AUGUSTA, Ga. – As Dustin Johnson, Collin Morikawa and Billy Horschel were being added to the first-tee standard Friday morning at Augusta National Golf Club, a pair of 20-somethings turned away from the rope line and started walking aimlessly toward the 10th hole. Presumably, at their first Masters Tournament, the two patrons soon were impeded by some volunteers holding ropes and clearing a pathway for the day’s first group, a twosome, which was making the turn.
“Is this a tee box?” one of the guys asked his buddy.
“Yeah, I think so,” the other responded. “There are some golfers coming over here soon.”
He was partially right. While 6-foot-5 Stewart Hagestad, outfitted impeccably with gear from the pro shop, was quickly striding into view, Hagestad’s playing competitor was already standing on the tee, just a few feet away from the patrons. They didn’t notice, of course, but dressed head to toe in all black – save for the large Scottish flags printed on his shoes – and donning a barely zipped rain jacket and left rain glove was 64-year-old Sandy Lyle.
To be fair, neither guy was likely born when Lyle won this prestigious tournament in 1988, clipping Mark Calcavecchia with a birdie at the last.
And to no one’s surprise, once Lyle yanked his drive into the tallest tree on the left, the ball clanking down into the rough just 173 yards from the tee, the pair felt little inclination to follow the veteran Scot down the fairway.
While it wasn’t always pretty, Friday’s man in black still managed, however, to play a few hits.
A day earlier, Lyle had carded a sloppy 10-over 82, his round lowlighted by a quadruple-bogey at the par-3 12th that didn’t include a water ball. But he found something with his swing on a chilly Friday morning, getting less underneath the ball and more down line with his three-quarter action, and began his second round with five consecutive pars.
Lyle bogeyed on a handful of occasions, the byproduct of hitting 3-woods and long-irons into greens, but he also missed only two fairways and flashed some scrambling brilliance.
With Amen Corner already bustling in anticipation for the day, Lyle elicited the day’s first roar at the par-4 11th hole, where he needed two chips but converted his second for a gritty par save. After the ball, which was marked with a free-handed black circle, disappeared into the cup, Lyle turned to the crowd and quickly raised his club-holding hand in the air.
A few holes later, Lyle notched his third and final birdie of the week, draining a 24-footer with the flatstick from off the back of the putting surface. Two of those three birdies were non-putts, as he capped Thursday’s round with a chip-in.
Lyle couldn’t replicate that finishing magic on Friday, running out of gas and closing with three straight bogeys, but he did get it in the clubhouse with a 4-over 76, a round that was better than Xander Schauffele, Abraham Ancer and Gary Woodland.
When he stepped on the green podium in front of a few reporters afterward, Lyle, surprisingly still wearing that loose-fitting rain jacket despite perfect conditions, seemed conflicted, a mix of both happy and grumpy. Though he had performed well – by his current standards – he was also 14 over, ahead of just a few others, and hadn’t accomplished his main objective of earning a Saturday tee time.
“I'm not just going out there to make the crowd clap,” Lyle clapped back. “I want to for my own momentum make the cut. That's my challenge. I know I'm not going to challenge the winners out here. It would have to be a complete freak. … I don't think it's going to ever annoy the big boys when they can hit the ball so far. But making the cut is my challenge at the moment, and to keep smiling as best you can and entertain the crowd.”
As he continued to speak, however, reality started to slip in. Lyle still possesses nerve and a game that won’t always flunk a test as stern as Augusta National, but it's also clear he's lost a few steps. He hasn’t made a Masters cut since 2014 and has missed out on 10 of the past 12 weekends at Augusta National.
Entering this week, one prominent betting site ranked each of the 91 competitors by their odds of winning; Lyle came in last at No. 91.
“I'm not 21 anymore, and the clubhead speed is going down rapidly…” started Lyle, who averaged just 256 yards off the tee Friday, more than 30 below the field average. He was consistently 50 yards or more behind Hagestad, which partly explained why Lyle wasn’t too chatty with the three-time Walker Cupper on Friday – he was rarely near him.
Two mornings prior, Gary Player had proclaimed, “One day there will be a man of 60 winning a major championship.” He likely didn’t have Lyle in mind. When it comes to Lyle, who reached triple-digits in major-championship appearances this week, he finally revealed what many were expecting: He’s probably done after No. 101.
“I think probably,” he continued, “next year might be the end of the Lyle attack on the golf course.”
Lyle logged his first major start, at the 1974 Open Championship, when he was 16 years old. There were two cuts that week at Royal Lytham, and he missed the second one with a messy finish.
“My heart was coming out of my chest for the first opening tee shot … I was just thump, thump, thump, thump and thinking, ‘My God, I hope it's going to get better or get easier,’” Lyle said. “The feelings of nerves and trying to control your emotions and your hands and your putting; not easy when you are 16.”
Neither is giving up when you’re 65.
Lyle remembers Fuzzy Zoeller raising his hand and calling it quits one year at the Champions Dinner. He recalls that others, such as Charles Coody and Tommy Aaron, “went on a bit longer and maybe they shouldn't have gone as far as they did, but that was their choice.”
Lyle’s sons, Stuart and James, are expected to attend next year’s Masters, making it an ideal curtain call for Lyle.
“We're going to be full family,” he said, “so I think it will be the end of the day.”
Until then, Lyle will compete on PGA Tour Champions. He joked that he’s planning on hitting the gym more often, so that he can hit it a little farther when he shows up here next April. He may need to lengthen his suspenders a bit, but oh how badly he’d love to notch just one more made cut and make his Augusta goodbye worth watching.
Maybe even those two patrons from Friday will tune in.