On Open Championship Sunday at Carnoustie in 1999 Jean Van de Velde stood on the tee of the final hole holding a seemingly impregnable three-stroke lead and was just 487 yards from achieving the ultimate accolade in golf – being crowned the Open champion. During the previous three days Van de Velde had played flawless golf and appeared to be totally in control of his game.
Bidding to become the first French golfer to win the championship since Arnaud Massy in 1907, he had made just a single double-bogey during the first 54 holes of the championship and had birdied the 18th hole in both the second and third rounds. Then, with his name all but engraved on the Claret Jug, the personable Frenchman committed harakiri in truly excruciating style. After a mediocre drive the general consensus would have been to lay up short of the Barry Burn. From there it would have required just a relatively simple pitch followed by the luxury of three putts to achieve victory in the most important championship in the world. Yet the Golfing Gods decreed otherwise!
Despite the mediocre drive, Van de Velde decided that he had a reasonable lie in the rough and a 2-iron would be sufficient to reach the green. “I only had 185 yards to carry the water, which wasn’t very demanding,” he explained afterwards, adding, “The ball was lying so good I took my 2-iron and pushed it a little. I did not hit a very good shot.” That was putting it politely! Van de Velde’s golf ball hit the grandstand that ran along the right-hand side of the green, flew backwards and then cannoned off the rocks guarding the Barry Burn before coming to rest in the high rough the wrong side of the water. Explaining his predicament at that stage Jean said, “I couldn’t go backwards; I don’t think I could have done anything. The only thing I could do was hit it hard. Obviously I did not hit it hard enough.” That comment was true enough as the ball simply flopped forward into the waiting waters of the Burn.
The sorry state of affairs which was unfolding before the incredulous and silent spectators then almost turned into farce as Van de Velde took off his shoes and socks and waded gingerly into the water. For a moment it looked as if had taken total leave of his senses but some semblance of sanity prevailed; he changed his mind and opted to take a penalty drop. A pitch and a putt would still have given him victory but the Gods were not prepared to relent. In attempting the pitch Van de Velde slid his wedge underneath the ball, which just popped up in the air and finished in the front bunker. Meanwhile, Jean’s playing partner Craig Parry, who had suffered his own share of misfortune during the round, watched on in almost total disbelief. “I was really feeling for Jean,” he said afterwards, adding, “I could see him throwing the championship away. He played great for 71 holes. I felt sorry for him.” Thankfully the sorry saga was finally concluded when, to his eternal credit, Van de Velde got up-and-down from the bunker but the card-wrecking treble-bogey only left him in a four-hole play-off with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie and it was the Scot who went on to win the title by three shots after the extra holes. The set up of the golf course had come in for some severe criticism during the week and in a parting shot at the organisers, although it did him little credit, Davis Love commented sourly, “The Open got the champion it deserved!”
When the dust had settled Van de Velde was inundated with questions from the assembled media, some of whom found it hard to believe that their eyes had not deceived them. In the face of a barrage of questions, some of which bordered on accusations of lunacy, Jean handled the situation with a marvellous sense of humour coupled with a considerable degree of self-deprecation. The golfer who had been the main character in the unforgettable drama brought matters to a conclusion by commenting, “Maybe it was asking too much of me but the ball was lying so well. Next time, I hit a wedge and you all forgive me?” The only problem about that comment is that there is hardly likely to be a next time.
Jean again made light of his extraordinary collapse in a humorous “Never Compromise” commercial in which he played the 18th hole at Carnoustie, in the depths of winter, using only the company’s branded putter. In an attempt to better the seven strokes which cost him so dearly earlier in the year, he succeeded at the third time of asking.
Born in May 1966 in Mont de Marsan, France, Jean Van de Velde represented his country at all levels of amateur golf and turned professional at the age of 21 with an impressive handicap of plus 2. Having gained his tour card at the qualifying school the following year he had to wait for five years before experiencing his first triumph when he won the Roma Masters in a play-off. That win, however, did not herald the start of a winning streak – quite the opposite in fact. Between then and the infamous Carnoustie debacle Jean’s best finishes were three second places. His runner-up spot in the Open lifted him into 13th place on the Order of Merit, and onto the Ryder Cup team at Brookline, but from there it was a downhill journey, which was not helped when a knee injured while skiing required two surgical reconstructions, and he eventually lost his tour card in 2004. The following year he regained his playing privileges by finishing second in the French Open, when playing as a sponsor’s invitee, and he returned to winning ways in 2006 when he gained an emotional victory in the Madeira Open. Van de Velde’s winning ways then deserted him once more and he slumped to 107th on the Order of Merit in 2007 and lost his card again in 2008 when his finishing position slipped further to 120th.
Since that catastrophic Sunday at Carnoustie, Van de Velde, now 52, has travelled extensively, living in France, Dubai and Hong Kong. He currently resides in Andalucía, close to Royal Valderrama Club.