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.”
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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.