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 Trophee Lancome,
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
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."
July 25, 1999
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
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 ultrafirm, 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 Jose Maria Olazabal
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:
[pound]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 resume 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
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 greenside 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."
Last week's British Open may not have been the most difficult
major ever, but it was the hardest in 25 years. Here's how the
carnage at Carnoustie stacks up against the toughest tests since
'99 BRITISH OPEN/RANK RECORD/MAJOR
Winning Score +6/2nd +7/'74 U.S. Open
Cut +12/3rd +14/'74 British Open
Field Avg. per Round +5.82/3rd +6.99/'74 U.S. Open
Rounds in the 80s 102/4th 131/'72 U.S. Open
Subpar Rounds 18/4th 8/'74 U.S. Open
"You can't judge your game on this course," said Duval. "Good
shots end up in the hay, bad shots end up on the green."
The only collapse comparable to Van de Velde's was that of Sam
Snead, who shot 8 on the last hole of the '39 U.S. Open.