Flashback: To the greatest meltdown in golf history

CAR40D:SPORT-GOLF:CARNOUSTIE,SCOTLAND,18JUL99 – France’s Jean Van de Velde contemplates playing his ball out of the Barry Burn on to the eighteenth green during the final round of The Open at Carnoustie, July 18. Van de Velde eventually opted to drop his ball out of the water but still earned a place in a four hole play-off with Britain’s Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard of the U.S for the coveted claret jug. hp / Photo by Jeff J Mitchell REUTERS
The Times Corporate Golf Challenge 2005

This week the Open Championship returns to Carnoustie for the 7th time it’s the first time the course has hosted the Open since Padrig Harrington defeated Sergio Garcia in a playoff to win his first of two Claret Jugs and Three Majors. However, the course isn’t known for that tournament but the one it hosted eight years prior in 1999 the first one it had hosted in 24 years at the time. That week while most of the field fell apart in Carnoustie’s brutal conditions and set up a little-known 33-year-old from France named Jean Van De Velde who had won one event in ten years on the European Tour put on a putting clinic. Throughout the week Van De Velde made 12 putts from over 30ft, with most fairways no more than 25 yards wide he trusted his Driver and found the most fairways of any player that week. He entered the Final Round with a five-shot lead, by the time he reached the 72nd tee his lead was three over Paul Lawrie of Scotland and Justin Leonard of Dallas, Texas. The next twenty-three minutes the whole world sat back and watched the biggest collapse in golf-history.

Shot 1: The common sense play for a man leading a tournament by three shots on the Final Hole would be to stay safe correct? Play an iron out into the fairway and stay safe right? Especially on the 18th hole at Carnoustie widely regarded in the golf world as the hardest finishing hole in the world, Deep Bunkers, Heavy Thick Rough, and of course the Barry Burn winding down the right and left side of the fairways and in front of the green. Van De Velde pulled his driver out and took a swing at it the moment the ball left the clubface he was concerned and the crowd groaned. The ball was drifting right towards the Burn the ball cleared the Burn by about 2 yards and came to rest on the 17th fairway.

Shot 2: After his good fortune on the tee shot Van De Velde found himself in perfect position a great angle at the flag and still ahead by three. After making one bad decision and getting away with it you would think he would have learned from that mistake right? Just lay up short of the Burn in front of the green and stay safe right? Well, he didn’t do that after a brief conversation with his caddie Christophe Angiolini Van De Velde pulled out his 2 iron he was going for the green. The ensuing shot was as unlikely and unlucky as any single play in sports history. The ball did clear the Burn in front of the green, however, he pushed it to the right the ball crashed into the grandstands railing, flew backward, hit off the top of the stone wall of the Burn and flew further backwards into knee-high rough. The science on the odds of the ball doing that determined you’re more likely to get struck by lightning four times in the same hour and win the lottery later that day then the ball do what it did.

Shot 3: Once again after two big mistakes, Van De Velde learned his lesson right? He’ll chop it out sideways and play for a 5 or 6 right? Nope once again another bad mistake Van De Velde had 63 yards to the pin and about as bad a lie as you can get he decides to go for the green, on his downswing his club got tangled in the rough causing it to stop before impact, he barely gets any contact on the ball and it slowly almost mockingly flies into the Burn. The sound of that club getting tangled in the rough I will never forget it you can take out the crowd noise and play me just the audio clip and I’ll know exactly what shot it is. Now for the first time reality sunk in that Van De Velde was in trouble.

Shot 4: Van De Velde crossed the bridge that goes over the Burn and then the sideshow began. He climbed down the stone wall of the Burn which somewhat acted like stairs and looked at the ball, it was clear he was considering playing the ball out of the Burn which he could have done because the ball was half sitting out of the water. He then returned out of the Burn, took off his shoes and socks and rolled up his pant legs and stepped into the shin deep water. He stood over the ball for minutes talking with Angiolini, years later Angiolini said Van De Velde asked him “Chris what do you think of this shot do you think it’s possible” Angiolini said the only answer he could give was “I don’t know” Van De Velde standing in the water with his hands on his hips has since become one of the most famous images in golf history. After minutes Van De Velde plucked the ball from the water and tossed it to Angiolini and went back to where he played his 3rd shot from taking a one-stroke penalty.

Shot 5: Van De Velde dried his feet off, put his shoes and socks back on and walked back to where he played his 3rd shot from, he hoped to go far enough back to where he could drop it in a good lie. However, the walking R&A (Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews) the body who sanctions the Open official told him he couldn’t go as far back as he wanted. Forced to drop close to where he played his 3rd shot from, Van De Velde and the rest of the world knew we were probably looking at a playoff. He clubbed up and swung at his ball once again in knee-high rough it carried the Burn but found the front bunker.

Shot 6: Van De Velde and the rest of the world at this point are in total shock he’s in the greenside bunker laying five, and he was still away his playing partner Craig Parry was closer to the hole. In a tremendous show of Sportsmanship, Parry told the shaken Van De Velde to gather himself and he would play first. What do you think happened Parry holed the bunker shot exactly what Van De Velde needed to do to win the tournament outright. Mike Tirico broadcasting for ESPN burst into laughter and went “THIS ISN’T HAPPENING THIS IS NOT HAPPENING” After Parry picked his ball out of the hole, BBC broadcaster Peter Alliss said that if Van De Velde holed the shot he would have retired on the spot because he would have seen it all then. Needing the hole the shot to win the Open he played the ball to 6ft from the cup and left himself a difficult putt that he needed to make to join the playoff that was now a certainty between Leonard and Lawrie.

Shot 7: As Van De Velde walked around the green reading his putt both Tirico and Alliss said what no broadcaster ever says they were rooting for him to make the putt. It was no easy putt a downhill left to right bender. He struck the putt well and it broke into the center of the cup falling into it to make a triple-bogey 7 tying him with Lawrie and Leonard. He fist pumped the putt picked the ball out of the hole and threw it into the crowd.

The Playoff: The Playoff proved to be more of a footnote than a conclusion, to me three things from the playoff stood out. First, it took forever to start because Van De Velde went back to the hotel to change clothes. Second, once the playoff began all three Van De Velde, Leonard and Lawrie all hit horrendous first tee shots. Then on the Final Hole the 18th hole, which was the fourth hole of that four-hole playoff, Lawrie hit a 3-iron to 2ft locking up the Championship for the man who grew up 45 minutes from Carnoustie. However, it was the man who lost the price who was remembered not with his name in the Claret Jug’s sliver but carved by a Green’s Keeper a top the Barry Burns ancient stone.

Van De Velde is not in the field this week, just like he wasn’t when the Open returned to Carnoustie 11 years ago. He did make his return to the course two years ago in the Senior Open where he missed the cut, and for the rest of time whenever the Open returns to Carnoustie instead of thinking of the winners at the famous Course that will have hosted its 8th Open this week. Instead of thinking of the winners Tommy Armour in 1931, Henry Cotton in 1937, Ben Hogan in 1953, Gary Player in 1968, Tom Watson in 1975, Lawrie in 1999, Harrington in 2007, and the man who will lift the Jug this week. The first name people will think of is Jean Van De Velde and name not carved in victory but etched in defeat.

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