The Van de Velde Follies

By Rich LernerNovember 5, 2009, 10:46 pm
Project 99I was there when ... the Frenchman became an adjective for all future episodes of golf infamy. You know, 'That was a collapse of Van de Veldian proportions.' Or, 'He experienced a momentary lapse of Van de Veldian confusion.'

The 1999 Open Championship remains the single most bizarre event I’ve ever covered. Until the 72nd hole, it had been perhaps the most forgettable and unappealing, at least from a competitive standpoint.

Personally, though, it was not without some good memories.

I arrived in Carnoustie, a hard-boiled town with none of nearby St. Andrews' charm, nearly a week before the first round. My cameraman, Paul Schlegel, and I were working on a British Open preview show.
Jean Van de Velde
Jean Van de Velde in one of the most dubious images in golf. (Getty Images)
We found the townspeople to be very hospitable. Initially, our accommodations put us more than an hour outside the town. So while working on our stories, we left our contact numbers with a few local businesses in hopes that they might hear of an opening closer to the golf course. We scored quickly, and it was the equivalent of a hole-in-one.  

The Rockcliff House sits directly across from the 18th hole on Links Road. Winston Churchill stayed there in 1918. He didn’t golf, but I could imagine him doing as we did, sipping 10-year-old Tubermore while reading the salacious British tabs.  

It’s owned by the Wilkie family, and they couldn’t have been nicer, preparing breakfast and dinner, doing our laundry and greeting us at day’s end like Mom and Dad.  

Unpretentious, Carnoustians could also be fiercely defensive of their golf course. Off Scotland’s east coast, the tiny beach town with the menacing name has always existed in the shadow of St. Andrews.

“They can have the 'Home of golf' and all the romance, we definitely have the golf course,” said Joe Gourlay of Carnoustie Golf Club.

A far cry from exclusive Muirfield, Carnoustie’s the layman’s club.

“It’s love of the game that counts, not how fat your wallet is,” added John Laurie, another member.

Absent from the rota for nearly a quarter century because of inadequate roads and hotels, Carnoustie had finally returned. The 1999 Open would be a reminder of not only Carnoustie’s modern relevance but also its importance historically in the game.

But John Philp had other ideas.  

Philp was the greenskeeper. I remember early in the week of the championship I’d toured the course with him. Keep in mind this was at the height of the distance explosion, when Tiger had made a mockery of Augusta’s par 5s a couple years before.

Philp was a staunch traditionalist, and he was determined to make a statement. He thought that modern technology had gone way too far.  It almost seemed as though he wanted to punish the new generation. 

And he did.

Funny, I even recall asking him to name a guy he thought played the game the right way, which is to say hitting fairways. He said Justin Leonard, who’d won the Open in 1997 and would ultimately make the playoff with Van de Velde and eventual winner, Paul Lawrie.

In any event, the rough was a joke. Greg Norman whiffed in waist high jungle. A foot off the fairway.  

“It was unfair,” Tiger said.

Fifty-five players shot in the 80s on Day 1. Sergio Garcia posted 89. Forty-four players failed to break 300 for the week.

It was a complete embarrassment. And it dominated conversations all week. That and how the Open would never be coming back to Carnoustie, as well as what flight you were on Monday morning. People couldn’t wait to escape.

Carnoustie was getting the winner it deserved, an obscure 33-year-old Frenchman with just one previous win to his credit.  

Most of the writers had pretty much filed their stories by Sunday afternoon. Jean Van de Velde would be the first Frenchman since Arnaud Massey in 1907 to win the Open Championship on a layout that savaged and demoralized the best players in the world.

Laptops were being packed up. The mood was flat, even depressing after a long week dealing with beat up and cranky players.  

And then it started to rain.

And then the Frenchman jumped in the burn.

And then all hell broke loose.

I couldn’t get a good vantage point from behind 18 green so I ran into the pro shop and watched on a small TV, stunned like the rest of the world.   

There were maybe a half dozen people crammed in among the racks of shirts and hats and sweaters. All I heard were comments probably no different than the ones you heard wherever you were watching.
     
“What the hell is he doing?”

“Oh my God, he’s gonna’ try to hit it out of there.”

“This is unreal.”  

Suddenly, the atmosphere went from flat to surreal. A massive burst of adrenaline shot through the grounds.
 
By most sensible accounts, Van de Velde never, ever should have been in this predicament. He needed a double bogey-6 to win.  A double-freaking-bogey.

That’s 3-iron, two wedges and two putts, right?  

Wrong, according to Van de Velde.

“To me it was against the spirit of the game,” he later said. “I’m going to hit a wedge and then another wedge and then what, three-putt from 30 feet to win by one?”

He hit driver right. But rather than lay-up short of the burn, he decided to go for the green with a 2 iron. This one sailed off the upper rail of the grandstands right and bounced into high rough short of the burn. Bad break? You could make that case. But it’s hard to make the case that hitting 2-iron was the smartest move.

At this point, logic and reason should have grabbed Van de Velde by the collar and screamed in his face, “Punch it sideways into the fairway, wedge it on in four and two-putt for the Claret Jug.”

Van de Velde instead aimed toward the green and took a hack. Act II of Carnoustie’s Theater of the Absurd was about to begin.

Ankle deep in the cold waters of the Barry Burn, Van de Velde stared helplessly at his submerged golf ball, photographers just above him snapping away at what would become an iconic picture.

“I could see the ball sinking,” he said. “Telling me, ‘Hey, you silly man, not for you, not today.’”

ABC’s Curtis Strange said, “It’s the most stupid thing I’ve ever seen.”

Imagine if he’d actually tried to hit it out of the burn. We’ll never know, but that he even considered it, that he rolled up his pants was enough to elevate the whole scene to the level of tragic comedy.

Van de Velde took a drop and then knocked his fifth shot into the right greenside bunker. He’d now need an up-and-down just to make a playoff with Leonard and Lawrie, who began the day 10 shots back but shot 67.  The greatest Sunday comeback in a major had been eight shots by Jackie Burke Jr. at the 1956 Masters.   

Incredibly, Craig Parry, playing alongside Van de Velde, was in the same bunker laying two. And he holed his shot!  

He turned to Van de Velde and said, “What about following me into the hole?”

Van de Velde blasted to 8 feet instead.

After he made the greatest triple bogey in history, I scurried out to follow the playoff. It was madness. Chaos.

Van de Velde doubled the first of four playoff holes. Lawrie birdied the final two. Only the Scots cared that he’d won. Van de Velde was the story.  

When he finished his big room interview with the print journalists, Van de Velde came outside to the tiny area where the cable networks – Golf Channel, CNN, ESPN and Sky – were waiting to talk to him.

It was pouring.

With a smile, Van de Velde looked up at the dark skies and said with his unmistakable accent and good cheer, “Zis is fitting, zis rain, no?!  What can you do?”   

And then he faced the sad, sad music with grace and humor. “There are worse things in life,” he said. “This is only a golf tournament. I made plenty of friends because a Scottish man won.”

Van de Velde lives with his family today in Dubai, playing sparingly on the European Tour.

Of course, he’s not the only man to have made a calamitous mistake late in a major championship. Phil Mickelson and Arnold Palmer both made double bogey on the 72nd hole to lose a U.S. Open, Sam Snead a triple.  But for sheer disbelief, it will be hard to ever top the sight of Van de Velde with his pants rolled up in the burn, and then pumping his fist after draining the putt for triple bogey.

Nothing has ever approached the British Open of 1999.

I remember years later the crack from a Scotsman. “It was all very French,” he explained. “Flair and panache took over common sense.'
Getty Images

McCoy earns medalist honors at Web.com Q-School

By Will GrayDecember 11, 2017, 12:30 am

One year after his budding career was derailed by a car accident, Lee McCoy got back on track by earning medalist honors at the final stage of Web.com Tour Q-School.

McCoy shot a final-round 65 at Whirlwind Golf Club in Chandler, Ariz., to finish the 72-hole event at 28 under. That total left him two shots ahead of Sung-Jae Im and guaranteed him fully-exempt status on the developmental circuit in 2018.

It's an impressive turnaround for the former University of Georgia standout who finished fourth at the 2016 Valspar Championship as an amateur while playing alongside Jordan Spieth in the final round. But he broke his wrist in a car accident the day before second stage of Q-School last year, leaving him without status on any major tour to begin the year.

McCoy was not the only player who left Arizona smiling. Everyone in the top 10 and ties will be exempt through the first 12 events of the new Web.com Tour season, a group that includes former amateur standouts Curtis Luck (T-3), Sam Burns (T-10) and Maverick McNealy (T-10).

Players who finished outside the top 10 but inside the top 45 and ties earned exemptions into the first eight events of 2018. That group includes Cameron Champ (T-16), who led the field in driving at this year's U.S. Open as an amateur, and Wyndham Clark (T-23).

Everyone who advanced to the final stage of Q-School will have at least conditional Web.com Tour status in 2018. Among those who failed to secure guaranteed starts this week were Robby Shelton, Rico Hoey, Jordan Niebrugge, Joaquin Niemann and Kevin Hall.

Els honored with Heisman Humanitarian Award

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 11:41 pm

The annual Heisman Trophy award ceremony is one of the biggest moments in any football season, but there was a touching non-football moment as well on Saturday night as Ernie Els received the Heisman Humanitarian Award.

The award, which had been announced in August, recognized Els' ongoing efforts on behalf of his Els for Autism foundation. Els received the award at Manhattan's PlayStation Theater, where Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy.

Els, 47, founded Els for Autism in 2009 with his wife after their son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism. Their efforts have since flourished into a 26-acre campus in Jupiter, Fla., and the creation of the Els Center for Excellence in 2015.

The Heisman Humanitarian Award has been given out since 2006. Past recipients include NBA center David Robinson, NFL running back Warrick Dunn, soccer star Mia Hamm and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.

A native of South Africa, Els won the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1997 and The Open in 2002 and 2012. He has won 19 times on the PGA Tour and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.

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Monday finish for Joburg Open; Sharma leads by 4

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 8:57 pm

Rain, lightning and hail pushed the Joburg Open to a Monday finish, with India’s Shubhankar Sharma holding a four-stroke lead with 11 holes to play in Johannesburg.

Play is scheduled to resume at 7:30 a.m. local time.

South Africa’s Erik van Rooyen will have a 3-foot putt for birdie to move within three shots of Sharma wen play resumes at the Randpark Golf Club. Sarma is at 22 under par.

Tapio Pulkkanen of Finland and James Morrison of England are tied for third at 14 under. Pulkkanen has 10 holes remaining, Morrison 11.

The top three finishers who are not already exempt, will get spots in next year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie.

 

 

Stricker, O'Hair team to win QBE Shootout

By Will GrayDecember 10, 2017, 8:55 pm

It may not count in the official tally, but Steve Stricker is once again in the winner's circle on the PGA Tour.

Stricker teamed with Sean O'Hair to win the two-person QBE Shootout, as the duo combined for a better-ball 64 in the final round to finish two shots clear of Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry. It's the second win in this event for both men; Stricker won with Jerry Kelly back in 2009 while O'Hair lifted the trophy with Kenny Perry in 2012.

Stricker and O'Hair led wire-to-wire in the 54-hole, unofficial event after posting a 15-under 57 during the opening-round scramble.

"We just really gelled well together," Stricker said. "With his length the first day, getting some clubs into the greens, some short irons for me, we just fed off that first day quite a bit. We felt comfortable with one another."


Full-field scores from the QBE Shootout


Stricker won 12 times during his PGA Tour career, most recently at the 2012 Tournament of Champions. More recently the 50-year-old has been splitting his time on the PGA Tour Champions and captained the U.S. to a victory at the Presidents Cup in October. O'Hair has four official Tour wins, most recently at the 2011 RBC Canadian Open.

Pat Perez and Brian Harman finished alone in third, four shots behind Stricker and O'Hair. Lexi Thompson and Tony Finau, the lone co-ed pairing in the 12-team event, finished among a tie for fourth.