Golf: A nerve-racking 1999 - the year the action went down to the wire: Van de Velde farce ends in pathos

The Open at Carnoustie Jean Van de Velde v Paul Lawrie
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The Independent Online
"THERE WAS," according to Hugh Campbell, chairman of The Open Championship committee, "triumph, tragedy, romance, farce, pathos and controversy." He was talking about four unforgettable days at Carnoustie in the summer but he could have been summing up the whole year of golf in 1999. Drama was never far away but The Open overdosed on the stuff.

At around six o'clock on a dank Scottish Sunday evening, the Royal and Ancient engraver was poised to add to the claret jug the name of Jean Van de Velde to that of Arnaud Massy, France's only previous Open champion in 1907. Van de Velde, winner of only one event in more than a decade on the European tour, had displayed the recovery skills of his boyhood hero, Seve Ballesteros, in becoming the surprise leader by one stroke at the halfway stage and extending that advantage to five with 18 holes to play.

"Maybe I'm going to blow it, it's the first time I've ever been there," he said. "But if you don't believe, it will never happen. This is the biggest tournament ever in the world, but perhaps one of the smallest players is going to win."

The Frenchman led by three on the 72nd tee. What happened next defied belief. "It was like watching Devon Loch in the Grand National," said the commentator Peter Alliss. Van de Velde's nervy drive was pushed left. Having got away with it, he thought, as most believed he should, of playing two wedge shots on to the green. Instead, he went with his two-iron, clearing the Barry Burn but getting a freak bounce off the grandstand railings.

The ball ricocheted backwards, bouncing off the wall of the burn into a horrid lie in the rough. His attempted pitch did not clear the burn and farce took over as Van de Velde took off his shoes and socks to consider playing from `Frenchman's Creek'. "If you wait a little longer, the tide will go out," said his playing partner, Craig Parry.

Van de Velde stared at the ball and realised there was no hope. "It was telling me: `Hey, you, silly man. Not for you'," he said. After dropping under penalty, he found the bunker, pitched on and holed a brave seven- foot putt for a seven. That meant a playoff with Paul Lawrie, who had started the day 10 shots adrift but whose 67 equalled the lowest round of the week, and 1997 Open winner Justin Leonard. It seemed to go on for an eternity but was settled by a pair of crisply struck four-irons to set up birdies at the last two holes for Lawrie.

Each day Lawrie, a 30-year-old with plenty of experience of the high winds and higher rough that caused so much whingeing from most players during the week, journeyed from his home in Aberdeen. "This is a dream," he told the ecstatic gallery.

"I had a feeling someone could come through who was not expected to win," added the first qualifier to win in modern times. Both he and Van de Velde have coped well with their respective fame and infamy. The Frenchman said: "Worse things happen in life. I made plenty of friends because a Scottish man won."

This was the last Open overseen as secretary of the R & A by Sir Michael Bonallack. "I have never seen anything like that in an Open," he admitted. "Mind you, I have never seen anything like it in the monthly medal back home, either."