3: CHOKERY - Great Individual Meltdowns of the '90s
With a three-stroke lead over Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard, course leader Jean Van de Velde had it all going his way as he stepped to the eighteenth tee on Sunday of the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie in Scotland. Lawrie (who had shot a tournament-best 67 on Sunday just to get within screaming distance) and Leonard were already in the clubhouse. All Van de Velde had to do was double-bogey, at worst, and the Open was his.
The eighteenth hole was a 487-yard par-four. The Barry Burn, a deep ditch with a creek at its bottom, ran along the left side of the fairway before tacking right to form a moat separating the fairway from the green. With the Burn and its wild roughs, 18 was a typical shrieking bitch of a Scottish golf hole. But Van de Velde had tamed it thus far, saving par on Thursday and dropping birdie putts on 18 the next two days as he built his lead. His Saturday birdie was a thing of beauty—a 45-footer that he dropped in with an eight-iron from off the green.
The birdies were a result of cojones not seen on a Frenchman since the days of Marshal Pétain. While most golfers used an iron off the tee at 18, playing for a par, Van de Velde had used a driver, aggressively going for the pin in his second shot. It was a high-risk, high-reward strategy given the numerous hazards, especially the Barry Burn. It had served Van de Velde well thus far. But daring was not necessary here. After all, he only needed a double bogey. Everyone expected Van de Velde to play it safe this time with an iron shot off the tee.
Out came the driver. Van de Velde's tee shot went slicing way off to the right, coming to rest on the neighboring seventeenth fairway. He still had five strokes to give and two options for his second shot. The first—the reasonable, sensible option—was simply to get back onto the eighteenth fairway and play it from there. The second, clearly ludicrous option was to go directly for the green, which Van de Velde couldn't even see from where his ball was located.
Van de Velde went for the green. The ball sliced again, ricocheted off the grandstand to audible screams from the gallery, bounced off a wall of the Barry Burn, and somehow hopped back onto dry land, coming to rest in the rough just in front of the Burn. It was a huge break for Van de Velde; he was just thirty yards from the green, and even after two awful golf shots, he still had four strokes to give. It was still easy money.
Van de Velde's third shot chili-dipped directly into the Burn, once more to gasps from the crowd. Knowing a penalty would leave him with just two strokes to give for the victory, he took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pantaloons, climbed into the burn, and set up to somehow lay up from where his ball sat, about an inch deep in the little brook. There was none of the visible, red-faced strain of Greg Norman. Instead, a small, enigmatic smile sat on Van de Velde's Gallic face. He seemed to be the embodiment of a French existentialist fantasy. "The British Open? Injustifié! Pointless! As is all existence!"
Dissuaded from laying up from the Burn, Van de Velde de took the penalty stroke and made his drop. His fifth shot dropped blandly into the rough. He finally made it to the green with his sixth, leaving himself with an eight-footer to force a three-way playoff.
He nailed it. Perfect. More torture. Pourquoi pas?
The following day, Paul Lawrie, Justin Leonard, and Van de Velde slogged through a wet, hideous, four-hole playoff that for the Frenchman was little more than a formality. Lawrie, a native Scot, continued his hot streak and shot even par for the victory, to the delight of his countrymen. Leonard finished a distant three strokes back. So did Jean Van de Velde, who missed the chance to become the first Frenchman to win the British Open since 1907.
"There are worse things in life," Van de Velde said. True. But there aren't any worse collapses in golf—ever.