Many of us will have wondered exactly what was going through Jean van de Velde’s mind at Carnoustie in 1999, when he looked down into the Barry Burn and saw his ball sitting in the water.
The Frenchman had good reason to feel anguished. After beginning the 72nd hole needing only a double-bogey six to win The Open, Van de Velde was suddenly facing up to the possibility he would not even make it into a play-off.
After a wayward drive and a wild second shot that dramatically cannoned back off the greenside grandstand, the long-time Championship leader prompted gasps from the crowd as his pitch from a horrible lie found the hazard that runs across Carnoustie’s closing hole.
A penalty drop appeared inevitable, yet Van de Velde had other ideas after he first glimpsed his ball resting on the sandy bed of the burn.
“As I walked forward, I could see the ball was sitting on the sand,” explained Van de Velde in our original documentary podcast, The Story of 1999.
“Half of the ball was outside of the water, so I’m going to go and play! I mean, it’s a bunker shot, literally. There’s nothing to it!”
So began one of the most extraordinary passages in the history of The Open, as Van de Velde removed his shoes and socks before climbing into the burn with the intention of playing his fourth shot from the hazard.
Watching on from the commentary box, the BBC's Peter Alliss was left aghast.
“What on earth are you doing? Oh, Jean, please,” said Alliss as Van de Velde removed his footwear. “Would somebody kindly go and stop him? Give him a large brandy and mop him down.”
Once Van der Velde was in the water, weighing up his options, Alliss added: “I’ve never seen anything like it before and to attempt to hit the ball out of there is pure madness, because he could hit the wall, go back in, the ball could hit him, he could end up not finishing in the top 20.”
Much to the relief of Alliss and the majority of a captivated audience, the effects of a rising tide ensured a drop was ultimately taken after all.
“By the time I went around, took my shoes off and went in, the tide was coming up. So within basically two to three minutes, the ball is about an inch under the water,” said Van de Velde.
“And from there, with that wall in front of me, there’s no way I can hit it out. So I decided, after my little escapade in the water, I decided to pick it up and to drop it. I didn’t have any other choice.”
The drama, however, was far from over. After taking his drop, Van de Velde found the bunker with his fifth shot before completing the gutsiest of up-and-downs to salvage a seven and a place in a play-off with Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard.
Lawrie had long since completed a magnificent 67, having begun the final round trailing by 10, while Van de Velde’s nightmarish finish gave Leonard reason to rue his own approach to the 18th, despite the American suddenly gaining renewed hope of lifting the Claret Jug for the second time in three years.
When he came up the final hole in regulation play, Leonard was two behind Van de Velde and felt he needed to adopt an ultra-aggressive approach to have any chance of victory.
“I knew I was two back – he (Van de Velde) was on 17, which was right across the way, and I heard applause after he hit his second shot, so I knew he’d hit it on the green,” said Leonard.
“I figured, OK, I’ve got to make birdie. I was in the left rough, but I had an OK lie. I don’t remember what my yardage was, but I just remember thinking, OK, if I’m going to make a birdie, I’ve got to hit 3-wood here and hope it comes out well, hope I can get lucky, and get it up there either on or around the green where I can either make a putt or chip it in. And obviously I didn’t pull it off.”
Leonard’s second shot duly found the burn, leaving him “a little dejected”, and although he rescued a bogey to join Lawrie as the clubhouse leader on six over, he was sure his chance had gone.
After witnessing Van de Velde’s subsequent seven with amazement, Leonard found himself struggling to come to terms with the fact he was still very much in the hunt.
“It was very hard to get back in that mindset,” he added. “There are times when you can kind of prepare for it and get in the mindset, but for me the disappointment on 18 and then to try and turn around and get back in a competitive mindset (was tough).”
If Leonard was finding it tricky to refocus for the four-hole play-off that started at the 15th, it is safe to say Van de Velde had an even bigger task in attempting to get his mind on the task at hand.
Lawrie was understandably tense too, but the Scot benefited greatly from the wisdom of his coach, Adam Hunter, who recognised his player would not be the only man feeling the strain.
“We were driving out in the buggy to the play-off, and obviously I was extremely nervous, as you can imagine, you’ve now got an opportunity to win the biggest event in the world,” said Lawrie.
“So when we’re going out in the buggy, Adam obviously thought: ‘Ooh, man, he’s not sure about this.’ So he asked me, when the players are on the tee, to make sure I’m looking in their faces when you get there. He knew straight away that they would be nervous, that they would be struggling, because it’s the biggest event in the world, it’s now starting to rain, it’s getting a little colder, it’s not going to be easy.
“He probably thought: ‘Right, if he looks at them and they’re nervous, that’s going to make him feel better.’ And he was 100% spot on.
“If you watch the footage I’m just standing under my brolly. I’m not speaking, I’m not doing anything, I’m focused. I’m just waiting for my turn to play.
“I was nervous on the 15th tee, but apart from that I felt in absolute total control in the play-off, and probably knew straight away that I was going to win The Open, on that 15th hole.
“I was calm. I can’t tell you enough about how good I felt, how assured I felt in that play-off.”
All three players initially struggled over the extra holes, with Lawrie and Leonard each bogeying the 15th and 16th as Van de Velde dropped three shots to trail by one.
Yet Lawrie then produced a spectacular finish to secure the Claret Jug, with wonderful long-iron approaches to the 17th and 18th setting up back-to-back birdies.
After one of the most remarkable finishes to a sporting event in history, Lawrie was able to celebrate an historic win on home soil and the pinnacle of his illustrious career.
Van de Velde’s role in the final Open of the 20th Century was unforgettable, but the brilliance of the Champion, who ruthlessly capitalised on an unexpected opportunity, will also live long in the memory.
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