IT was, almost certainly, the last hurrah. The Open champion was nine yards off the green, wedge in hand. The swing was smooth, the ball was flicked forward and plopped into the hole. The champ paused briefly to take in the applause, conscious that it does not last forever. It may not be over for Sandy Lyle, but the fat lady is clearing her throat.
Lyle, the victor at Royal St George’s in 1985, last night said his farewell to the scene of his greatest triumph.
A 76 gave him a total of nine over par. He, along with three other Scots, will not be back today. Scott Jamieson, Martin Laird and Peter Whiteford will all join him on this enforced break. Their memories of Royal St George’s 2011 will forever be soured by failure.
Lyle’s dramatic shot at the last at least gave him one fond memory of 2011 to sit alongside those of 26 years ago. “This is probably the last time I’ll be seeing this hole, so it was nice to get a birdie,” said Lyle, who accepts that his exemption to the Open will likely have run out before the tournament returns to Sandwich in a future too distant for him as a competitor. His exemption ends at the age of 60 and to extend it, the 53-year-old would need a top-10 finish the year before in the Open, to prise open a five-year window.
This, of course, is possible but Lyle, who won the Masters in 1988, is resigned to being an also-ran and then an observer at the highest level in the near future. Even if his exemption continued until he was 65 he still “probably” would not play the Open, blaming the demands of courses that now stretch beyond 7000 yards.
“The length of golf courses now,” he said with a sigh. “I’m going the other direction. You know, I’m shorter. When you’re playing with these young guns you realise the seniors looks rather attractive.” However, a trip to Walton Heath next week for the British Seniors is less than enticing, given his disenchantment with his game.
“I’ve been struggling with ball flight, controlling the consistency. The last few months my scoring has been way above normal – 80s, 81s – I don’t like that and I’m not sure how I’ll tackle it.”
Another Open champion from Scotland, though, has the chance to rekindle memories of a major triumph. Paul Lawrie, winner at Carnoustie in 1999, will join Stephen Gallacher today for a tilt at the championship.
Gallacher, at one over, is within five shots of the lead, but Lawrie is far from out of it at three over, seven shots behind Darren Clarke and Lucas Glover. “I’m not out of the tournament. The weather forecast is for bad weather. Anything could happen,” said Gallacher, who may enjoy the better conditions with an early tee-off time today. He was one off the lead at one point yesterday, but dropped four shots on the way in.
“You are aware of these things but it’s only the second round,” he added. “If I was one off the lead in the final round, I would be more aware.”
He added: “It’s a tough golf course and, on the back nine today, there are just so many tough shots. You’ve got to be mentally strong, you’ve got to be patient, even more so if the weather gets bad. There will be a lot of holes where a bogey is not a bad number.”
Lawrie, who battled the elements to record his greatest success, was relaxed and quietly confident after he played the last brilliantly to come in bang on the cut mark. “From my half of the draw that was a decent effort,” he said of his 70. “I really struggled yesterday, but today was the opposite as I played lovely.”
Lawrie came from 10 shots behind in 1999 to lift the Claret Jug.
He said: “A good score on Saturday morning puts you right back into it. No question. The forecast for tomorrow afternoon is pretty poor and, if the wind gets up for the boys out late, who knows what could happen?”
While Gallacher believes level par could win the tournament, Lawrie said: “I could see two or three under winning.”
The decline of Lyle is predictable, but the departure of three of the other Scots from the tournament was deeply disappointing. Laird’s exit was brutal. His 72 on Thursday held some promise with two poorly played holes costing him four shots to par. He could not rescue the situation yesterday with a 75 ensuring he missed the cut by some distance at 7 over par.
Laird’s impressive form on the other side of the Atlantic has again not travelled to his home island. This depression was shared by Whiteford. His excellent first-day score of 70 was shattered by a 75 yesterday.
“The tent is calling me,” said the 30-year-old, heading to meet his parents and friends for a drink under canvas. His performance was contaminated by doubt. He hit a shank with a nine-iron in a practice round. “You know what it is like if you get a dose of them,” he said. One was enough to unnerve him, however. “I just played awful,” he said.
Jamieson, whose second 75 gave him a total of 10 over, blamed his putter. “I hit the ball well enough, I just didn’t putt very well all week. I gave myself chances and didn’t take them, it got frustrating.”
He added, however: “It’s more experience in the tank, and hopefully I can learn a few things to put down for next year.”
Regaining his optimism, he said: “One real good finish in the next two tournaments will maybe get me into the top 100 in the world, and that’s me in the US PGA next month.”
It is far from over for Jamieson and he still has his chances to make his major memories. But not in Sandwich this weekend.