Scott Brown aced the third hole, pulling into a tie for the Wyndham Championship lead with Davis Love III and Jason Gore.
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In his practice round Monday at Carnoustie, Jon Rahm bashed away with driver on the 18th tee, reducing one of the most intimidating finishing holes in championship golf into a driver-wedge.
Indeed, when it comes to his choice of clubs off the tee this week at The Open, Rahm has one strategy in mind.
“As many drivers as I can,” he said after playing 18 alongside Rory McIlroy. “I just feel comfortable with it.”
Playing downwind, the firm and fast conditions on the 18th have led some players, even a medium-length hitter like Brandt Snedeker, to challenge the burn fronting the green.
Rahm explained Monday why that was the prudent play.
“You can lay up with an iron farther back and have 140 or 150 meters to the front and have a 7-, 8- or 9-iron in,” Rahm said. “But if you hit a good one with a driver, you’re going to have nothing to the green.
“If you hit the rough this year, it’s not as thick as other years. You actually get a lot of good lies, so you can still hit the green with confidence.”
Rahm said that revelation was “quite surprising,” especially after encountering thicker fescue when he played the French Open and Irish Open, where he recorded a pair of top-5 finishes.
“But with this much sun” – it hasn’t rained much, if at all, over the past six weeks – “the fescue grass can’t grow. It just dies,” he said. “It’s a lot thinner than other years, so unless they can magically grow it thicker the next few days, it’s pretty safe to assume we can be aggressive.”
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.
Tiger Woods is competing in his first Open Championship since 2015. We're tracking him this week at Carnoustie.
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.