Sandy Lyle, the new king of Great Britain, has not won on the American golf tour, but his experience there led to his dramatic, home-standing victory in the 114th British Open. Lyle last weekend became the first native son in 16 years to capture the Open. He succeeded Tony Jacklin, who did it in 1969, with a 2-over-par total of 282.
``I'm a much steadier player since I began playing the US tour half-time,'' he says. ``The weather is better, and you have a chance to practice regularly on good facilities. That's a major reason we foreign players are doing so well nowadays.''
Lyle has been known as a big, strong, amiable young man with vast potential that was going to waste. His performance at the Royal St. George's course here should allay that reputation.
``No one knows how much I've wanted to win the Open,'' he says. ``People say I don't practice, but they don't know where I go . . . I like to get away from all the tournament confusion and hit balls at another course nearby. People say I give up too easily, but that's not true either.''
Lyle did give up earlier this summer at the Irish Open, where he played a terrible round and actually came to the 18th tee facing the prospect of a score well above 90. When he drove the ball out of bounds, he walked in.
The week before the Open, he shot 80 in the last round of a British tournament.
Clearly, he was a real longshot here; indeed his name was hardly ever mentioned in pre-tournament predictions. But Lyle himself had already put those bad rounds out of his thoughts, and was able to approach the big test in a positive frame of mind.
``All that was water under the bridge,'' he said of his recent failures. ``The Open has been a dream of mine for a long time. It's harder to win in your own country, because so many people are pulling for you, but it's extra sweet. I can still hear the applause when I walked up to the last green.''
There are few sights and sounds in sport to equal the walk a British Open contender takes onto that green, which is surrounded by 20,000 fans in towering bleachers. It's like playing into Yankee Stadium.
Sixteen years ago, an 11-year-old Lyle almost as big as he is now in size 11 shoes, sat in those stands and cheered himself hoarse as Jacklin won. When Tony threw his ball into the seats after sinking his last putt, the youngster nearly caught it.
``From that moment on I thought how marvelous it would be to win this championship,'' he says.
He will be such a popular champion, his business manager says, that the title could be worth a million extra dollars. His official prize was 65,000, or $90,870.
While Lyle has not won in America, he owns 10 European tour crowns and late last year beat a strong field in the Kapalua, Hawaii, International tournament. ``I thought about that playing the last round here,'' he says. ``It was a tournament with a big purse and top players like Bernhard Langer. I knew I was capable.''
The British have recognized Lyle's capabilities since he began representing them in international youth events years ago as a veritable prodigy. Tutored by his Scotch father, a teaching professional, the English lad from Shrewsbury soon demonstrated a striking synthesis of power and finesse. He is among the game's longest hitters, rocketing 1-iron tee shots as far as other players can drive the ball, and he is an adequate short-game man.
``My father said he would stop smoking if I won here,'' Lyle said with a wide grin. ``I hope he sticks to his promise.''
The family owns a golf course called Clover near Glasgow. His father watched at home on television as his son played courageously over the last five holes of this frightfully difficult, wind-ravaged course near the English Channel.
Langer and David Graham had begun the final round sharing a 3-stroke lead and playing head-to-head in an apparent duel for the title. Both faltered on the front nine, however, letting the other contenders back in the chase. Tom Kite took the lead briefly, but then he too fell back -- and suddenly with five holes to go, Lyle realized that he had ``a really good chance'' of winning.
On the 14th, a par 5 with out-of-bounds on one side, knee-high rough on the other, and a water hazard called the Suez Canal running the full width of the fairway, he sank a long birdie putt. Then he birdied 15, hitting a 6-iron 12 feet from the pin and sinking the putt.
``At that point, I nearly burst into tears, I was so excited to be there with the Open championship at stake,'' Lyle said.
Now the pressure was on Graham and Langer, who were playing in the last twosome. Meanwhile Lyle arrived at the long 18th thinking he needed a par 4 to win. He bogeyed, following a weak chip shot that sent him to his knees in anguish, but Graham and Langer shortly bogeyed the 16th and he was in the lead.
Graham and Langer, needing birdies at the 18th to tie, missed the green to the right and ultimately had to settle for shares of third place behind American Payne Stewart, who had finished long before.
A major conversation topic all week was the absence of some American players -- especially Curtis Strange, who leads the US money list. When it was learned that Strange would be playing the Dutch Open next week for a large appearance fee, he was roundly criticized here for skipping one of the game's four major events.
Tom Watson, aiming at a sixth Open victory that would have tied Harry Vardon's record, finished in a tie for 47th. Jack Nicklaus, having missed the cut in the US Open last month for the first time ever, missed it here for the first time.
The course was bouncier and quirkier than even most British links, and Nicklaus bearly concealed his dislike of it. Next year's Open is at Turnberry in Scotland, a better course which should attract a bigger US entry. It also happens to be King Sandy's favorite.