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At Carnoustie, a major boost?
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Perhaps Carnoustie will kick-start a Slam season stuck in the doldrums.
It could be argued that golf’s last visit to the Angus Monster (7,361 yards, par 71) provided the most unforgettable major theater since the Golden Bear bolted from hibernation at the 1986 Masters.
The 1999 British Open is seared into the collective conscious because it established painful parameters of potentiality for the pro game, redefining debacle and giving new meaning to the term “meltdown.”
On a links-turned-amusement park courtesy of a greenskeeper (John Philp) run amok, a Frenchman wielding the sharpest blade in Open history (a record 104 putts) came to the final tee box three strokes clear of the field with his name all but engraved on the claret jug.
The tragic hero, obvious one-major wonder Jean Van de Velde, then authored the most surreal swoon in the game’s history — a one-hole nightmare that rendered Greg Norman’s collapse at the 1996 Masters comparatively obsolete and turned Van de Velde into a punch line in just 30 minutes.
Needing only a double bogey for victory, Van de Velde imprudently chose a driver from the tee, predictably blocking the shot dead right. Miraculously, his errant drive came to rest on a tiny peninsula in the 17th fairway bordered by the omnipresent Barry Burn. Fate had given him a mulligan and sent him a message.
Of course, Van de Velde refused to listen.
Instead of playing safely for bogey by laying up with a pitching wedge, he challenged the burn again, slashing a 2-iron toward the green. The ill-advised shot ricocheted backward off a greenside grandstand, leaving Van de Velde’s ball buried hopelessly in the deep rough short of the burn. Doomed by the lie, his third shot ended in the burn, providing the event’s signature image: Van de Velde shoeless in the Barry Burn, cuffs rolled up, hands on hips, water rising.
A drop, a gouge, a bunker shot and an impressive 15-foot putt later, Van de Velde’s triple-bogey tumble was complete. Van de Velde, along with 1997 British Open champion Justin Leonard, would go on to lose to Scotsman Paul Lawrie in a four-hole playoff. But then, as now, Lawrie was an afterthought.
“People don’t even remember that I was a part of that Open, and that’s just fine with me,” Leonard said at the recent AT&T; National. “All I remember about that week was that it was a crazy playoff on a crazy course after a crazy finish.”
In the midst of a crazy major season. Aside from Van de Velde’s epic collapse, 1999 saw Jose Maria Olazabal win his second green jacket just two years after he wondered whether he ever would walk again, Payne Stewart’s 72nd-hole victory in the U.S. Open just four months before his death in a plane crash over cell phone-toting expectant father Phil Mickelson at Pinehurst and Tiger Woods’ duel with 19-year-old Sergio Garcia at Medinah in the PGA Championship.
Compare that sublime major standard with this season’s two Slams. First, a birdie-free Masters crowned virtual unknown Zach Johnson champion. Then Woods and Jim Furyk, the world’s Nos. 1 and 3, were bested on Oakmont’s back nine by Angel Cabrera.
This major season might need a kick in the pants, and Carnoustie could be the perfect foot for the job. With the notable exception of the 1999 Open, when Philp’s thigh-high rough and single-file fairway resulted in a lottery (however riveting), the Angus Monster normally has exhibited exquisite taste in champions. The three Opens at Carnoustie preceding the 1999 debacle were won by Ben Hogan (1953), Gary Player (1968) and Tom Watson (1975).
Given this week’s kinder, gentler setup and this season’s back-to-back major blanks, golf seems due for a comparably high-caliber uprising.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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