A Legend Still Doing His Work
Tiger Woods ' thats all you need to say. Hes been a professional for seven years, a portion of an eighth. Sundays victory was his 39th overall. Sundays victory also marked the fifth consecutive year that he has won at least five times. In case youre wondering, no one has ever done that in the history of the game ' not Nicklaus, not Hogan, not Snead, not Watson, not Palmer.
This year hes already passed Lloyd Mangrum on the all-time win list. At 39, he has now tied two greats in Tom Watson and Gene Sarazen. His next win, No. 40, will match Cary Middlecoff. There will be only seven more names to strike off the all-time win list. Seven more ' and he is only 27!
Sam Sneads all-time record of 82 once loomed as safe, safe as DiMaggios 56-game hitting streak in baseball. Now, it doesnt look nearly as impregnable. Woods took just seven years to record 39. Thats almost half. That puts him 43 short of tying, 44 shy of breaking Sneads record.
Now, you wouldnt expect him to win 39 again in the next seven ' though its not totally far-fetched. But Tiger will be 34, 35 then ' still a relatively young man. He can expect to be a top performer until hes, say, 45. Eighty-two becomes eminently reachable now. Just roughly speaking, thats approximately 18 more years of top-level play. For arguments sake, say he averages four wins a year for just the next five years. He will be 32 then with 59 victories. He has to average just two victories a year from then until hes 45 to reach 82. And this is presupposing he wont win after 45 ' obviously a long stretch.
Think he can do it?
Of course he can. And Nicklaus record of 18 majors? That should be well within reach, too. Woods has eight now, and his failure to win one this year caused major tremors. Do you think he can win eight ' or nine ' in the next 15 years? I think so.
If something should happen to Woods tomorrow ' say he ruins his arm carrying his sack of hundred-dollar bills ' and he can never again play golf, where do you think history will place him? Will he be forgotten in 10 years? Will we overlook the records he has already compiled? Will he be swept away out of our consciousness, replaced by another young hotshot?
I hardly think so. He already has built something only a handful out of the thousands to play this game could muster. At the age of 27, he already is tied for ninth on the all-time win list. He already is tied for fifth on the majors list. He stands tied for second in the most consecutive wins, tied for fifth with the most wins in one year.
He owns the largest margin of victory in a major ' 15 at the 2000 U.S. Open. He is going to tie the record his next tournament for the most consecutive tournaments without missing a cut ' 113 is Byron Nelsons mark, Tiger has 112. He has won 30 of 32 times when had the lead going into the final round.
Oh ' did I mention the guys just 27?
Its now getting to the point where you have to consider him one of the finest to ever play the game ' in just seven years of competing. I was waiting for a period of time to pass before I elevated him to such lofty status, but I think this is the year I stop fidgeting. Tiger Woods has reached the level of great, and thats even if he has to quit playing before he tees up another ball.
Walter Hagen? Bobby Jones? Gene Sarazen? Byron Nelson? Hogan or Nicklaus, Palmer or Trevino or Watson? This young man is now on a par with any of them. Go shout that across the backyard fence to your neighbor. Thats how much he has done already.
Longevity is the only area in which he has not excelled. And that is the one area about which he can nothing. You cant hurry the clock. In, say, 10 years, that little prerequisite will be satisfied.
People of this generation are witnessing something that has never occurred before, not in the age of Old Tom Morris, not in the age of Hagen or Jones, not even in the age of Nicklaus. If Tiger Woods laid down the clubs tomorrow and walked away from golf, he already has carved out an enduring legacy. He is ' in a word ' great.
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Remembering Jean, because we'll always remember Jean
The thing I remember about the 1999 Open Championship is that for 54 holes, it was boring. I can’t speak for the next 17, because I didn’t watch. I took advantage of a beautiful Sunday morning to play golf. When our group finished, we went into the clubhouse hoping to catch the last few holes or at least find out who won. Instead, we were greeted by an almost deafening buzz. It seemed everyone in the dining room was excitedly talking at once.
The wall-mounted televisions provided the answer. There stood Jean Van de Velde, resplendent in a white visor and blue shirt, and whatever the opposite of “resplendent” is with his trouser legs rolled up above his knees. He was up to his ankles in the burn that winds in front of Carnoustie’s 18th green, hands on hips, holding a wedge. He was staring down into the water the way you’d stare at a storm grate through which you had just accidentally dropped your car keys. You know, the “What the heck am I going to do NOW?” stare.
Van de Velde was the reason I had dismissed this 128th Open Championship as boring. Actually, he was one of two reasons. The first was that Tiger Woods was no factor. The second was that Van de Velde was running away with it, having taken a five-shot lead into the final round. It also didn’t help my interest level that I knew nothing about Van de Velde. I didn’t know Jean Van de Velde from Jean Valjean. The only thing I knew about him was that he was French, and the last great French golfer was … uh, I’ll have to get back to you on that.
|Lavner: An oral history of 18 and beyond|
|Baggs: Choice of a lifetime for Jean Van de Velde|
|Baggs: In defense of Paul Lawrie|
As we got caught up on Van de Velde’s predicament – he had gone to the tee of the par-4 18th hole with a three-shot lead, but through a series of calamities now lay 3 … underwater – now my opinion of the guy did a 180. NOW I wanted him to win. It wasn’t going to be easy, though. Surely he would come to his senses and take a drop (4), then pitch onto the green (5) and hope to get that shot close enough that he could make the putt for 6 and claim the claret jug. A 7 – which would have plunged him into a playoff – was not a farfetched possibility.
Not farfetched at all; that’s the score he made, only it didn’t unfold quite as simply as I had envisioned. After taking his drop, Van de Velde hit his next shot into a greenside bunker. He then blasted out to 8 feet and, needing to make the putt to get into a playoff with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie, he did just that.
You think Leonard’s 45-footer at Brookline that won the Ryder Cup later that year was clutch? I’ll take Van de Velde’s putt eight days a week.
But there would be no happy ending for Van de Velde. In the four-hole, aggregate playoff, he opened with a double bogey and watched Lawrie win his only major.
Van de Velde got roasted in the media for “choking” and “making stupid decisions.” I felt this was unfair. So the next day, in my capacity as a sports columnist for The Palm Beach Post, I wrote this:
“I have a new hero. Jean Van de Velde, The Man Who Gave Away the British Open.” I wrote that Van de Velde had “remained true to himself” and that had he geared down and played the hole safely and won with a double bogey, he would have been quickly forgotten.
As it turned out, because of his tragedy (self-inflicted though it was), he gained far more fame for losing than Lawrie did for winning (which is unfair to Lawrie, but that’s a tale for another time). I’ll also wager that Van de Velde gained far more fans for the grace with which he took his defeat than he would have had he won. See Norman, Greg, Augusta, 1996.
Van de Velde may have made some questionable decisions – hitting driver off the tee, bringing water into play on his third shot when he had a horrible lie – but he had reasons for all of them. Nowhere do you see him saying “I am such an idiot” a la Phil Mickelson, or “What a stupid I am” a la Roberto De Vicenzo.
“Sure, I could have hit four wedges,” he recently told Golf Channel. “Wouldn’t they have said, ‘He won The Open, but, hey, he hit four wedges.’ I mean, who hits four wedges?”
There’s a great scene in the 1991 movie “The Commitments,” about putting a soul-music band together in the slums of Dublin. Against all odds, the band reaches the brink of success before sinking in a maelstrom of arguments and fistfights after its last gig.
Manager Jimmy Rabbitte is trudging home through the gloom, when saxophonist Joey “The Lips” Fagan rides up on his ever-present scooter. Joey tries to get Jimmy to see the bright side.
“Look, I know you're hurting now, but in time you'll realize what you've achieved,” Joey says.
“I've achieved nothing!” Jimmy snaps.
“You're missing the point,” Joey replies. “The success of the band was irrelevant - you raised their expectations of life, you lifted their horizons. Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it's poetry.’
That’s what Jean Van de Velde created on that memorable Scottish day in July 1999.
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Carnoustie '99: In defense of Paul Lawrie
A fictional account of a real interview
What does a man have to do to get the recognition he deserves?
Now, that’s a rhetorical question, but one worth pondering as you take into consideration THIS man.
For nearly 20 years, THIS man has not received his due. What he has received, is an inexplicable lack of respect.
“No one remembers who came in second.” Ever hear that one?
Walter Hagen said it. Unfortunately, Mr. Hagen was incorrect. Because when we refer to the 128th Open Championship, that’s all anyone remembers.
It’s not remembered for the greatest comeback in major championship history. It’s remembered for the guy who blew the big lead. The guy who came in second.
Well, that’s why we are here today. To listen to the words of the man who did everything right on July 18, 1999.
Paul Stewart Lawrie.
The man before you – he has no interest in touting his accomplishments. His Twitter avatar is a personal logo. Not a claret jug. His Instagram, just a reference to his service on the European Tour. The man himself is unassuming. He asks not for praise or accolades. He’s not asking that you remember him first.
He’s asking that you not forget what he did.
What did he do? He did everything right.
And that’s what our defense will overwhelmingly show.
Paul Lawrie in 1994 (Getty Images)
The defense foundation
Mr. Lawrie, thank you for your time.
Yours was not a traditional golf upbringing. So before we get to Carnoustie let’s go back a little further, because your atypical journey makes what you accomplished all-the-more impressive.
“I didn’t really get into golf seriously until I was about 16 or so. Played when I was younger, but just wasn’t very good.
“Turned pro at 17. Five-handicap, which was the limit back then.”
|Lavner: An oral history of 18 and beyond|
|Baggs: Choice of a lifetime for Jean Van de Velde|
|Baggs: In defense of Paul Lawrie|
That’s not PLUS-5, just to be clear. Please continue.
“My father and brother are both actually taxi drivers. I used to play with them quite a lot on their outings. I was out one day and the pro saw me tee off on the first tee and asked my dad what I was up to. He said, ‘Well, he’s just working for me at the garage. He’s doing nothing fancy.’ [The pro asked] ‘What’s his handicap?’
“I was a decent footballer when I was young and then I went into the PGA primarily to be a club pro, was my idea. I never thought that I would be good enough to get on tour.”
You turned professional on April 1, 1986 – a 5-handicap, as you mentioned. From there, you worked your way to being a European Tour member in 1992.
Win No. 1 came in Spain, in ’96. And win No. 2 in Qatar, in ’99. But despite that latter victory, you still had to qualify for The Open, which, obviously, you did. You had played in six prior Opens. What was different about No. 7?
“Carnoustie is about an hour from my home in Aberdeen.”
Which proved advantageous since there was no room at the inn, so to speak, because of your late entry.
“I phoned around and tried to get some accommodations and everything was taken up. The only accommodation I could find was about 40 minutes away, so there’s no point. I mean, about another 20 minutes I’m home. And we had [son] Michael – was only 6 months old then – so it was ideal that I could spend the week at home when I wasn’t playing.”
Given the proximity, you must have been quite familiar with Carnoustie.
“I knew the course probably as much, if not more, than anyone else in the field.”
Which meant you, of all the players, were best in position to judge its fairness. There were a lot of complaints about how the course was set up that week. A lot of whining. What was your take?
“I didn’t have a problem with it.
“It was quite severe, to be fair. But it’s the same for everyone. It wasn’t different for any golfer. As soon as I got there you could tell straight away that scoring was not gonna be overly good. It was a week of patience. It was a week of taking your punishment.
“Being a tour professional you got to adapt to what’s in front of you and if you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t be playing.”
The defense builds
Let’s move forward to Saturday night. You’ve shot increasingly worse rounds – 73-74-76. You’re 10 shots off the lead.
“I was 10 shots back, BUT, I was in 13th place.”
So you’re still thinking you can win?
“To get into the Masters was my goal – top 4 finishers at The Open got into the Masters at that time. I thought if I could get it around in 1 or 2 under par [in the final round] then I’d have a good chance.”
OK, it’s Sunday. Because of your deficit, you start an hour and 10 minutes ahead of leader Jean Van de Velde. Things go according to plan early: three birdies, one bogey over your first nine. But you’re still well off the pace. When did everything change?
“I remember I made a lovely birdie at 12, which we play as a par 5, normally, but they played it as a par 4. All of a sudden, the crowd were starting to swirl and the TV cameras appear for the first time.
“Things started to get, you know, really serious and really exciting. Not just for me, but for everyone following me around.”
That birdie on 12 gets you to 7 over par, but Van de Velde birdies the ninth hole and turns in 2 over. You’re still five back.
“Well, I birdied 14 – really good up and down from the left bank – and kind of thought, if we can make one more coming in we had a real good chance of kinda putting a little bit of pressure on.
“The Carnoustie finish, you know, you can make double bogeys and triple bogeys there just so easily.”
You get that extra birdie at 16, but let’s talk about the par save at 18 that keeps your hopes alive.
“I hit it in the left rough off the tee on the 72nd hole. We didn’t have a very good lie in the rough at all, it was sitting quite down. But we had a similar shot a few holes before and it came out really hot.”
The 18th, for those not familiar, is a 487-yard par 4 with water fronting the green. Going for it in two, especially with a low runner, is a huge risk.
“I thought I would struggle to get it over the burn, but I thought laying up, you know, 5’s got no chance of anything happening.
“I remember thinking that this might be our only chance to win a major, so you’ve got to have a go.”
As expected, your ball comes out screaming, but it bounces OVER the burn and into a bunker. You blast out to 6 feet, make the putt and do a series of muted fist pumps.
“I had a bit of a celebration on the green because I’m thinking, that’s the Masters. I’m not thinking, that’s The Open.”
The heart of the defense
You shoot 4-under 67, tying the lowest round of the championship – again, for emphasis, NO ONE scored better all week than you did that Sunday.
You’re in the clubhouse at 6 over par, and for the next one hour and 45 minutes you eat, practice and watch Van de Velde disintegrate.
Now, a day that started with you changing diapers has turned into one in which you could bring home the claret jug. To do it, you have to beat Van de Velde and ’97 Open champion Justin Leonard in a four-hole aggregate playoff?
How are you handling this emotional maelstrom?
“Obviously, I was nervous. Now I’ve got a chance to win the biggest tournament in the world. And [caddie Paddy Byrne] could tell I was nervous. He said, ‘Just look at these guys as soon as you get on the tee. I want you to look at ‘em.’”
Outwardly, you appeared quite calm.
“I never moved. Never said anything. Shook hands when [Van de Velde] came on the tee and just kinda deep in thought, in what I had to do myself to get my ball round these four holes to be Open champion.”
It’s late in the day. It’s windier, colder, and raining. You and Leonard bogey the first extra hole, the 15th. Van de Velde makes double. All three of you bogey the 16th. Two holes to play and you’re tied with Justin, one up on Jean.
“I felt in total control. I didn’t feel nervous. I didn’t feel out of my depth. I felt as though all the work that we’ve been doing on my routine and stuff … all that work with Adam kicked in.”
That was apparent on 17. What was going on with the interaction between you and Van de Velde?
“I made a lovely birdie. I hit a 6-iron in about 20 feet, 25 feet. Jean had holed [for birdie] from just outside me, and I haven’t spoken to him about it or asked him about it, but he kinda holed his putt and then he gave me a bit of celebration right in my face. So I holed mine and then gave it back. The two of us were kind of laughing, so I don’t know if he meant it, but I certainly meant it. You’re giving me a bit, I’m gonna give it back.”
One hole to go. All you have to do is conquer the unconquerable – and claustrophobia.
“On the fourth playoff tee, people are everywhere. It’s just chaos. There was security and stuff, there were ropes, but that didn’t really work very well.
“Now it’s getting pretty heavy, pretty rainy and cold, and you couldn’t get to the green in two if you’re hitting iron off the tee for safety. You had to hit driver and I flushed it. I just hit one of the best driver shots I hit all week.”
Van de Velde misses his shot to the left, this time, and lays up. Leonard is shorter than you off the tee and plays first.
“It looked like he hit a nice enough shot. I saw it bounce, so I assumed it carried the water and bounced into the bunker. … A lot of people say, ‘Why didn’t you lay up once he was in the water?’ But I didn’t know he was in the water. I thought he was in the bunker. So he’s only one behind me, so I’m thinking if I lay up and make a 5 or 6, he can make 4.”
As you said when you played 18 earlier in the day, “you’ve got to have a go.”
“You might get only one chance, which, at this moment and time, was my chance to properly win. There’s a Rolex clock on the back of the hotel. So I aimed on the left edge of the clock and just tried to put a nice smooth swing on it.
“About 205 [yards] would have been a really good 4-iron. And we’re at 221, in the cold, a bit of adrenaline going through your body. You take into consideration that you’re leading a tournament and the ball goes further because you’re really hyped up and the adrenaline is flowing. I hit a beautiful shot in close.”
A 4-iron … from over 220 yards … on one of the most difficult holes in the Open rota … with the championship on the line … to 5 feet.
Just making sure everyone caught that.
“It was nice to pull off a shot like that when you really, really had to.”
You make birdie, win the playoff by three and the local boy is Champion Golfer of the Year. On the broadcast, Mike Tirico says, “And a nation’s party begins!” Must have been an epic celebration for you, too.
“Well, back then I didn’t drink a helluva lot. I was maybe two-or-three-beers-a-year type.
“It also took a long time to get out of there, because you’ve got to go and do the press, which is obviously very important, and then you’ve got to go to the R&A tent and you get introduced to all of the members as the new champion. Then had to clean out the locker, and I don’t remember what time we left there, but it was quite late at night.
“I phoned my wife on the way home and she said there was press and TV crews everywhere. We lived in a little cul-de-sac in Aberdeen. She said there were people everywhere.
“You’re trying to have a little bit of a private moment, haven’t seen your wife all day, you just won The Open, but fair enough. We had people want to come in and say, ‘Well done and congratulations.’”
In the middle of the night, on a life-changing day, you put ego and exhaustion aside and take the time to do more interviews and to acknowledge your neighbors.
“Eventually, I don’t know what time it was, but we sat and watched the playoff – my wife, my brother-in-law and I. Had a beer, sitting and watching it, so that was pretty cool.”
Paul Lawrie with sons Craig (L) and Michael, and wife Marian, after winning the '99 Open (Getty)
In the years that followed, Paul Lawrie won five more times on the European Tour, competed in two Ryder Cups and was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire and Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
We know that tragedy will always trump triumph in sports. The 1999 Open will be remembered, first and foremost, for what befell Jean Van de Velde. The same as the 2009 Open will be about Tom Watson and the 1996 Masters about Greg Norman.
We’re not here today to ask you to forget about a Frenchman’s follies. We’re just asking you to NOT forget about a Scotsman’s success.
Paul Lawrie didn’t take golf seriously until he was 16. He turned professional at 17, a 5-handicap with an eye on a career as a club pro. At 23, he was a European Tour member. At 30, an Open champion.
On July 18, 1999, Paul Lawrie earned a major title. He earned it.
He was presented with an opportunity to win golf’s greatest championship and did everything – EVERY-THING – that was required of a champion golfer.
He took the proper approach. He had the proper mentality. He hit proper shots.
Rather than bloviate on why Paul Lawrie deserves the recognition afforded others who have captured the claret jug, we’ll ask just one more question, and leave the final comments to the man himself.
Mr. Lawrie, do you feel you’ve gotten the recognition you deserve?
“I had a bit of a hard time with it, at first. I tried to change it for a while. Looking back now, I should have never tried to do that. I should have just let it be and people can have their opinions. It’s up to them how they see it.
“Trying to get people to say or to write about that – OK, Jean threw it away and I got lucky, but I might only get one chance to win a major and I did everything right. The right shots at the right time. I behaved the way I should have behaved. I was in control of my emotions, which is really hard that time. But I never read that from anybody. So that was my problem. My problem wasn’t that I didn’t get the justification for it as far as being an Open champion, because I know I got lucky to do that. But I think I got my one chance and did everything I had to do. I think there should have been more said or written about that. I hope that doesn’t come over as I’m bitter about that situation, because I’m certainly not. I understand what happened and I got lucky, I get that 100 percent. I would have liked to seen a little bit more about how well I played when I got my chance, that was all.
“No matter what happened, the way that it happened, my name’s on [the claret jug]. My name’s never coming off. So I think that’s how it should be.”
The defense rests.
Carnoustie '99: Choice of a lifetime for Jean Van de Velde
Oh, that way madness lies. Let me shun that. No more of that.
Pause. Breathe. Compose.
Forget about the hundreds behind you, purposefully packed and bundled, closer to you than should be allowed, their hands on your back and their screams in your ears. Forget about the thousands watching in semi-circle ahead, eyes aghast, anticipating what’s next. Forget about the millions watching abroad, bewildered and attuned.
And forget about the landscape presented before you. Madness lies ahead. Go left.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says, walking into a pub that won’t open for another one hour and 43 minutes.
It’s 9:17 a.m., only a few insignificant ticks past his scheduled arrival.
He looks good, dressed in a light-brown linen jacket; button-down dress shirt; jeans and brown suede loafers. He sounds good and why shouldn’t he feel good, too? He’s an Open champion.
The hair is a little thinner on top and stubble mostly gray on his face, but there’s no mistaking this character. Those English words in that French accent, in that comforting tone. When he talks to you, he does so in a convivial manner, looking you in your eyes, smiling, shaking your hand and introducing himself, without a hint of hubris.
A slight showcase of vanity would be acceptable, however.
The man is a major champion. A Ryder Cup hero who put a dagger into the heart of an American comeback in Brookline. A consistent European Tour player, and occasional winner.
Good health, good meals, good wine. A good life, Jean Van de Velde.
Here we go again. Here he goes again.
How many times has he done this? Recounted the worst two hours and two minutes of his professional career.
Will there be anger? Apathy?
Neither, only courtesy.
|Lavner: An oral history of 18 and beyond|
|Baggs: Choice of a lifetime for Jean Van de Velde|
|Baggs: In defense of Paul Lawrie|
“So,” he says, comfortably seated across from a strange man with a familiar list of questions, “off we go.”
It’s been 19 years since Jean Van de Velde lost The Open. It was a big story when The Open returned to Carnoustie in 2007. It was a big story when he played the Senior Open there in 2016. It’s a big story now that The Open has returned.
It will, in fact, never not be a big story.
You don’t forget what happened on July 18, 1999. At least not what happened between the hours of 1:30 p.m. ET, when he stepped to the 18th tee with a three-shot lead, and 3:32 p.m., when he congratulated another man. Certainly, Van de Velde never will. Every encounter with every witness assures that.
“I think there were around 250 million people [watching] on TV that day,” he says. “How long is it going to take for me to meet them all?
“Once I meet them all … maybe one day that’s going to pass by.”
Odds are you saw that day or have since seen what transpired, so you don’t need a detailed recap. But think about the lack of serendipity that occurred.
His tee shot avoids a burn that winds through the 18th hole at Carnoustie like a Grand Prix raceway. But what if it goes in? One in, two out, three layup, four on, two putts for six and the win.
His second shot hits a 2-inch metal bar in the grandstands and bounds backwards – arguably the most unlucky result in golf history. What if it goes into the crowd? Free drop; three, maybe four on; two putts for the win.
Upon ricochet, his ball hits the top of the burn’s wall and caroms into impossibly thick heather. What if the ball just went into the creek? The tide hadn’t yet risen. He could have played his third back into the fairway like a bunker shot. Four on, two putts for the win. Even if he takes a drop from the burn it’s possibly: three drop, four on, two putts for the win.
But none of these ‘What ifs’ occur. And for all of the fault due fate and misfortune, ultimately it is the man who is to blame.
“Sure, I could have hit four wedges,” he says. “Wouldn’t they have said, ‘He won The Open, but, hey, he hit four wedges.’ I mean, who hits four wedges?”
There were other, more prideful options; though, wedge-wedge-wedge-wedge-putt-putt-claret jug would have worked.
He didn’t have to hit driver off the tee; he could have hit a mid-iron. Didn’t have to hit 2-iron for his second; he could have laid up.
Didn’t have to proceed forward with his third. You could have gone left, Jean Van de Velde.
Thank goodness he went left. Can you imagine? A three-shot lead on the final hole of a major championship, and losing? How could you go on with life?
Dramatic, but not overly so.
Fortunately, Jean doesn’t have to think about such things. He can sit down and answer these redundant questions with an honest smile on his face. He can relive his greatest professional moment and say, “I’m French. There had to be a little flair.”
And all because of what? Because he made the simple decision. Because he paused, and breathed, and composed. And his caddie was right by his side: Faire la bonne chose.
Because he went left.
And now here he is, a few minutes late, yes, but describing those final few moments, as well as the wonderful years thereafter. Talking about, not just his career, but about his family: his second wife, Jessica; his four children. His years living in Europe and Hong Kong. How he helped France land this year’s Ryder Cup. How he’s an ambassador for UNICEF.
If only the bar was open and everyone could share a glass of wine. He would choose, of course. For he knows well. What tastes best accompanied with fond recollections?
Oh, this could have been you, Jean Van de Velde.
The walk was a witness to how close Chaos can get to the edge without tumbling over.
A handful of well-meaning humans wearing red security outfits, frantically and futilely using their arms as a procession shield. Their only success being the humanity of those they sought to restrain.
Our protagonist – not yet a tragedian – walking briskly to avoid the crush.
And then he arrives at the spot.
This is where his ball now lies, after striking what should be an insignificant piece of railing, after bouncing off an equally irrelevant rock, and after taking one more hop on the deadened ground.
“The grass is like this,” he says, using one arm to demonstrate the windswept lean. “And the ball went that way,” he says, using the other arm to show how the ball entered in the opposite direction.
“The lie is horrific.”
He looks forward and sees the burn snaking back in front of him, guarding the green. How far is it?
Sixty-three yards to the hole.
Then, for a moment, he steps to his left, outside of the camera’s view. Two choices exist. Go forward or go to the left. Play straight for the green or play sideways for the fairway.
You only lie two, Jean. You only need a six. But where is your head? This moment. These people. The magnitude of it all. There is no clarity to consider those cautionary words: that way madness lies.
This decision is yours, Jean Van de Velde.
We know which door he chose. The tiger, not the lady.
Jean Van de Velde is not an Open champion. He is not a Ryder Cup hero. He has but one win since July of ’99.
“If I had one shot to do over, it would be the third one,” he says of that fateful final hole. “Because, you know, going forward, you bring everything into play. You bring the water into play. You bring out of bounds behind.
“Now, playing sideways, which I thought about, I didn’t have a guarantee to be on the fairway. That’s why I didn’t play sideways, but that was not the point. The point was not to have a bad lie for the fourth one. And by going sideways, I would have had a good enough lie to hit it [on the green with a fourth shot].
“If I’m on the fairway, game is over. Game is over, because I [would have] hit it on the green.
“But things go quickly. You process some; some you don’t. … And even if you speak with your caddie – [he’s experiencing] the same type of pressure, you can see that.
“You have a few seconds or a minute or two minutes, and you’ve got to assess where you’re going to go.”
He went forward, the decision made in those seconds and minutes having a lifetime effect. Now we use VandeVeldian as an adjective to describe an epic failure, a colossal collapse, a Shakespearian golf tragedy.
But Jean Van de Velde didn’t die that day. Unlike Romeo and Othello and Hamlet and Macbeth, he was not befallen by poison or sword or cowardice. Yes, he wept for days thereafter, but unlike King Lear, who spoke of madness, he did not succumb to grief.
A tragic figure? That depends upon your scope.
A second chance at love? That exists. The four children? Doing well, thank you. An enjoyable career? Currently working for Sky Sports and playing a handful of senior events; a former French Open chairman who aided his country’s efforts to host this year’s Ryder Cup. Philanthropy? A Madagascar missionary.
The good health, good meals, good wine. The good life. They’re all there, with or without his name on the claret jug.
“Would I like to have my name on the trophy?” he rhetorically asks. “It’s a simple yes.”
His 14 letters were all but engraved there forever. Had he made different decisions, gone a different direction, his name would be below Mark O’Meara’s and just before Tiger Woods’. Instead, that spot is Paul Lawrie’s, in perpetuity.
Haunted? “No.” Bitter? “You can’t be.”
If people didn’t constantly bring it up, he could go “days, even weeks” without thinking about it.
“Everybody feels about it. It doesn’t leave anybody,” he says of those who have seen what he did nearly 7,000 days ago. “The emotion comes out. ‘How can you be so stupid to do something like that?’ Or, ‘Geez, that’s pretty unlucky.’ ... The emotions are at a maximum.”
He still feels the pain, you know. It weighs on his shoulders at times, just enough for him to take notice and shrug it off.
“I think there are two ways to handle it,” he says. “Stay at home and hide in a cupboard somewhere and never go out and feel sorry for yourself. Or you get up and you go out, and you fight again.”
Just as he fought back from a 2002 skiing injury that took him, by his account, two years to again walk properly. Just as he did in overcoming a soul-sapping playoff loss in his 2005 national open to win the following season in Spain – his European Tour denouement.
Jean Van de Velde is now 52. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of his Open defeat. There will be a 25th anniversary and more championships contested at Carnoustie. There will be more interviews. More strange men with their familiar questions. And he will graciously answer them. He doesn’t shy away from the moment that defined his career. But he doesn’t let it define him, as well.
“Life’s too short, man,” he says, and then adds: “I’m a simple man.”
Breakfast in the morning, before he starts his to-do list. Lunch with a glass of wine in the afternoon. Dinner with a few more glasses in the evening. And, as often as possible, the surroundings of friends and family.
“There’s nothing worse,” he says, “than bad company.”
This is Jean Van de Velde.