For those of us who were there, pernicious types in the pressbox, ghouls in the grandstand, Jean Van de Velde’s horrendous capitulation in the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie is recalled with a sense of discomfort, as though we’d been witness to a serious crime and done nothing about it.
Van de Velde had played beautifully for 71 holes and, as all followers of the game now know, needed just a double-bogey six down the final par-four to win the sport’s oldest and most revered championship. For a pro golfer, that is a task so straightforward it is the rough equivalent of being asked to recite the alphabet.
In the clubhouse, the engraver was double-checking the spelling of Van de Velde’s surname, and had his engraving tool poised above the Auld Claret Jug. The Frenchman, who had birdied the 18th hole on the two previous days, must have allowed himself the indulgence of composing an acceptance speech as he stood on that final tee and surveyed the scene before him.
But, with that simple equation facing him as he pulled the cover of his driver – six strokes or better to achieve his childhood dream and make worthwhile all those hours spent toiling away on the world’s practice fairways – he came a gutser in the most spectacular way.
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His second shot, a two-iron from the rough, made a resounding clunk as it clattered into the grandstand near Carnoustie’s final green. The ball then somehow rebounded 30 or 40 metres back towards the Frenchman, back over the Barry Burn, and landed in a wiry thicket of Scottish rough. From there, he had nowhere to go and succeeded only in plopping the ball in the murky water of the burn. Then came the money shot for the tournament’s legion of accredited photographers as Van de Velde took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his trousers and descended into the burn to examine his lie. For fully five minutes, he waded in and out of the sludge weighing up his options.
Up in the television commentary box, Peter Alliss was aghast and making unkind references to Monsieur Hulot and French farces.
Rather than attempt an audacious recovery, Van de Velde sensibly took a penalty drop out of the water. His next shot landed in a bunker, from where he made a courageous up-and-down, holing a two-metre putt for a triple-bogey seven.
As his playing partner at the time, Australian Craig Parry, has long maintained, Van de Velde was horribly unlucky. If his ball had either nestled up in the grandstand, or bounced out into an unplayable lie near the stand, he would have been given relief without penalty. Instead, though, his ball ricocheted up in the air like a skyrocket. That was the cue for fate to take over.
Van de Velde made the three-man playoff with American Justin Leonard and Scotland’s Paul Lawrie but the damage was done. He was a shot duck, his brain as addled and confused as if his head, rather than the grandstand, had been struck by the errant two-iron. Lawrie, ranked 159th in the world, who started the final round 10 shots out of the lead, took advantage of the Frenchman’s collapse and won the championship.
While Van de Velde had every reason to curl up in the foetal position and never step out his front door again, he has fronted the world with his chin held up and never once dodged a question about that day. Indeed, he has managed the disaster with as much élan, grace and good humour as humanly possible, in the process becoming a living embodiment of how to deal with Kipling’s twin imposters, triumph and disaster. ‘’Yes, it’s devastating – a lot,’’ he said. ‘’But it’s a golf tournament, it’s a game. There are worse things in life.’’
The British Open is back at Carnoustie this week, for the first time since 1999, and Van de Velde will be nowhere in sight. His career has spluttered along since that July week, usually finishing among the also-rans and never reaching the heights it did over those first 71 holes eight years ago. He represented Europe against the United States in the Ryder Cup later that year and was heckled by American fans over his Carnoustie debacle. He made a dramatic comeback at the 2005 French Open where he lost a playoff to fellow Frenchman Jean-Francois Remesy after, once again, finding water on the last hole. Last year, he won his second European Tour title at the Madeira Island Open.
But Van de Velde has been suffering from a virus for more than three months and even his famously acute sense of perspective has been stretched to the limit by the illness. In recent weeks, his condition has deteriorated and he spent Tuesday morning in hospital undergoing tests for bone cancer. It was, he insisted, a purely precautionary procedure but it is clear his golf career will be on hold for some time. The timing is spooky: another British Open week at Carnoustie, another round of torment for the Frenchman.
The news will hit The Open, and golf, hard. For the modern game is desperately short on colour, and needs all the help it can get to enliven its dowdy image. And the championship this week will be poorer, and beiger, for Van de Velde’s absence.