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Down the Drain
John Garrity
July 26, 1999
The 128th British Open will be remembered more for the way it was lost by Jean Van de Velde than for how it was won by Paul Lawrie
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July 26, 1999

Down The Drain

The 128th British Open will be remembered more for the way it was lost by Jean Van de Velde than for how it was won by Paul Lawrie

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Major Trouble

Last week's British Open may not have been the most difficult major ever, but it was the hardest in 25 years. Here's how the carnage at Carnoustie stacks up against the toughest tests since 1970.

 

'99 BRITISH OPEN/RANK

RECORD/MAJOR

Winning Score

+6/2nd

+7/'74 U.S. Open

Cut

+12/3rd

+14/'74 British Open

Field Avg. per Round

+5.82/3rd

+6.99/'74 U.S. Open

Rounds in the 80s

102/4th

131/'72 US. Open

Subpar Rounds

18/4th

8/'74 U.S. Open

France is a country without much of a golfing tradition. Its greatest player, Arnaud Massy, conceded victory to Harry Vardon on the 35th hole of a playoff in the 1911 British Open, saying, "I can't play zis damn game." He was just being modest, of course—Massy had won the 1907 Open—but since then the French have placed golf somewhere between sunbathing and just plain bathing on their list of vital activities. The Trophée Lancôme, France's biggest golf tournament, is staged near the Palace of Versailles, and its main purpose seems to be to allow French society to dress up and roam the tented village holding champagne flutes.

So it was startling last week when a dashing Frenchman named Jean Van de Velde threw away the British Open at Carnoustie, Scotland, in the most extravagant display of je ne sais squat in the history of championship golf. Standing on the tee of the final hole on Sunday, Van de Velde had a three-stroke lead. Twenty excruciating minutes later he was bent over a six-foot putt, needing to hole it to get into a playoff with 1997 British Open champion Justin Leonard and Scotsman Paul Lawrie.

To get from point A to point B the Frenchman had hit the wrong club off the tee, chosen an even worse club from the rough for his second shot, bruised a grandstand, wound up barefoot in a burn and pitched into a greenside bunker, performing with such consistent disregard for his position that old-timers were reminded of Wrong-Way Corrigan, the aviator of the '30s who set off from New York for Los Angeles and flew instead to Ireland. "Well, it's better than a kick in zee ass," Van de Velde joked afterward, echoing Massy's long-forgotten sentiment.

Nothing that anyone said could capture the horror of the Frenchman's misadventure. "Obviously Jean had the tournament in his pocket," said Lawrie, who made history himself by shooting 67 and coming from a record 10 shots behind in the final round to win. "He chips it down the 18th fairway, hits it on the green, makes five, he's the Open champion." Leonard, who had played in the twosome in front of Van de Velde and warmed up the audience for the Frenchman by hitting a three-wood into the burn, said, "As bad as I feel, he feels worse."

Van de Velde couldn't quite get his mind around the calamity. "It wasn't something absolutely mad that I tried to do," he said at his postmortem press conference. "It just came out to be a nightmare."

Which was appropriate, because that's pretty much what the 128th Open Championship was from start to finish: a golfer's nightmare. Carnoustie, which was last the site of the Open in 1975, when Tom Watson won the first of his five British titles, is a nasty antique that was brought down from the attic after 24 years. Last week the holes were longer than they were when Watson won there; the rough was deeper; and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the organization that runs the British Open, made the fairways as narrow as an eel's appendix scar. The fairways were also ultra-firm, allowing balls that landed safely to go looking for trouble, most often in some gravel-bottomed moat or wall-faced bunker. "I don't think there's an individual in the R and A who could break 100 on this course," said Phil Mickelson, who shot 79-76 and missed the cut.

Every year there are claims that the course at some major championship is too severe, but how often does the first-round leader fail to survive the 36-hole cut? At Carnoustie that happened to Australia's Rodney Pampling, who shot 71, the only par round on Thursday, before bowing out with a more believable 86 on Friday. How often does America's leading money winner finish 22 over par? That happened to David Duval, who carded 24 bogeys and four double bogeys on his way to a 62nd-place finish. "You can't judge your game on this golf course," Duval said. "Good shots end up in the hay, bad shots end up on the green." (Saturday's headline in the Scottish Mirror: DUVAL LEADS AMERICAN FURY AT KILLER CARNOUSTIE.)

It was fitting that a Scot won, because this Open seemed less about defending par than about restoring the British Empire. Carnoustie sank the Spanish Armada! (Seve Ballesteros, rookie sensation Sergio Garcia and Masters champion José María Olazábal shot a collective 69 over par for two rounds.) Carnoustie disciplined the Colonies! (Defending champion Mark O'Meara shot a first-round 83, the highest round by a defending champion in 123 years.) Carnoustie humiliated the French! (Poor Van de Velde.)

Some blamed the wind, but the wind was normal for Tayside, a persistent 15 to 25 mph with an occasional toupee-lifting gust. In such conditions the ideal shot is usually described as one played "under the wind."

"Christ, they don't know what a low ball is," muttered Carnoustie's feisty greenkeeper, John Philip, as he watched the world's best players struggle with links-style golf. "We used to call them daisy cutters. This is the old style, the natural style." Philip was pleased with the scores, which ranged far upwards from the playoff trio's six-over-par 290—the highest winning total at any major since Jack Nicklaus's 290 in the 1972 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

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