If they retired numbers in golf, Byron Nelson would own 11 (for his consecutive-wins streak in 1945), Gene Sarazen would have 2 (for his double-eagle at the 1935 Masters), and Jean Van de Velde — who this week said he is all but retiring from golf — deserves 7 (for his catastrophic triple-bogey on the 72nd hole of the 1999 British Open).
Poor Jean. No golfer in history is more renowned for a single misplayed hole. And yet he has always taken his infamy in stride. "Don't be sad," Van de Velde said after the ’99 Open, which Paul Lawrie won in a four-hole playoff. "I made plenty of friends, because a Scottish man won. So, at least that's something."
Since the collapse, Van de Velde’s career has gone more or less in the same direction. He hung tough in 2000, finishing 32nd on the Order of Merit, but since then has finished in the top 100 just once (2005, 43rd). This year he has made just nine cuts in 23 attempts.
"My career I can compare to a good bottle of wine,” Van de Velde told Reuters. “You take a glass and enjoy it; you take a second glass and really enjoy it; a third, then the bottle is getting empty.”
Van de Velde didn’t mention the swig that made him choke, and it’s that unwavering optimism that sets him apart. Hundreds of golfers have won majors but few have dealt as graciously with heart-wrenching disappointment as Van de Velde.
He’ll be missed.