- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2007

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Jean Van de Velde would have preferred to be at Carnoustie this week, staring down his golfing demons in person.

Instead, the guy who threw away the 1999 British Open is tackling a much more frightening adversary: a mysterious ailment that has his doctors puzzled and Van de Velde fretting about whether he’s got some sort of dire disease.

Yesterday he went in for an exam that hopefully will rule out any signs of bone cancer. Later this week, he’s scheduled for another major test in hopes of determining what has been causing all his pain and nausea. He’s looking to get a full medical report within 10 days.

“To be really honest, I think my health is more important than playing in a golf tournament,” said Van de Velde, his career on hold.

The dashing Frenchman will forever be linked with this devilish links course along the Scottish coast, where he squandered a three-stroke lead on the 72nd hole. The most lasting — some might say pitiable — image was Van de Velde standing barefooted in the Barry Burn, his pant legs rolled up as he considered whether to try to hit the ball from the chilly water.

He wound up making triple bogey, forcing a playoff and lost the claret jug to Paul Lawrie, whose record 10-stroke comeback in the final round is largely obscured by Van de Velde’s follies (and who even remembers there was a third player for those four extra holes, Justin Leonard?).

Van de Velde graciously accepted his stunning defeat, an attitude that has endured over the years even as it became more and more apparent that he had blown his one and only chance to win a major championship.

He has qualified for only one major over the last five years, missing the cut at St. Andrews in 2005. There was talk of giving him an exemption into this week’s Open, but he would have been in no condition to play.

Over the past few months, Van de Velde’s declining health has sapped his will to tee it up. Only 41, he was initially diagnosed with a form of glandular fever. But the aching in his shoulder and joints won’t let up, so doctors ordered up additional tests to ensure nothing more sinister is going on.

Van de Velde is eager to get all this poking and prodding behind him so he can return to the course. Despite that one devastating hole eight years ago, it remains the place where he feels most comfortable.

“I still want to play golf. I still want to compete,” he said during a phone interview that was piped in to Carnoustie. “Right now, it’s just a little bit of a [setback].”

Until his health took a turn for the worse, Van de Velde had every intention of being in Scotland this week. If he didn’t earn a spot in the Open field, there surely would have been offers to work as a television analyst.

He wanted to come back. He longed to come back. Much like someone who turns off the lights to deal with their fear of the dark, he planned to deal with this lingering ghost on his terms, right out in the open for everyone to see. Right up until the last minute — which, in golfing terms, would be a week ago — he was determined to qualify.

His ailing body just wouldn’t allow it.

“I am very sad that I’m not there this week,” Van de Velde said. “I have respect for the place and the tournament as well, and for all the people that are going to be there. Yes, I would have liked to have come.”

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