When Shropshire ruled Augusta
20 years ago Europe reigned supreme at Augusta. But one little corner of England was responsible for much of that success.
Prior to the 1988 Masters Greg Norman, Severiano Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam opted to play a practice round together. To spice the golf up they decided to make it competitive: Woosnam and Lyle on one side, the two superstars on the other.
Quietly, Woosnam and Lyle gave the match a name – they called it Shropshire versus the Rest of the World.
When an Augusta patron overheard this plan, he turned to his friend. “Shropshire?” he asked. “Where’s that?”
It’s a good question, one many British people have to ask. The answer is on the English-Welsh border and to fully understand Shropshire’s golfing success we need to rewind forty years.
For most of the world the Swinging Sixties involved sex and drugs and rock and roll; in Shropshire they just took up golf.
Near the town of Oswestry a dairy farmer called Harold Woosnam was introduced to the friendly Llanymynech Golf Club. Excited by his new passion, he took the family along too and almost immediately his small son Ian was hooked on the game – hooked being the perfect word for a lad whose early obsession was belting the ball as far as he could hit it.
Meanwhile 15 miles away, Alex Lyle, the Scottish professional at the Hawkstone Park hotel watched as his son Sandy took up the game and quickly emerged as an exceptionally talented ball-striker.
Today very little has changed at those two clubs. Llanymynech remains one of the friendliest clubs in the country – in either country as it happens since 15 of the club’s holes are in Wales and three in England. On the fourth hole you even have the unique opportunity to drive-off from Wales and putt out in England.
And despite having a new clubhouse and second course, Sandy Lyle wouldn’t get lost around Hawkstone Park – the hotel and old course remain the same, whilst the small family bungalow is still a 50-yard pitch from the 18th green.
At both locations echoes of the two players linger and interweave because, of course, it didn’t take long for their paths to cross.
For the current Llanymynech professional Andy Griffiths, his brother Basil and the club’s head greenkeeper Alan Lewis, there are vivid memories of playing with Woosnam and Lyle in the Shropshire county team.
Ballesteros once said, “If we all play our best, Sandy would win,” and it is a sentiment that county team appreciated because they were in awe of Lyle’s ability.
“He was unbelievable,” Alan recalls. “When the rest of us finished playing we’d normally go and have a drink or mess around, but if Sandy was still out there we’d go and watch him. He was special. We knew he’d succeed. Everyone knew he’d turn pro – it was just obvious, a natural progression.”
If Lyle was blessed with natural talent, Woosnam was blessed with a naturally competitive spirit. “His dad was the same,” laughs Alan. “They wanted to win all the time.”
Of that county team, Lyle and Woosnam became greats, Andy turned pro and his brother Basil represented Wales, did Alan never fancy playing for a living?
“I didn’t think I was good enough,” he laughs. “Mind you, I didn’t think Woosie was good enough to be honest! I’ve told him as much and we’ve laughed about it. But he had the inner drive. Don’t get me wrong, he had talent, you only had to look at his swing to see that, but he wanted it so badly.”
After competing for the county, Lyle and Woosnam headed out into the world of professional golf. For Lyle it was a smooth transition to life on the European Tour. The honours board at Hawkstone Park boasts a long list of his amateur successes and he played professionally as if nothing had changed.
For Woosnam it was a tougher battle, as Andy Griffiths explained: “The Minshall family owned Hill Valley GC and they gave him an assistant pro job. Then he went on tour and got a lot of support from Geoff Roberts in Oswestry. He needed it in the early years but if Woosie had an obstacle he’d find a way of jumping it.”
By the late-1980s the pair were not just European Tour regulars, they were Ryder Cup heroes and Lyle was the 1985 Open Champion. When they talked about Shropshire taking on the world, it was only slightly in jest.
What neither of them knew on that practice day was that over the next three years they wouldn’t just win a few quid off Norman and Ballesteros around Augusta, both of them would also win green jackets.
Lyle’s opportunity came just a few days later and he went to bed on the Saturday night with a two-shot lead over the field. Unfortunately he was suffering from an allergic reaction to the Augusta pollen and couldn’t sleep.
“No problem,” said his wife-to-be Jolande, an expert in reflexology. “I’ll tickle your toes.” So on the eve of the biggest day of his life Sandy Lyle was tickled to sleep whilst his mind drifted back to 1986 when he had played alongside Jack Nicklaus during the Golden Bear’s magnificent comeback victory. “That memory intensified my desire to experience it again in the future,” he said. “But this time as the centre of attention.”
The next day he needed all the inspiration he could muster as he found himself tied with Mark Calcavecchia and stood in the fairway bunker on the final hole: bogey, never mind par or a winning birdie, seemed the most likely result.
Cue one of the shots of the century – a seven-iron that whipped the ball from the sand, over the imposing face of the bunker, carrying 143 yards to the centre of the green where it caught the slope.
At one point it seemed ready to get stuck on the contours, the next it seemed certain to run right back to the hole, in the end it stopped fifteen-feet away.
It left a nasty putt – fast, subtle breaks in both directions and five times the distance Lyle thought it was going to be as he climbed the hill to the green. But he holed it, improvised a Highland jig of joy and claimed the green jacket.
Years later Andy Griffiths would make his way out to Augusta as a guest of Woosnam. “It was brilliant,” he said. “Everything you imagine – hillier, faster, greener. Even the town outside is a bit ordinary like everyone says.”
“On the Monday evening after the event the course was empty so I wandered on to a couple of greens. I half-expected security would emerge from the trees and arrest me! The run-off areas were just frightening – so slick. You know what else I did? I went and stood in the bunker where Sandy hit his shot. It was amazing. You couldn’t see the green: just a wall of white sand in front of your face. What a shot that was …”
Three years after Lyle’s win and just a few miles from where Andy and I chatted, Woosnam played 18 holes with his old benefactor Geoff Roberts at Oswestry GC on a cold January morning.
He missed a few putts yet still knocked it round in 57. It didn’t count for much, but it was a reminder of his good form and as he made his way home it highlighted an itch that wanted scratching – he needed to win a major. “Come on,” he told himself. “You’ve got to do it this year.”
At the end of March he won the USF&G Classic in
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