THE three-ring-circus of the Ryder Cup is almost upon us and, with it over three Gleneagles days, will come countless stories of derring-do, triumph, failure, pressure and poignancy. But, in the months leading up to the last Ryder Cup on home soil, Bryan Cooney fell upon an incredible and disturbing tale. The only problem was he was unable to write it …
Whereupon, the formidable lady of the house decided, quite unilaterally, to remove some of the glister from what some consider to be the gentleman’s game of golf.
What’s more, she seemed anxious to download to me, a complete stranger, her contempt for a couple of the biggest names in the game.
Hey, I wasn’t autographing a complaints form. Every newspaper and magazine, including the influential Golf World, had been chasing – forlornly, it must be said – the inside story of the internecine war that had erupted between Lyle and his near neighbour, Colin Montgomerie.
And now intimate details of that conflict were being filtered into my ear. So, what was the true genesis of the bitterness, I wondered? The two men had once been friends and there seemed to be respect in their relationship. Indeed, Lyle’s gifts were such that Monty allegedly said about him: “Sandy has more natural talent in his little finger than I have in the whole of my body.”
Did this special relationship dissolve when Monty, rather than Lyle, had been chosen as Ryder Cup captain for the 2010 event at Celtic Manor? Or was it because Lyle had publicly accused his old friend of cheating at a tournament in Jakarta?
Jolande seemed to suggest that something even more elemental, such as Monty’s arrogance, had precipitated the initial enmity, at least on her husband’s side. She began by claiming that initially when Montgomerie joined the European tour in the late Eighties, he was unpopular with his fellow pros and experienced some hostility.
“Nobody would communicate with him, nobody liked him. Eimear (his first wife) had a tough time; she used to come (to me) crying. I would have to go over to her and say: ‘Come on, they’re only whatever they are; they’re a bunch of xxxxx! ’
“Sandy helped him. Always. He (Monty) was trying to change his swing and Sandy told him: ‘Don’t do it. Stick at it. It works. It’s fine.’ This was the period around 1992.”
On this particular year, it transpired, a paradox was about to enter proceedings. When doubt began to infiltrate the Lyle psyche and his hitherto influential game imploded, Monty’s improved exponentially and soon he, too, discovered he was in possession of the superstar gene.
The hard fact was that they were exchanging places on the rope ladder of golfing celebrity.
“Then this goes on,” stated Mrs Lyle.
What do you mean by this? I asked.
“Oh, Monty’s not talking, whatever. Every time you walked past him, he was, like, looking the other way, ignoring Sandy. There was nothing (between them). Just like the (Nick) Faldo behaviour (of old). This went on for a few years.
“Then we’re at one of the tournaments, a team event, so I went over to him and said: ‘You know, Colin, what is it going to be like this week? Are you going to talk to us, or are you going to ignore us?
“He was saying: ‘What do you mean?’ I said: ‘Well, it’s a bit rude that you sort of treat people this way. You know the way Faldo ignores Sandy and whatever. Well, there might be a reason behind it, but there’s certainly not a reason behind it from your part.
“Just because Sandy’s not in the winner’s circle any more, just because he’s struggling for whatever reason doesn’t mean you have to treat people like this.
“Really, you shouldn’t treat anyone this way. Not even the person who takes your bags up the stairs, or the doorman at whatever tournament. Everybody has got a life; you get born the same way and you die, maybe a different way, but we’re meant to be looking out for each other…la, la, la.’”
Jolande relaxed at this point, thus signalling the possibility of a time-out from the tirade. That possibility was quickly discounted. “Sandy always says I pinned him to the wall. I didn’t. I just told him (to his face) that he was just rude. Of course he denied it, but I said: ‘Look, I’m just asking you to use your manners!’
“It was all very hurtful for Sandy,. Eventually, he realised that he (Monty) was just an absolute plonker and he would just go, like: ‘Hi, idiot!’ when he walked past.”
Jolande’s wrath subsided when her husband and the producer returned. My subsequent Radio Scotland interview with Lyle was fairly potent in its own right, but pallid in contrast to his wife’s outpourings. No mistake: this had been the stuff of dynamite, never mind of legends.
I prepared to leave their Trossachs retreat, after a short golf lesson from my accommodating host at a par three hole in his front garden. My spirits were considerably lifted. And why not? I was on the threshold of hitting newspaper pay dirt.
By any standards, this constituted a remarkable and rare revelation in the closeted world of golf, where money and keeping up appearances, even if they’re false, mean everything.
My immediate instinct was to write it up in the newspaper for which I then freelanced – the Sunday Herald. Regarding the legitimacy of my intentions, I’d undergone a radical prostatectomy two years prior to this. Now there were signs of the cancer returning. The future was uncertain, so I thought: What the hell!
Unfortunately, Jolande had interpreted at least some of my mindset. Her message became unequivocal: Lyle had still to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and nothing should be allowed to compromise this eventuality: certainly not a controversial story written at an unpropitious moment. She swore me to secrecy.
Four years on, I’m breaking the embargo, for what I believe are two very good reasons. First, Lyle has aligned himself with immortality. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in May of 2012, so that ambition has been satisfied.
But, more importantly, he lives just 37.7 miles – and an estimated 56 minutes’ driving time – from Gleneagles. It might be expected, then, that our dual Major winner would occupy some sort of official role at next week’s event. (remember, he’s the only member of Europe’s so-called “Big Five” not to have captained the team: Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam were his peers).
Sadly, disturbingly, this will not be the case.
It’s still unclear whether he will even be present at the event. If he is, it’s likely to be in a corporate capacity, rather than under the auspices of the European Tour – an organisation that once regarded him as an essential component of its structure.
Essential? Golf’s ruling body was not always the cash-rich colossus that it has become today. Its early incarnation was obliged to fight for an identity against the more lucrative American tour, and it relied on assistance from the big names to endorse its product. There were few bigger than Lyle.
It’s said that Thomas Bjorn, the Players’ Committee chairman, phoned him last year and revealed he had been one of five players to be considered for the Gleneagles captaincy – an honour eventually bestowed on Paul McGinley. It was apparently inferred that his age – he’s 56 now – would not militate against him in future. So Lyle lives in hope.
But is it false hope? I’m not in any way convinced that this will ever happen. Why would they decorate him at this late stage when they have ignored him so blatantly for so many years?
Besides, I can still remember what Jolande said when, after her Monty rant, she applied herself to the subject of the ruling body.
“Listen,” she began, “so many things would hurt him over the years when he’s not been playing well. He feels he’s not only letting himself down but also that all of a sudden he doesn’t mean anything any more.
“And that, ultimately, was probably the killer with the Ryder Cup thing. The amount he’s given to the European Tour; the amount of times that we would get a phone call from Ken Schofield, saying like: ‘Sandy, I’m really struggling to have top players at such and such an event, and I really need to have someone (big). Can you please come?’
“So, on a Wednesday afternoon. he would pack his bags and go off and play, say, in the Spanish Open. They needed a name; he would go and do whatever. Many things like that.
“He gave up, really, his year in America, where he could have topped the money list. After he had won at Augusta in 1988, he came back here and supported the European Tour…and he gets absolutely nothing in return. There’s no respect.”
Her final words that day struck a particularly poignant chord. “People forget; they don’t remember. A game for gentlemen? Oh, no, no, no, no. You know something: I can’t wait for him to retire. It’s very sad.”
I left the Highlands that day in some confusion, my earlier elation surrendering to the sadness so eloquently expressed by Jolande Lyle. Golf, the game that formed so many of my boyhood notions, was now an integral part of a highly political, cruel and unforgiving world.
In conclusion, it’s necessary to return a final time to the Lyle-Monty imbroglio and pose one important question: how do matters stand between them today?
I’m informed that the stand-off is still resolutely – and regrettably – in place. The two men live only a handful of miles apart; they share the same sponsors in Aberdeen Management. And yet they still don’t speak. That’s another reason for sadness.
This weekend, like most of you, I’ll be attached to my flat screen television in the manner of a limpet mine. The biennial bun fight is never anything less than a compulsive spectacle.
But I’ll also be remembering Sandy Lyle, an inherently decent man – a man the European Tour shamefully forgot.