It was 1999. It was Carnoustie. And it was going to be the most glorious golf achievement in the history of Gaul. Instead it was just galling.
It was chilly and rainy and windy. And it was instantly infamous.
You know by now how it played out. Van De Velde made a triple-bogey 7 on the final hole of regulation when double-bogey would have left his fingerprints on the Claret Jug.
The resultant four-hole playoff between Van de Velde, American Justin Leonard and Scotlands Paul Lawrie was won decisively by Lawrie. Oddly, no European has won a major championship since then.
So many things were lost in Van de Veldes 11th-hour wreckage that day, including how much better he played than everybody else in the field for the other 35 holes of the weekend on a course that had been doctored to the edge of unplayability by an unchecked superintendent.
Leonard, who had won the Open Championship just two years earlier at Royal Troon and had a game so many people thought was perfectly suited to this event, was the overwhelming favorite in the playoff. But the locals were counting on the little-known Lawrie from just up the road in Aberdeen, where he grew up memorizing all the bumps and hollows that determine winners in linksland golf.
For me, covering Carnoustie as a writer, the championship began benignly enough on Thursday. I had wanted to check out English boy wonder Luke Donald, the hot young kid out of Northwestern University. Donald was an amateur still and, everybody insisted, the goods.
Luke Donald is god, said one PGA TOUR official.
Little did I know that I would be watching the eventual champion when I caught up to Donalds group on the front nine. His playing competitors Thursday and Friday were Australias Peter Lonard and the aforementioned Lawrie.
Peter, Paul and Luke. The Three Apostles. Donald missed the cut. Lonard finished T49.
I was impressed with Lonards ball-striking, Donalds swing and Lawries short game. But mostly it was the golf course that got my attention. The sixth hole, a wicked par-5, had a landing area 11 paces wide for second shots.
The first-round leader, Rodney Pampling, missed the cut. Sergio Garcia barely broke 90 on Friday and responded by weeping openly in his mothers arms after failing to advance to the weekend.
Hogan had won the only Open he had entered at Carnoustie way back in 1953. Tom Watson had notched the first of his five Open Championships in 1975 when he birdied the 72nd hole to force an 18-hole playoff with Australian Jack Newton.
And now I found myself tracking down Van de Veldes caddie and asking him why, for the love of God, he had allowed his man to hit a driver on the 72nd. The caddie was shaken and never completely answered.
It wasnt his fault. Nor was it really Van de Veldes. His tee ball landed in a safe spot. And, clearly, his intention was to bail right on his second. The reasoning was sound. If the ball lands in the bleachers, Van de Velde gets a free drop and has four shots remaining from near the green to win the championship.
I dont believe in bad breaks in golf. If you hit a shot to a spot where something bad happens to your golf ball, you deserve what you get. That having been said, what happened to Van de Veldes second shot was the worst break Ive ever seen on a golf course.
His ball hit a metal fitting on a railing in the stands and ricocheted to a spot from where, as Bob Rosburg used to famously say, he had no shot. Van de Velde proved this to be true when his third landed in the water. A drop to an impossible lie in four and a fifth into the greenside bunker meant the Frenchman had to get up and down just to join the playoff.
He did so, gallantly. But everybody knew his moment had passed.
Van de Velde went on to become, arguably, the most famous loser in the history of the game. When I caught up to him outside the press tent he was holding forth with reporters. It was clear he was going to stick around and talk about what had occurred for as long as there were people with questions.
Soon thereafter Van de Velde would fire his caddie. Then his marriage foundered. Injuries attacked his effectiveness on the golf course.
As recently as last week a lingering virus prevented him from earning a spot into this years Open Championship at what is expected to be a kindler, gentler Carnoustie.
Carnoustie is a small town in the east of Scotland. Everything about it is a spoiled Americans worst nightmare. The lodging choices are below standard. The restaurant choices are limited. The amenities are scarce. And the golf course just kind of sits there and broods.
Despite all that, Hogan, Watson and Van de Velde have authored golf history at Carnoustie. So did Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton and Gary Player in other Open Championships at Carnoustie.
I cant wait for the next chapter.
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