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‘What if?’ defines Carnoustie’s ’99 legacy

It’s always been a little unfair to Paul Lawrie that we remember Jean Van de Velde more for losing the 1999 British Open in spectacular fashion than Lawrie for winning it, even though he came from 10 shots back in the final round.

Van de Velde, in fact, has been synonymous with Carnoustie ever since that sad affair. His unfortunate demise, that infamous triple bogey on the final hole, is easily the biggest lasting memory of what was an otherwise dreadful week. Carnoustie, looking to cement its reputation as a killer course upon making a triumphant return to the Open rota for the first time in 24 years, was set up absurdly hard, with high rough and ribbon fairways. It was the worst major-championship setup in modern times.

What is forgotten in the Fall of the House of Van de Velde is that he wasn’t the only player who left Carnoustie feeling as if he should have won the Claret Jug. 

There was a third man in the playoff – American Justin Leonard, who would go on to hole the most memorable putt in Ryder Cup history a few months later at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Craig Parry also emerged as a tragic figure at Carnoustie. His other brush with major-championship greatness came and went in the final round of the 1992 Masters, when Parry was paired with Fred Couples and was bothered by patrons rooting for Couples, the eventual winner, and against Parry as he shot an ugly 78 and finished 13th.

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Justin Leonard lives with the knowledge that he, like a few others, had his chances in the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie.

© GOLFFILE/EOIN CLARKE
Justin Leonard lives with the knowledge that he, like a few others, had his chances in the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie.

The whole Van de Velde flop never felt real to me. My Sports Illustrated assignment that day was to chronicle the men who lost the Open. I thought it was going to be Leonard and Parry. I didn’t think it was going to be Van de Velde, too, but his losing the Open was the story of the Open, so I was left with the Other Guys Who Lost the Open.

That’s why I was in the clubhouse, far out of sight of the 18th green, and with two or three other American writers who were chatting with Leonard and his father, Larry. We weren’t getting much traction in the chat, in part because Leonard had just bogeyed the 18th hole and wasn’t feeling great about his finish, especially since he was sure that it was over, as were we.

Then we heard an odd groan from the distant grandstand by the 18th. And then, another. What was going on? None of us knew. I don’t recall what happened next, but someone – maybe Leonard’s caddie or maybe a tournament official – came over and said something to Leonard. A strange look fell over his face like a vaudeville curtain, and he said curtly, “I’ve got to go.”

It was another two minutes before we got the word: Van de Velde was a disaster in progress. This is before the age of accessing the Internet anywhere. Cellphones were used then for, believe it or not, making calls and nothing else. I think I raced back to the media center to find a TV monitor and get caught up. Van de Velde actually made an impressive up-and-down from a greenside bunker for 7 just to get into a playoff.

Leonard got a golden mulligan to win a second major to go with his 1997 Open title at Royal Troon. Also in the group was Lawrie, a tall Scot about whom most Americans knew very little.

A four-hole aggregate playoff ensued. Van de Velde, predictably, couldn’t recover. Leonard was more game, but just like Van de Velde, he fell victim to the tough 18th hole. They finished three shots behind Lawrie.

In regulation play, Leonard thought he needed to birdie the 18th to have any chance at catching Van de Velde and went for the green but hit into the Barry Burn and made bogey. He trailed again in the playoff, this time to Lawrie, and again was certain that he needed to make birdie. Again, he hit into the Barry Burn. Had he played for par at 18 the first time around, he would’ve won the Open, but no one could have foreseen Van de Velde’s meltdown.

It was a weird ending for a guy who had the second-weirdest day, next to the Frenchman.

“Basically, I lost the British Open twice in one day,” Leonard said, “which is maybe twice as hard to take.”

Parry knew just how he felt. 

He, too, had a chance, a good chance, to win a major championship for the first time in his career. He, too, felt as if he lost the British Open twice in one day. After a birdie at the 10th hole, Parry took the lead when Van de Velde bogeyed the 11th. Then Parry tripled the 12th hole out of Carnoustie’s cartoonish heather. Parry was a gamer, though. He’d birdied the long par-3 16th hole the day before and hit another sensational shot in the final round but missed an 8-foot putt. At 17, he made a double bogey that erased him from contention.

When the talking heads at NBC discuss the ’99 Open next week when the Open returns to Carnoustie, they’re sure to bring up Leonard, who now sort of works for them in his analyst’s role at Golf Channel. He’s 46, his last competition was the 2017 Valero Texas Open and he’s making strides in broadcasting. He was pretty raw when he first stepped into the booth and was still sporting a Jeremiah Johnson-like beard. He’s a smart guy who learns fast, though. He lost the beard, restored his clean-cut look and is maybe the fastest-rising golf TV star behind David Duval.

Leonard will have something interesting to say about ’99, for sure. Parry, however, probably won’t even get a mention, although he did hole out a bunker shot at the 18th – far too little, too late. As Parry left the scoring cabin, he stopped for an Australian TV interview and was asked if he had a message for the folks Down Under. “Don’t feel for me,” he said with a faltering voice and red eyes. “I just finished fourth in the Open. Next time, maybe I’ll finish it off.”

There was no next time. Major opportunities seldom come twice, although Leonard and Parry arguably had two shots at this Open on the back nine alone.

The only good news for either man was that Leonard’s finish took him from off the Ryder Cup radar and into the thick of contention for a spot on the team. He spoke with U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw in June at the Western Open in Chicago when Leonard didn’t appear to be headed for the Ryder Cup on points or as a captain’s pick.

“He looked at me and I looked at him and Justin said, ‘I’ve got to quit thinking about making your team and just play golf,’ ” Crenshaw said then. “That takes a lot a maturity to say. He was right. There’s nobody in the world who’d love to have Justin on our team more than I would.”

Well, you know how that one turned out.

At least one of the Other Guys Who Lost the Open didn’t go away empty-handed. Leonard brought his small silver runner-up bowl to his news conference after the awards ceremony in which Lawrie, who had birdied the last two holes of the playoff, was introduced as “The Champion Golfer of the Year.” Leonard knew just how that felt. That’s why this close call didn’t feel good.

After he posed for a snapshot with his father, Leonard held up the silver trophy and joked, “Well, I guess I don’t have to give this back to have a replica made.”

When he showed up in Hartford a few weeks later, Leonard naturally was asked about his Open finish. “It’s still pretty tough,” he said. “Hindsight is 20/20. If I would have known, I would have done things differently. At the time, I think I made all the right decisions, and that feels good. But, it’s tough to go through that for four days and get so close.”

Leonard was close to a few other things. If he pars 18 and wins at Carnoustie, would that plus the Ryder Cup putt have been enough to get him into the World Golf Hall of Fame? We’ll never know.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle