Commentary

'Stupid' mistake will live in infamy

Originally Published: July 8, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

The letter found its way to the proper place despite its lack of sufficient identification. Attached to the envelope was a cut-out picture of a golfer standing in the Barry Burn at Carnoustie, with the words "Jean Van de Velde, Southwest France," on it and with an arrow pointing to the photo: "That's him."

The story seems too good to be true, but 10 years later, Van de Velde confirms its authenticity.

[+] Enlarge Jean Van de Velde
David Cannon/Getty ImagesStanding on the 18th hole of the final round of the 1999 British Open, Jean Van de Velde needed only a double-bogey to claim the Claret Jug. After a triple-bogey, Van de Velde was part of a three-way playoff that he and Justin Leonard lost to Paul Lawrie.

"It came without anything but a stamp," the French golfer said during a recent interview concerning his infamous collapse at the 1999 Open Championship. "It did reach my address. And it was a very nice note.

"Believe me, there were a few nice notes. There are a lot of people who can identify with that, not only in sports. We are going to get hit in the face a few times. It all depends on how you react. Are you going to hide and never get out? Or are you going to step up and face it and move on? You have to choose what kind of person you want to be.

"Once again, nobody died. Nothing really serious happened."

A decade removed from the calamity at Carnoustie, Van de Velde's sense of humor remains intact, even if the 43-year-old always will be left to remember what might have been had he played the final hole in a different manner.

Van de Velde, who on Tuesday failed to advance through a local final qualifier in Scotland for next week's Open at Turnberry, was on the verge of becoming the first Frenchman since Arnaud Massy in 1907 to win the major championship. He had overcome some of the Open's nastiest rough and narrowest fairways to hold a 3-shot advantage standing on the 18th tee.

A double-bogey 6 on the par-4 hole would have been enough to hoist the Claret Jug and give the game a funny, engaging figure rather than a punching bag.

But, of course, that is not what happened.

And what did happen will long be debated.

"He got a lot of bad breaks," said British journalist Norman Dabell, author of a book about Open near misses called "One Hand on the Claret Jug."

"It's the biggest sporting debacle of all time," said Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open champ and ABC television analyst that day.

"To watch. … That was very difficult," said Thomas Levet, a fellow Frenchman and friend of Van de Velde's who finished his round earlier in the day and also lost the Open in a playoff three years later. "It's 10 years back, and it's still an unbelievable story. Probably one of the worst breaks in golf. I will always remember that day."

Van de Velde, then 33 years old, was a 10-year member of the European Tour, with his only victory coming in 1993. To even get into the field, he had to endure final qualifying, which was then held on the Sunday and Monday before the Open. At nearby Monifieth, Van de Velde won the qualifier.

He opened the tournament with a score of 75, hardly a setback when 55 players in the field shot in the 80s and the leader managed even-par 71. A 68 in the second round gave Van de Velde a 1-shot advantage, which he increased to 5 strokes after a third-round 70. Craig Parry was his nearest challenger. Tiger Woods was 7 strokes back, tied for fourth. Scotland's Paul Lawrie was barely mentioned, trailing by 10.

Van de Velde told Dabell that he'd had a restless evening sleeping on the lead. "That night in bed, I was like a slice of toast. You lie on one side for a while, and then you turn over and toast the other side, and then you repeat it over again. I finally fell asleep around 2 in the morning."

Best Ball Challenge

Sure enough, Van de Velde struggled on the front nine while Parry surged to take a 1-stroke lead through 10 holes. But he triple-bogeyed the 12th and doubled the 17th, causing him to miss the playoff by 1 stroke.

And so there was Van de Velde, with that 3-shot advantage at Carnoustie's daunting 470-yard finishing hole -- where he had birdied the day before -- going from one disaster to another.

It started with a driver off the tee that went way right and narrowly avoided the burn, a winding creek that comes into play several times on the hole. But Van de Velde had a perfect lie and elected to hit a 2-iron second shot -- another decision often debated.

The burn comes into play 20 yards in front of the green, and there is out of bounds to the left of the hole. But Van de Velde felt he had the perfect angle. And if he bailed to the right, so what? The ball would hit the grandstand, and he would get a drop.

But the ball did more than hit the grandstand. It caromed backward, dropping into the burn and bouncing out some 50 yards from the green in deep rough.

"You couldn't duplicate that in a billion tries," Levet said. "It was unreal."

Said Dabell, "It wasn't even the grandstand. It was something they put up to make it look a little tidier, like a railing. And it wasn't more than three-quarters of an inch wide. And even then, if it had gone into the burn, he could have taken a drop. But it actually bounced on a rock and into this heavy stuff. He didn't exactly have Lady Luck working for him."

And this was when even Van de Velde agrees he made a mistake. To this day, there are arguments over whether driver was the right call off the tee or the 2-iron second shot. But from this position, Van de Velde could have pitched out sideways, giving him a 40-yard pitch from a better lie for his fourth shot. He still could have knocked it on the green and 2-putted for a six.

But Van de Velde elected to play for the green from rough that covered his ball, and his shot came up woefully short -- into the burn.

And that's when Strange didn't mince words on the air, calling Van de Velde's decision-making "stupid."

"When I came back [home], I got a little bit of heat for saying it was the most stupid thing I've ever seen," said Strange, who will work next week's telecast for ABC. "I got to thinking about it. ... and it was by far the most stupid thing I've ever seen.

"He had time to think. You haven't missed a jumper or a field goal. Those are reactionary things. In his case, I can't think of anything that comes close."

Van de Velde's ball was in the water, but not submerged. And this was when the scene became surreal -- Van de Velde took off his shoes and socks to step into the burn as photographers crowded around to capture what would turn out to be one of the game's most famous photos.

"I could see the ball sinking," Van de Velde said that day. "You know, telling me, 'Hey, you silly man. Not for you, not today, it's gonna go.' … So there was no hope at that moment."

"If he had just got straight into the Barry Burn, he could have actually played the shot," Dabell said. "It was nothing more than like playing from a bunker. But he took his time taking his shoes and socks off. It's a tidal burn, so the ball went from just above water to being totally submerged. It would have been far better holding the Claret Jug in wet shoes and socks than how it all transpired. To me, that was his worse decision. Because I think he could have won by a shot."

Strange maintains that the problems started at the tee, that Van de Velde should have laid up with an iron off the tee and positioned himself to hit a wedge shot onto the green for his third. "It showed he wasn't thinking clearly," he said. "The shot that cost him was the third one, but they were all poor decisions."

After taking a drop from the burn and a penalty stroke, Van de Velde hit his fifth shot into a greenside bunker. From there, amazingly, he got up and down, holing an 8-foot putt for a triple-bogey 7 to get into a playoff with Lawrie and Justin Leonard, who had won the Open two years prior at Royal Troon.

Lawrie, who shot a final-round 67 -- one of just two scores in the 60s -- had considered taking off for his home in nearby Aberdeen. Leonard was still kicking himself for making a 5 at the final hole when he thought he needed a 3.

In the four-hole playoff, Van de Velde immediately fell behind, making a 6 at the 15th hole. Although he trailed by just 1 stroke when they returned to the 18th, there was nothing he could do when Lawrie struck his approach to a few feet to set up a birdie and an anticlimactic victory.

Van de Velde was criticized heavily afterward, although he rarely has second-guessed his decisions, save for perhaps the third shot.

"I could not live with myself knowing that I tried to play for safety and blew it," he said. "That's not in my nature. I made my choices. I made my decision."

Van de Velde returned to Carnoustie in December '99 to shoot a commercial for Never Compromise putters in which he played the entire hole using a putter -- with the idea that he could make a better score than he did on the last day of the Open. On his third try, Van de Velde made a double-bogey 6 using only the putter.

Van de Velde did get some perks from his runner-up finish. He made the European Ryder Cup team that year and earned enough money to become a member of the PGA Tour, which he took advantage of in 2000 and 2001. He tied for 19th at the 2000 Masters, tied for second at the Tucson Open and lost in a playoff at the Reno-Tahoe Open.

But in 2001, Van de Velde was unable to keep his card, and he has not played in the U.S. since the 2002 U.S. Open. A divorce and a knee injury contributed to some lean years, although Van de Velde won for the second time on the European Tour in 2006 at the Madeira Island Open.

A mysterious illness that at one time was feared to be leukemia kept him from returning to Carnoustie in 2007 -- it later was diagnosed as a virus -- but Van de Velde qualified for the Open last year at Royal Birkdale and tied for 19th.

Now Van de Velde lives in Dubai and chooses to spend more time with his family, having played just six times this year on the European Tour. His only made cuts in 2009 were at the Volvo China Open in April and this past weekend at the French Open.

If nothing else, Van de Velde understands his legacy.

"When it is something that is out of the usual, that is what people remember," he said. "Yes, it happened that I lost. Am I more famous because of it? I don't know. What if I had chipped in from that grandstand? Maybe I'm more famous than I would be if I had won.

"I do know they remember when they have seen something that was emotional. At the end of the day, there is no doubt I left an impression on people throughout that week, throughout the last hole and throughout what happened afterwards.

"Therefore, I'm going to be on people's minds for quite a while."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com