Jean Van de Velde’s 72nd-hole collapse at the 1999 British Open had a mythological quality to it, unfolding in the Scottish mist like one of those Charlie Chaplin movies from the 1920s. The lasting moments of regulation play at Carnoustie that day were defined more by comedy than tragedy. Van de Velde actually seemed to be posing for photographers when he hopped into the burn barefoot to contemplate his fourth shot.
Without question, it remains the most bizarre scene I have witnessed as a golf writer. A total unknown on the verge of the impossible, then booting it away in such a theatrical manner, all while sporting a mischievous smirk – it was almost as if Van de Velde were pulling off the biggest prank in sports history.
Adam Scott’s collapse at Royal Lytham obviously was very different: an established and decorated player on a far more playable course – even if he’d bogeyed Carnoustie’s 18th, Van de Velde would have won by two strokes at 4 over par. Scott needed four holes and the better part of an hour to blow his big lead, which made it seem more nerve-induced. Van de Velde’s folly took about 20 minutes and seemed more like a collision with reality.
That said, the Frenchman holed a 6-footer for a triple bogey, which got him into a playoff with Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard. Scott had a slightly longer par putt to force extra holes and missed. I’m not sure how you rank late meltdowns by guys about to win a major championship, but Scott, given the quality of his play through 14 holes and the variety of mistakes he made on the last four, was certainly the harder to watch.
There was a time or two when you might have wondered if Van de Velde truly wanted to win the tournament, as if he considered himself unworthy. Scott suddenly began laboring with his big advantage, much like Greg Norman did at the 1996 Masters, but that was a very different situation: a guy with a negative history playing alongside the only man who could possibly catch him – one of the wiliest and most strategtically sound competitors ever.
Norman’s six-shot lead was gone by the 12th tee. He was basically toast by the 13th green. The notion that Scott is Norman’s protégé and a fellow Australian doesn’t fly here; pressure doesn’t care about your nationality or background. Besides, the Shark was burdened by his past. Scott had no such scar tissue and performed like a champion until the 15th hole.
Watching Sunday’s gloomy homestretch with several thousand people on a live chat, what struck me was how the audience had barely shrunk a full hour after play ended. Most chat numbers take a serious hit after Tiger Woods finishes, or once the final outcome is official. This was golf-fan rubbernecking at its finest – people sticking around to absorb the ramifications of the accident, assess the damage and search for perspective.
You can’t give up a four-shot lead with four to play unless you make a series of errors, which Scott did, but it wasn’t until the 18th that he hit a bad tee shot. A poor approach and short miss for par at the 16th, then a dumbfounding blunder with an iron into the 17th, where he missed long and left – what began with a seemingly innocuous bogey at the 15th morphed into something very troublseome within two holes, at which point mental mistakes began amplifying Scott’s struggles.
The biggest occurred with the club selection on that 18th tee. Scott had hit an iron there the day before, leaving him well short of the bunkers and 173 yards in – probably a stock 8-iron for him. How on earth can caddie Steve Williams let his guy pull out a 3-wood and plant it in the face of one of those sand pits?
It made no sense, particularly when you consider how well Scott had hit his driver all week. If you’re playing for the win, go ahead and smash the big stick down there past the trouble and get yourself a wedge in. The 3-wood was the club most likely to bring a bogey into play, although it’s fair to say Scott was leaking too much oil for anything to come easily.
I don’t like giving caddies too much credit in victory, so I’ll avoid blaming Williams in defeat, but it was an illogical decision both men may live to rue. As ultra-gracious as Scott was after the collapse, I wasn’t surprised, having covered the kid from his early days as a Tour pro and dealing with him directly after several of his biggest wins.
He is as gentlemanly a guy as you’ll find, polite and courteous far beyond the norm, but there’s a part of me that wishes Scott had walked into the awards ceremony and busted something, forsaking his valor for the better part of dour. Blowing a four-stroke lead with four holes to play at the British Open is supposed to hurt. There’s noting wrong with letting people see your pain.
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Hawkins is a contributing writer with more than two decades of journalism experience.
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