The Van de Velde Follies

By Rich LernerNovember 5, 2009, 10:46 pm
Project 99I was there when ... the Frenchman became an adjective for all future episodes of golf infamy. You know, 'That was a collapse of Van de Veldian proportions.' Or, 'He experienced a momentary lapse of Van de Veldian confusion.'

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.
Jean Van de Velde
Jean Van de Velde in one of the most dubious images in golf. (Getty Images)
We found the townspeople to be very hospitable. Initially, our accommodations put us more than an hour outside the town. So while working on our stories, we left our contact numbers with a few local businesses in hopes that they might hear of an opening closer to the golf course. We scored quickly, and it was the equivalent of a hole-in-one.  

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.'
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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.


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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”


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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.


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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”


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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”