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.
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.'