You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

British Open collapse lingers

Question of the Day

Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

View results

Its reputation as the toughest links in golf is now a footnote.

All but forgotten are the British Open champions who have conquered Carnoustie, a list that includes Tommy Armour, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Tom Watson.

One hole changed everything.

Only one name is linked to Carnoustie now, and it won't be found anywhere on the claret jug.

"This is only a golf tournament," Jean Van de Velde said on a gloomy evening in 1999. "Who is going to remember this in 200 years?"

How can anyone possibly forget?

Van de Velde stood on the 18th tee at Carnoustie with a three-shot lead in the British Open, certain to become the first Frenchman in 92 years to win golf's oldest championship.

And then it all unraveled with a series of bad bounces, bad luck, bad decisions.

"It was probably the best 71 holes in his career, and the one worst hole in his career, all wrapped into one," Jim Furyk said.

The winner became an afterthought.

Paul Lawrie had a Sunday-best 67 in the final round to come from 10 shots behind, and when he outlasted Van de Velde and Justin Leonard in a playoff, the unheralded Scot was in the history books with the largest comeback in major championship history.

Van de Velde wound up in the history books for all the wrong reasons.

He will not be back at Carnoustie, coping with a mysterious virus that caused him to withdraw from qualifying. In his place will be memories that are as vivid now as they were in 1999.

"It was amazing to watch," said Craig Parry, who played with Van de Velde in the final round. "I really did feel sorry for Jean. No other golfer has had to go through that. Greg Norman got close. But this guy had his name on the jug."

First, though, Van de Velde had a driver in his hand. And that's where his troubles began.

The safe shot would have been an iron off the tee, another iron to stay short of the Barry Burn, a wedge to the green. Playing with flair, Van de Velde smashed a tee shot that sailed so far right that it stayed out of the winding burn and found a good lie in the rough, so good that he had reason to go for the green with a 2-iron.

Leonard had been in the group ahead of Van de Velde, and the Texan figured his chances ended when he hit into the burn and made a superb up-and-down for bogey to finish at 6-over 290. He was signing his card when the travesty unfolded.

"I was in a little trailer that has a couple of rooms to it," Leonard said. "Someone said, 'You might want to come watch this.' He missed it right of the burn and was in the fairway, basically. I said, 'Wow, that was lucky.' Then he hits the grandstand. And that was unlucky."

Van de Velde had 189 yards to the green. His only concern was going too far left of the green and out-of-bounds. It sailed right again, which should have been no problem. If it hits the bleachers, or goes into the bleachers, he would have had a free drop. Instead, it hit a tiny rail and caromed back across the green, into rough so deep Van de Velde had no shot.

"What are the odds of that one hitting the stands and coming back to there?" Nick Faldo said. "That's a million-to-one."

This was the one.

Van de Velde studied his options, none of which were appealing. It would have seemed prudent to hack out sideways to the fairway, but there was no guarantee he could find short grass, and then he might still have a miserable lie and a burn between him and the green.

"You had to be there to appreciate how bad it was," Parry said. "It's the worst I've ever seen."

Van de Velde ultimately decided to hack it out over the burn, but the ball tumbled into the shallow creek.

Well, it was shallow at the time.

The tragedy turned into a comedy when Van de Velde walked around the fairway to the other side of the burn, then decided he might have a shot out of the stream. He removed his shoes and socks, rolled up his navy blue slacks to his knees and stepped into the chilly water. The tide was coming in, and when he got to his ball, the shot no longer looked possible.

Van de Velde stood there, hands on hip, a wedge dangling in his hand, grinning.

"When he hit it in there, the ball was sitting up out of the water," Parry said. If he had gone straight to the ball, instead of walking around to the other side, he would have had a chance."

Instead, he had to take a penalty drop into more rough. That was his fourth stroke.

Leonard remained in the trailer.

"I go from a feeling of real disappointment to all of a sudden having a second chance," he said. "I just continued to watch the whole thing unravel. It was like I was playing junior golf, trying to count up how many times he hit it, what he was going to make. You lose track."

The next shot cleared the burn, but not the bunker. Five shots.

Parry also hit into the bunker with his second shot and was first to play. A massive roar shook Carnoustie when Parry holed his shot for a birdie. The Australian smiled, looked at Van de Velde and said, "Follow me in."

The best he could do was 8 feet. But he made the putt for triple bogey, then tried to clear his head for the playoff.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange was the analyst for ABC Sports, watching in disbelief from the booth. Strange played long enough in his Hall of Fame career to experience his share of failure. But nothing like this.

"I don't like to use the word 'dumb,' but it's the most stupid thing I've seen in my life in golf," Strange said.

He compared the blunders to Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo mishandling a snap on a field goal in the playoffs last year or Bill Buckner letting a grounder go through his legs at first base to score the winning run in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

This was different.

"Those were all instinctive things," Strange said. "With Van de Velde, he had a chance to think out the entire hole. He had a chance to use strategy on every shot. And he took the wrong club every time."

Van de Velde was the last player to arrive on the 15th tee for the four-hole playoff. He lost the lead, but not his humor.

"I thought it would be better if we keep the entertainment going, and that is why I have invited you to play a few more holes," he said to Lawrie and Leonard.

The Frenchman then hit another bad drive into a bush and took double bogey. He tried to rally with a birdie on the 17th to pull within one shot of Lawrie, but it ended when the Scot hit 4-iron to 3 feet to sew up the victory.

He had the claret jug. Van de Velde had some explaining to do.

"Next time, maybe I'll hit the wedge and you will all forgive me," Van de Velde said.

There probably won't be a next time.

Van de Velde won the Madeira Island Open last year. His first European Tour victory in 13 years allows him to keep his card through next season, but he has qualified for only one major over the last five years, missing the cut at St. Andrews in 2005.

He was at Royal Troon the year before doing commentary for the BBC, and spoke briefly about his infamous day at Carnoustie.

"That's what sport is about," Van de Velde said. "It's about emotion, whether good or bad. At the end of the day, there has always been one guy coming out to the disappointment of another. It was a good tournament. It was a tough tournament.

"And everyone suffered along the way."

Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus