Jean Van de Velde was inside the ropes at last week’s Open Championship, with golf spikes on, though of course he wasn’t part of the competition. Only former Open winners can play until they’re 60. He blew that chance 19 years ago.
Now, he’s a part-time on-course TV reporter for Canal+ in France. Across four days at Carnoustie he walked with the final groups, whispering his commentary into a microphone, trying to ignore the ghosts.
Even after all of these years, fans almost immediately recognized the now-bearded 52-year-old, the hard-luck loser of the 1999 Open who’d starred in the most bizarre finish in major championship history. Late in the second round, as Van de Velde marched to the 18th tee, a young American fan, maybe 10 years old, blurted out to his father: “Hey, isn’t that the guy who choked?”
It’s impossible to know how many times Van de Velde heard that throughout the week, but nonetheless he smiled and posed for photos, a model of grace and perspective. The 152nd-ranked player in the world at the time of his collapse, he is undoubtedly more famous in defeat than he’d ever have been in victory.
Those looking to hide from a humiliating incident don’t resurface to do commentary at Carnoustie, at his own personal house of horrors. They don’t continue to play in The Senior Open. And they certainly don’t rehire their former caddie, the one who was skewered for not properly guiding his boss to the clubhouse when all he needed on the last was a double-bogey 6.
But guess who was on Van de Velde’s bag as the Senior Open got underway Thursday?
The infamous caddie from ’99.
“I said, ‘How about you come caddie for me?’” Van de Velde recalled recently. “And he said, ‘You bet.’ So that will be fun.”
They teamed up for a 1-over 73 Thursday in what is believed to be the first time they’ve been on the same team since their short-lived partnership ended in August 1999.
Earlier that year, Angiolini, in just his third year as a professional caddie, was looping for Fabrice Tarnaud when he heard that Van de Velde was looking for a new bagman. Van de Velde and Angiolini began working together in April ’99 and instantly hit it off. The Open that year presented arguably the most difficult major test in recent memory: an over-the-top setup and horrific weather leading scores to soar on the most demanding links in the rota. Some of the biggest names in the game tumbled out of contention, but the little-known Van de Velde rode a scorching-hot putter and led by five after 54 holes.
Though he coughed up the lead to Craig Parry midway through the final round, Van de Velde regained his advantage and headed to the 72nd hole with a three-shot lead. We all remember what happened next.
Van de Velde had played aggressively all week off the tee, so he chose driver.
He didn’t want to flirt with the burn short of the green, so he chose 2-iron for his approach.
He didn’t want to take on the out of bounds left, so he chose to hack out straight ahead with his third shot.
He thought about playing his fourth from the Barry Burn, and even rolled up his pant legs and stepped into the water, but he chose to take a drop because the tide was coming in.
The entire ordeal was captivating, maddening, farcical.
Van de Velde’s downward spiral resulted in a triple-bogey 7 and eventual playoff loss to Paul Lawrie.
Searching for an explanation, players, caddies, commentators and journalists pointed to Angiolini. They said he acted negligently.
“He said it was his choice and that the caddie didn’t make the final decision, so it was his responsibility,” Angiolini recalled earlier this year. “My responsibility should be proportionate to my percentage. I earned 7.5 percent of his earnings, so in my mind, my responsibility is 7.5 percent.”
Even amid the torrent of criticism, Van de Velde never publicly blamed his caddie.
“Of course I felt bad,” Van de Velde said. “How many people go through the trauma or the difficulty that we went through? I felt sorry for him.”
That final round was heartbreaking for Angiolini, but he recalls Van de Velde being downright buoyant. The runner-up finish at The Open meant that he’d not only qualified for the European Ryder Cup team, but he’d earned his PGA Tour card for the following season.
It’d always been Angiolini’s dream to caddie in the Ryder Cup and on Tour in the States – he even got fitted for all of the team gear. But he never made the trip to Brookline. After The Open, they lasted only three more events together, with Van de Velde firing him in August ’99, a few weeks before the matches.
“I didn’t think it was difficult to continue together,” Angiolini said. “I don’t think he is the one who made the decision to let me go. I think it was more the pressure from the media he got after that. His agent, too. Each time he went to a major, he’d be asked if he had the same caddie. It wasn’t easy to manage, to always face the same question, the pressure. Maybe he had a hard time. It was difficult to accept, but I wasn’t mad at him.”
Added Van de Velde: “We have no grudge toward each other. It was just such a difficult time, and we needed to go our separate ways and process it in our own directions.”
Van de Velde won only once more on the European Tour, in 2006, and never again challenged in a major.
Angiolini soon picked up another bag, but he bounced around the tour for a number of years. He’d hoped to return to Carnoustie this year with a French player named Thomas Linard, but they didn’t advance through qualifying.
That allowed Angiolini to focus on another major, to another shot at redemption with his former boss.
It’s a long shot – maybe even more so than their magical run in ’99 – but crazier things have happened on the ancient links. Unfortunately, they know that all too well.