a trailblazer in the game for many reasons. He made his Open debut at 16. In 1985 he was the first home winner of the Championship since Tony Jacklin in 1969. In 1988 he was famously the first player from Britain to win the Masters. However, less than a year earlier, he became the first European to claim the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
Indeed, it’s been 31 years, but Lyle remains the only British golfer to have won the PGA Tour’s flagship tournament. The Players Championship has become a marquee event on the golf calendar, boasting what is arguably the deepest field of the season and contested on a striking venue that has become widely iconic. Lyle’s place within that history is comfortably secure.
A Shropshire lad who proudly embraced the Scottish heritage of his father, Lyle set the standard that the likes of Sir Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam attempted to emulate. Twice a winner of the European Tour’s Order of Merit and the Champion Golfer of the Year at Royal St. George’s, Sandy crossed the Atlantic and triumphed at the Greater Greensboro Open in 1986. 11 months later, he descended upon Ponte Vedre Beach to hopefully make an even greater breakthrough Stateside.
Sat one shot off the lead held by Steve Jones after the first round, Lyle followed that opening 66 with a 71 that dropped him outside the top ten. Rebounding with a six-under round on Saturday, however, the Scot was positioned two back of co-leaders Mark O’Meara and Scott Simpson. Lyle and Zimbabwe’s Nick Price were the only players in contention not from the United States.
It was a dramatic Sunday, as the leaders fell, and Lyle posted a formidable total of 14-under after making a miraculous chip-in on the 15th and holing a lengthy putt for birdie on the difficult 18th. Tied with future PGA winner Jeff Sluman, the two players entered a playoff, each parring the 16th, before stepping onto the famous 17th. The American had a putt for victory, but found his routine disrupted after a spectator bizarrely jumped into the water, providing Lyle with a reprieve.
On the 18th, both were just off the green in two, but Sandy managed to hole an eight-footer for victory after Sluman’s par putt narrowly missed. He was the first non-American winner of the Players Championship and remains the only golfer from the United Kingdom to have won at Ponte Vedra Beach, a stunning location that later became his home, maintaining that enduring connection.
Quoted in Iain Carter’s BBC Golf Blog, Lyle said: “I often look at a poster that I still have on a wall at home with my winning score of 14 under par on it and wonder how the hell I get around that course in that score.
“I was amazed because I couldn't see how that layout could suit my game. It is just relentless and by that I mean relentless trouble, with water everywhere.
“People always think that bunker shot at the 72nd hole at Augusta was my toughest moment. But the one that really gave me the heebie-jeebies was the third extra hole to win the Players.
“It was the 18th with all that water down the left and it was pitch dark. I could hardly see the green - it was hard enough to make out the ball at my feet and I had no depth perception.
“There was so much riding on it, with so much money at stake and a 10-year exemption on the PGA Tour.”
Lyle’s form and results suffered during the 1990s, but his legacy was already cemented following those halcyon years of the 80s. Open Champion. Masters Champion. Players Champion. Deservedly added to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2012, Lyle’s achievements perhaps haven’t received justified recognition, simply because he hasn’t courted that attention. But it doesn’t take long to reveal just how good he was.
When the late Seve Ballesteros penned a foreword to Lyle’s autobiography, he wrote: “Sandy was the greatest God-given talent in history. If everyone in the world was playing their best, Sandy would win and I'd come second.”
Now 60 and set to play his 43rd and final Open this summer at Carnoustie, there has never been a more appropriate time to reflect on the successes of the Shropshire Scot who conquered the golf world.
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