Eight years ago, on a golf course that time forgot, a Frenchman was poised to win an ancient game’s oldest prize. But with one hole to play, a tragedy of epic proportions struck. This is the tale of how it unfolded, told by those who were there, with up-close and intimate footage, and the deleted scenes you never saw.
Jean Van de Velde
A double-bogey 6 or better was all that separated the Frenchman from the Claret Jug. He made 7.
Van de Velde’s much-scorned caddie. A magic eight-ball would have offered better advice.
Australian pro and two-time PGA Tour winner paired with Van de Velde during the fabled round.
The eventual champion; still less famous than the burn into which Van de Velde’s ball sank.
BBC broadcaster who, after Van de Velde pulled driver, said: “Oh, I’m not sure this is the right move.”
32-year veteran was at the ready when Van de Velde triple-bogeyed his way toward infamy.
ABC broadcaster who bluntly summed up the collapse as “the stupidest thing in sports.”
Roland A. Carlstedt
Not just any sports shrink — the chairman of the American Board of Sport Psychology.
“First off, when Van de Velde arrived on the tee and I saw him pulling driver I said, ‘Uh oh, not a good idea.’ Then when the camera pulled back and I saw his ball was clear of the water on the right, I breathed a sigh of relief because he got away with it. On the second shot, he made a poor decision, and he was with a very inexperienced caddie, which was unfortunate. Van de Velde has been reported as saying he’d do it again, go for the green on the second shot, get the free drop, chip it on the green… da da da. Hmmm.
“Anyhow, it was an unlucky second; it ricocheted back into a dreadful place, and that is when he started to lose it. He hit it into the water and then the crowd started going hysterical. You know those pictures of his wife? She seemed to be laughing but of course it was hysteria. Those were not tears of joy. And when he started checking out his ball in the water, everyone was thinking: What the hell is he doing? It was getting dark, it was a very strange atmosphere. It was all sorts of gloom and doom. The ball was certainly in a foot of water and I said, ‘Well, his brain has departed with the fairies into the woods.’ His golfing brain had gone. Plus the tide was coming in and suddenly the ball was in 18 inches of water. He miraculously holed the putt for the playoff. I heard he broke down in the clubhouse.
“Paul [Lawrie] never got any recognition for winning it. It was overshadowed by the wildness of what happened. I still believe it was one of sports’ biggest tragedies.
“What annoyed me is that people criticized me because they thought I was making fun of him. It was most certainly the saddest thing I’ve ever commented on. Such emotional sadness, such distress. It was, indeed, a great moment in television, and in sport, but a very sad one also. I felt sorry for him then. I still do today.”
“Jean Van de Velde at Carnoustie — ha! That will haunt me forever. I felt for him then and still do. I said it was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen in sports, and yes, it still is, without a doubt. I’m not being critical; it’s just a fact. In golf, you have a chance to think out all your strategies; it’s not a reaction sport. And he didn’t take the time to think, or he didn’t think right. He made a mistake off the tee, which he recovered from, then a huge mistake on his second shot with the choice of clubs, and then he made another huge mistake on his fourth shot after taking a penalty out of the burn.
“One reason I had to say it was so stupid was that, as a TV analyst, we have a lot of non-golfers who watch the British Open. A golfer knows how stupid it is, but I’m speaking also to the people who don’t know the magnitude of these mistakes.
“It’s difficult when you’re an analyst. You have to be honest and forthright, but it’s not easy because you’re seeing someone self-destruct. I feel for the guy. I’m a fan up in the booth, just like the guy at home. And I could not believe what I was seeing. It made you want to reach into your TV and grab him! But it certainly made for great television.
“Does he still go to bed thinking about it? I’ll tell you what: If he doesn’t, he’s not human. He handled the situation publicly very well, but you have no choice but to handle it well. I still think of a couple of times I should have won, it’s human nature, but this is by far and away the biggest golf tournament in the world to him and he had it right in his grasp. If he said he doesn’t think about it, and it doesn’t still bother him, he’s lying.”
Editor’s note: In 1999, Van de Velde said, “A whole week might go by, [and] I don’t think about it.”
“I was on the range hitting balls when he teed off on 18. And my caddie was watching it on a little TV monitor they had there in a little hut. We watched him tee off and it was dry. He didn’t hit it in the water. So we started to head back into the clubhouse thinking it was all over. But then the BBC reporter Dougie Donnelly called us over to watch it in the BBC compound. And I saw Jean hit it into the burn from the rough. And so then I left quickly to go practice some putting. I remember my coach, Adam Hunter, saying, ‘Jean’s not even going to be involved in a playoff.’ And then he made a hell of an up-and-down out of the bunker to make it in.
“I would never wish ill on any professional. But it is an individual game that we play. And what Jean did doesn’t make me feel sorry for him. I don’t mean that to sound cruel; that’s just the way it is. I am looking out for me. When I’m golfing, the only person who matters to me is me. And if he mucks up, that’s bad for him, but if it is helping me, then so be it. I certainly wasn’t wishing him to hit it in the water, but he’s got to look after his ball, and I’ve got to look after mine. He’s not going to worry about me, so why should I be bothered about him?
“I feel there was too much made of Jean and what happened to him. That he threw it away and so on. But at the end of the day, he needed a six to win the Open, and didn’t do it. Closing the deal and getting your ball around to post a number is a huge part of what we do. There’s no doubt about that. Otherwise, everyone would be winning majors. Plenty of guys down the years have got to a certain point and thought they had it in the bag and have given it away.”
“Well, well, well, I’ll tell you one thing: Jean Van de Velde is probably the unluckiest golfer to ever walk the planet. That’s what I was thinking watching that final hole.
“His ball was playing into the wind and into the rain, and it was extremely difficult, and you can’t pick that up in the telecast — how much the ball was playing into the breeze. After his tee shot I still thought he was going to win it. But no! It just seemed to get worse and worse for him. If he had his time over, I’m sure he would have played it differently. But jeez, yeah, just probably the unluckiest golfer on the planet; if it had dropped anywhere in the grandstand, he’d have had a free drop.
“We didn’t talk afterward — I just wished him luck in the playoff.”
On Van de Velde’s second shot, played from a lie some said was less than perfect: “The lie was perfect, oh yes, I can guarantee it! It was better than [if the ball were] in the fairway. The ball looked like it was teed up!”
On Van de Velde’s decision-making: “None of the decisions [Van de Velde made] were wrong; I think it was about luck. The bounce was unbelievable on the grandstand. He hit the 2-iron only five meters right of the target. That’s not a bad shot, it was just bad luck. Maybe it was the decision of God. Yes, I think it was the decision of God.”
On doing it over again: “If I had to do it all over again, I would do it the same; it is the nature of the game. All the great players hit the grandstand on the last hole of big tournaments, because they know they get free drops near the green.”
On Van de Velde’s idea of hitting out of water: “I can’t give advice, because I don’t know the shot [out of water]. I’ve never seen this shot! So I can’t give advice. I told him that. No advice from me!”
On what he and Van de Velde did the night they lost the British Open: “All the night, I was drinking, and then I did not sleep for a week. Jean drank a very good bottle of wine and we spent all the night together with friends and had a very good time. He was very happy, of course! He was happier than me. I cried for maybe two hours, but after I was happy, too. Why? Because a few weeks later we went to the PGA in Chicago, and then later on, we went to the Ryder Cup. And we still know how to have a good time, even after defeat. It’s the best experience in my life, still to this day.”
On his relationship with Van de Velde today: “We still talk, oh of course! About two times a month. Jean is doing excellent. He finished in the top 10 two weeks ago. He’s doing really good. He won a tournament last year, did you know?”
On what he’s doing now: “I’m still caddying on the European Tour, for Julien Foret, a young player. I’m having a very good time.”
Rumors arose that Harvey had begun carving Van de Velde’s name into the Jug before the final putt dropped, but Harvey says it never happened.
“No, I didn’t start engraving the Jug with his name. I’ve got to wait until the secretary hands me a slip of paper with the winner’s name on it, and they always wait until the last putt is dropped. I have a TV monitor beside me to get confirmation of who the winner is, but Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal and Ancient, comes in and gives the go-ahead for me to start. I never really thought [Van de Velde] was going to win, though. I know very well that anything can happen. Engraving the winner’s name only takes me between five and 10 minutes. I engrave the dates already and part of the score and the venue, and then I just leave room for the name. That’s how it gets done so quickly.”