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The curious case of Jean Van de Velde's British Open disaster

(This story first appeared in SI in 1999.)

France is a country without much of a golfing tradition. Its greatest player, Arnaud Massy, conceded victory to Harry Vardon on the 35th hole of a playoff in the 1911 British Open, saying, "I can't play zis damn game." He was just being modest, of course -- Massy had won the 1907 Open -- but since then the French have placed golf somewhere between sunbathing and just plain bathing on their list of vital activities. The Trophée Lancôme, France's biggest golf tournament, is staged near the Palace of Versailles, and its main purpose seems to be to allow French society to dress up and roam the tented village holding champagne flutes.

So it was startling last week when a dashing Frenchman named Jean Van de Velde threw away the British Open at Carnoustie, Scotland, in the most extravagant display of je ne sais squat in the history of championship golf. Standing on the tee of the final hole on Sunday, Van de Velde had a three-stroke lead. Twenty excruciating minutes later he was bent over a six-foot putt, needing to hole it to get into a playoff with 1997 British Open champion Justin Leonard and Scotsman Paul Lawrie.

To get from point A to point B the Frenchman had hit the wrong club off the tee, chosen an even worse club from the rough for his second shot, bruised a grandstand, wound up barefoot in a burn and pitched into a greenside bunker, performing with such consistent disregard for his position that old-timers were reminded of Wrong-Way Corrigan, the aviator of the '30s who set off from New York for Los Angeles and flew instead to Ireland. "Well, it's better than a kick in zee ass," Van de Velde joked afterward, echoing Massy's long-forgotten sentiment.

Nothing that anyone said could capture the horror of the Frenchman's misadventure. "Obviously Jean had the tournament in his pocket," said Lawrie, who made history himself by shooting 67 and coming from a record 10 shots behind in the final round to win. "He chips it down the 18th fairway, hits it on the green, makes five, he's the Open champion." Leonard, who had played in the twosome in front of Van de Velde and warmed up the audience for the Frenchman by hitting a three-wood into the burn, said, "As bad as I feel, he feels worse."

Van de Velde couldn't quite get his mind around the calamity. "It wasn't something absolutely mad that I tried to do," he said at his postmortem press conference. "It just came out to be a nightmare."

Which was appropriate, because that's pretty much what the 128th Open Championship was from start to finish: a golfer's nightmare. Carnoustie, which was last the site of the Open in 1975, when Tom Watson won the first of his five British titles, is a nasty antique that was brought down from the attic after 24 years. Last week the holes were longer than they were when Watson won there; the rough was deeper; and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the organization that runs the British Open, made the fairways as narrow as an eel's appendix scar. The fairways were also ultra-firm, allowing balls that landed safely to go looking for trouble, most often in some gravel-bottomed moat or wall-faced bunker. "I don't think there's an individual in the R and A who could break 100 on this course," said Phil Mickelson, who shot 79-76 and missed the cut.

Every year there are claims that the course at some major championship is too severe, but how often does the first-round leader fail to survive the 36-hole cut? At Carnoustie that happened to Australia's Rodney Pampling, who shot 71, the only par round on Thursday, before bowing out with a more believable 86 on Friday. How often does America's leading money winner finish 22 over par? That happened to David Duval, who carded 24 bogeys and four double bogeys on his way to a 62nd-place finish. "You can't judge your game on this golf course," Duval said. "Good shots end up in the hay, bad shots end up on the green." (Saturday's headline in the Scottish Mirror: DUVAL LEADS AMERICAN FURY AT KILLER CARNOUSTIE.)

It was fitting that a Scot won, because this Open seemed less about defending par than about restoring the British Empire. Carnoustie sank the Spanish Armada! (Seve Ballesteros, rookie sensation Sergio Garcia and Masters champion José María Olazábal shot a collective 69 over par for two rounds.) Carnoustie disciplined the Colonies! (Defending champion Mark O'Meara shot a first-round 83, the highest round by a defending champion in 123 years.) Carnoustie humiliated the French! (Poor Van de Velde.)

Some blamed the wind, but the wind was normal for Tayside, a persistent 15 to 25 mph with an occasional toupee-lifting gust. In such conditions the ideal shot is usually described as one played "under the wind."

"Christ, they don't know what a low ball is," muttered Carnoustie's feisty greenkeeper, John Philip, as he watched the world's best players struggle with links-style golf. "We used to call them daisy cutters. This is the old style, the natural style." Philip was pleased with the scores, which ranged far upwards from the playoff trio's six-over-par 290 -- the highest winning total at any major since Jack Nicklaus's 290 in the 1972 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

By the third round the golfers had changed their focus from the impossible course conditions to the possible payoff: £350,000 (about $577,500) and one year's possession of the fabled claret jug. Craig Parry, the diminutive Australian who helped make hash of the U.S. team at last year's Presidents Cup, shot the lowest score of the week, a 67, and moved into a second-place tie with Leonard. But Saturday was most notable for the noncollapse of the second-round leader, Van de Velde, who never let his lead slip to less than two. Van de Velde is a handsome 33-year-old with thick brown hair, a single win on his European tour résumé and an excess of Gallic charm. He speaks English with an Yves Montand purr -- the only thing becomes zee only sing -- and he seduced the British galleries with an occasional wink and grin. But it was the golf course that sighed and reached for a smoke when he was done on Saturday. Among his memorable strokes: an 80-foot putt for birdie at the 14th, a bunker escape to within a foot to save par at the 17th and a 45-footer that rolled squarely into the hole for another birdie on 18. Van de Velde made the leap from nonentity to entity more dramatically than any golfer since John Daly in the '91 PGA Championship.

Afterward, tactful journalists asked the Disneyland Paris-sponsored pro if he understood that he was destined to choke like a dog on Sunday and disgrace himself in front of France and the world. With refreshing candor, Van de Velde replied, "What can happen? I can lose it!"

Could he ever. But not before performing winningly in his own sweet way. The Frenchman, like Lawrie, got to Carnoustie through local qualifying, and he came in as the 152nd-ranked player in the world. Had Van de Velde won, only Daly, who was No. 168 at the time of his victory at Crooked Stick, would have been a lower-ranked major title winner. "Better players than me have had a commanding lead and lost," Van de Velde conceded on Saturday, almost embarrassed by his five-shot margin.

Tiger Woods, who tied for seventh at Carnoustie for his fifth top 10 finish in his last seven majors, had predicted that even a 10-shot lead wouldn't be safe on such a savage course. Van de Velde proved him right on Sunday, squandering his entire lead by the 8th hole, where Parry caught him under a gray sky in suddenly becalmed weather. But Van de Velde regained the lead when Parry made 7 from deep rough on the 12th. When Van de Velde birdied the 14th, the lead was back to three, and one BBC commentator began humming La Marseillaise.

Only the local ironmongers and publicans were paying attention to Lawrie, a 30-year-old former club pro from just up the road in Aberdeen. Lawrie, ranked 159th in the world coming to Carnoustie, matched Parry's best-of-the-week 67 and got ready for a pint in the hotel behind the 18th green, expecting to be low Scot (usually a minor achievement, because no Scottish-born player had won the Open in Scotland since Tommy Armour did it in 1931 at -- where else? --Carnoustie).

Golf historians will argue over what happened to Van de Velde on the 18th tee. Some will blame his caddie, who failed to dissuade him from using the driver. Others will blame Napoleon, who set a bad precedent at Waterloo. Whatever the reason, Van de Velde spent five strokes on his way to the green-side bunker, drawing groans and howls of disbelief from the thousands of fans watching from the grandstands and from the balconies of the Carnoustie Golf Hotel.

"His golfing brain deserted him," said the BBC's Peter Alliss. But amazingly, Van De Velde's heart did not. He hit an explosion shot to six feet and then avoided total humiliation by making the putt, causing the stands to erupt. His nonvictory dance -- Van De Velde pumped his arm, waved his visor, and hurled his ball into the stands -- was peculiarly poignant and deserves to be reshown for years as an example of spirit in dispiriting times.

The playoff, staged in a steady rain on holes 15 through 18, was tedious and not too artistic, but Lawrie's bogey-bogey-birdie-birdie slog was far better than either Van de Velde or Leonard could do. The Scot avenged many of the week's horrors by sticking his four-iron approach from the 18th fairway to three feet. He then rolled in his putt for a three-shot victory, rewarding the grandstand fans who had cheered and performed the wave for him when he was back on the tee. "Huge thing, to win the Open," he said.

Huge thing to lose it, too, and the '99 Open will be remembered more for the Frenchman's fall than for the Brit's brilliance. The only comparable collapse was that of Sam Snead, who made a triple bogey 8 on the final hole of the 1939 U.S. Open and missed a playoff that was eventually won by Byron Nelson.

Van de Velde was brave and funny in defeat. "Hey, you silly man," he claimed his golf ball had told him from the burn. "Not for you, not today." But he looked forlorn as he walked back to the hotel under his umbrella while his wife, Brigitte, murmured consolations and hugged his waist.

You couldn't hear what she was saying, but it was probably something like, "It's not your fault, Jean. It's zis damn game."

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