Sandy Lyle was a revered presence at this week’s British Open at Carnoustie Golf Links. A Scotsman competing in Scotland in what most likely will be his final Open, Lyle, 60, was the recipient of a warm gesture by the R&A: Tournament organizers asked him if he’d like to strike the opening tee shot. At 6:30 a.m. Thursday, he obliged. The 147th Open (and Lyle's 43rd) was off and running.
Brits who turn out to the Open in droves and watch at home on their tellies will forever remember Lyle hoisting the champion’s Claret Jug in 1985, at Royal St. George’s in southern England. That’s the snapshot that lives on through history when one joins that special club as an Open champion. Frenchman Jean Van de Velde could have, and should have, mugged for one of those happy, career-defining photos, too.
Instead, Van de Velde's painful and indelible portrait lives on as the guy standing up to his shins in water in Carnoustie’s Barry Burn, the leading man in one of golf’s all-time tournament tragedies. He left us all hyperventilating into brown paper bags that day. As the world watched in amazement, Van de Velde handed away the 1999 British Open with a series of poor decisions, making a (gasp!) triple bogey on his 72nd hole, and then losing in a playoff to Scotland’s Paul Lawrie.
Van de Velde is golf’s version of baseball's Bill Buckner. Buckner was a man who played 22 major-league seasons, collected more than 2,700 hits, competed on an All-Star team and even won a National League batting title. But to most, he is remembered as the poster boy for Boston Red Sox futility, a ball bounding between his legs at first base during the potential clinching Game 6 during the 1986 World Series. The Sox would lose Game 6 on Buckner's gaffe, and then Game 7, prolonging what eventually would become an 86-year drought between franchise titles.
Van de Velde, like Lyle, has returned to Carnoustie this week, too. He does some radio for French and English outlets, and at 52, he still plays a little senior golf. Next week, he’ll be at St. Andrews’ Old Course for the British Senior Open. But at Carnoustie, he's not a former champion but a radio man. When he walks past fans in the gallery, they elbow one another and one inevitably will begin the story.
“That’s Jean Van de Velde, the guy ...” Well, you know the rest. So does he.
Nothing reveals character quite the way defeat can. One of the best news conferences this writer ever attended was listening to Greg Norman after he kicked away the 1996 Masters. Losing would change his life in a more positive way that winning would have. Shark had his shining moments, too. This was Van de Velde's one golden chance. Give him his due: Van de Velde always has worn his toughest day in a 30-year career quite well, usually managing a light-hearted joke or a smile. He often jests that while some guys win the Claret Jug, he’s the guy who dropped it.
Life cannot be easy as a punchline. Be honest: When you hear the name, there is but one prevailing image, right? That's the one flashing on TV all this week. In reality, though, there is so much more to the man.
Van de Velde accepted his moment of infamy and moved on the best way he could. With humor and a shrug. C'est la vie.
“Golf is not going to have the upper hand on me,” Van de Velde said in an interview with broadcaster Taylor Zarzour earlier this week on Sirius/XM Radio. “I did not get depressed because of what happened to me. It has happened. It’s undeniable. Would I have done things differently? Yes. The third shot would be different ...”
The third? Well, that shot was the one he struck from tall fescue rough that finished in the burn that fronts the green at the par-4 18th hole. The top of his ball broke the surface of the water, and with the whole world watching he removed his shoes, then his socks, rolled up his pants and waded in. The sound of camera shutters – and gallery shudders – was downright deafening.
Change the third shot? He walked to the 18th tee that afternoon with a three-shot lead. He probably should have hit iron on the long par 4, but hit driver, sending it right. He could have laid up on his second shot, but didn't, his ball bounding unluckily off the right grandstand, back on his side of the burn. When he flipped his third shot from high grass into the burn, Curtis Strange, inside the ABC tower, no longer could hold it in: “This is one of the most stupid things I’ve ever seen in my life,” Strange said. Nearly two decades later, the words that Strange needed to say hold up as true.
Van de Velde actually would make a pretty good triple bogey, getting up and down from a bunker for 7. Nobody in the media center that week had written a word about Lawrie, who’d started Sunday 10 shots back and posted a solid round of 67. No American writers knew very much about him. Nor do many fans remember there was a third man in the aggregate playoff – young American Justin Leonard, who had an unexpected bonus chance to win his second Open in three years.
In the end, Lawrie won the playoff – a highly popular result with the Scots, given that Lawrie lived close enough to commute from home in Aberdeen. And Van de Velde, in defeat, taught us all a lesson in class.
He will live in infamy through that photo, him standing in that burn, and through old highlights. His baseball kindred spirit, Buckner, can relate. Both men managed to turn their hardships into teaching moments, showing class, a reminder that a single picture does not always tell the entire story.
“The bottom line, as well, is that you have to put it in perspective,” Van de Velde said this week. “You can be affected with what happened. You can have a reaction. Everybody does. I do very often as well. But then there comes a time when you come down, and things get back in order in your brain, and you stop processing them, and you get to realize that whatever happened, nobody died out there.”
Even if, to those of us at Carnoustie in 1999, it certainly felt that way.
Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jeffbabz62