Frenchman's strange folly

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 July, 1999, 12:00am

Eight days may have passed. But quite what was going through the mind of Jean Van de Velde as he staggered in a seemingly punch-drunk state to negotiate Carnoustie's 18th hole in the final round of the 1999 Open Championship will long remain a hot topic of debate and analysis.

Even for those who watched the compelling drama unravel before their very eyes, it's been difficult to fully comprehend the sequence of events that led, arguably, to the most astonishing conclusion to a tournament for decades.

In circumstances that were as bizarre as they were shocking, Van de Velde self-destructed like none other in any of the previous 127 stagings of the championship.

With only a 474-yard stretch of land between him and the Claret Jug, how was it possible to blow a three-shot lead? Why did he make the poor club selections that he did and how could his caddie allow him to do so? Maybe we'll never know the answers. But Tom Watson, perhaps better than anyone else, has offered a revealing insight into the pace-setting pressures of Major championship golf that goes some way to explaining the Frenchman's fall.

Following his 1982 Open triumph when Nick Price subsided over the closing stretch, Watson said of winning a Major: 'It's not about wobbly knees and trembling hands. It's about making the correct decisions when you're getting wrong messages from a mind that's in turmoil.

'Only a player with an exceptionally strong mind will recognise those messages for what they are, unless he has been in that position before.' Given the composure with which Van de Velde had conducted himself for the previous 71 holes, the Carnoustie climax was so far fetched that it gives credence to Watson's theory.

Certainly you can't begin to contemplate that any of the world's top-100 players could have lost in such a manner. Safe in the knowledge that they could take a double-bogey six and still win, none of them would have had the slightest qualms about striking pitching wedges all the way down 18.

You can bet that none would have taken on the Barry Burn with anything over 180 yards to go.

What did Van de Velde do? He opted to hit driver off the tee and was fortunate not to be punished for that mental lapse. You'd have thought that shock would have brought him to his senses.

Not so. Defying everything that the sages were saying, he pulled out a two-iron for his second shot. No matter how well his ball might have been lying, this was pure folly.

The gamble to try and win the tournament 'in style' went horribly wrong for Van de Velde, who ended up having to hole a tricky putt for a triple-bogey seven to enter a play-off with American Justin Leonard and Scot Paul Lawrie.

The rest is history. Lawrie, 10 shots adrift of Van de Velde at the start of the final round, will enter the record books as the last Open champion of the 20th century.

Yet it will be Van de Velde's blow-up that will remain as the abiding memory. More so, even, than the controversial set-up of the course which provoked the week's other major talking point.

There has been a tremendous outpouring of sympathy for Van de Velde along with good wishes of all those who hope he will not carry the scars for the rest of his career.

For his own part, Van de Velde, in public at least, is putting on a brave face. He says he has no regrets about his course management or club selection.

He may have lost a golf tournament, but he hasn't lost a close friend or family member.

Golf for Van de Velde is not the be-all and end-all. Yes, it's his profession. But neither is it the only thing in his life, nor, by some stretch, the most important.

Of course, he'd love to find himself in an identical situation again with the chance of capturing a Major title. Would he then hit a driver off the 72nd tee and would he lay-up with his approach? Only he knows.

In the meantime, who better than former pro golfer turned wise-cracking television pundit David Feherty to offer a final word on the final Open of the century? Said the Northern Irishman: 'Whatever way you look at it, we had a perfect example of why this is the world's greatest game. What theatre. We had a play-off between three people, two of whom felt like they had won the lottery just by being there and one who had the winning ticket under his beret but threw his hat in the air by mistake.'