Golf: Dignity is dinner at the 18th

Tim Glover studies the impact of Van de Velde's celebrated fall
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The Independent Online
AFTER JEAN Van de Velde had gone from grass to metal to stone to jungle to water to sand to immortality in the space of seven deadly shots, American observers wanted to know the French for Tin Cup.

They saw a parallel between the Frenchman's denouement in The Open Championship at Carnoustie and the movie about a no-hoper who had a chance of winning the US Open until he hit it into the water at the last. Kevin Costner, who plays the fictional hero, ignores his caddie's advice to play safe and repeatedly hits it into the pond until he finally, to a loser's salute from the crowd, finds the green.

"There's been a lot of talk about heroic failure," Jamie Cunningham, Van de Velde's manager, said, "but Costner didn't get into a play-off. Nobody beat Jean over 72 holes of The Open."

Nobody but himself. Following the apparent self-destruction which saw Van de Velde blow a three-stroke lead at the 18th before losing in the play-off, the rehabilitation began. Justin Leonard, who had cause to be almost as gutted as Van de Velde, was the first to console the Frenchman. "You gave yourself a chance to win it and no one can take that away from you," the American told him.

Cunningham made sure there would be no wake. Team Van de Velde, including his wife Bridgette, an economics graduate who has a handicap of eight (and who was laughing her socks off at her husband's escapade in the Burn), and the caddie Christophe, who also plays off eight, were joined by people from the French tourist board at a dinner at the Carnoustie golf course hotel which overlooks the scene of the crime, the 18th green.

"We had a celebration," Cunningham said. "If you're going to be negative you'd go back to your room alone with a bottle of Pernod." Instead they drank champagne, with bottles being sent over by the R & A and the hotel. "We ended up singing French songs," Cunningham said. "That was the spirit of the week. We had a lot of fun. It was an adventure."

But they should have been drinking out of the old claret jug instead of a tin cup. After a sleepless night, Van de Velde's first words were: "Next time I'll make sure I've got four shots to win The Open." If there is a next time.

On a couple of talking points that dominated the conversations of golfers and people who didn't know a golf ball from a boiled egg, Van de Velde was adamant: he did not choke and his caddie bears no blame for what happened at the last. "It was my call and my call alone," he said.

So why did he do what he did, inviting, in some quarters, ridicule and cheap shots alluding to his attachment with Disneyland in Paris? Despite his modest record (a play-off victory in the Roma Masters in 1993 is his only success in 11 years on the European Tour) Van de Velde has always felt he has the ability to play at the highest level. When he was criticised for not playing in the French Open earlier this season, his response was: "Does Nick Faldo play in the English Open every year, does Greg Norman play in the Australian Open?"

He had no problem comparing himself to players who were world stars. It was simply a question of when he would provide the proof. Van de Velde, the son of an industrialist in Mont de Marsan, was 14 when he asked Herve Fraissieau, then of the French Golf Federation, to do him a favour. "He wanted me to persuade his father that he was serious about a professional golf career. The three of us had dinner and it was a disaster. His father said Jean would never make a living out of the game and refused to speak to me. I think Jean has always had this feeling of 'I'll show you'."

On Sunday evening Van de Velde, asked one hundred times why he didn't lay up short of the Burn and tip-toe to victory instead of attacking the hard par four of 487 yards, said he would have been called a coward and also that it was against "the spirit of the game". He added: "Next time I hit a wedge, OK. You all forgive me?" That was in public. In private, he said that under the same circumstances he would do exactly the same thing. It was in his nature.

Perhaps it should not be forgotten that his hero is not Kevin Costner (Van de Velde has seen the film) but Seve Ballesteros. Would Seve have laid up? It is also worth recalling that Van de Velde hadn't hit the top of the leader board on the longest, toughest course in Open history by whingeing about the conditions and playing conservatively.

On Saturday evening, just as Tiger Woods, the world No 1, who for the most part kept his driver in the holster, was predicting that anybody within 10 shots of the leader could still win (Paul Lawrie was exactly 10 behind), Van de Velde got a birdie three at the 18th. Before the final round, John Simpson, Faldo's manager, told Cunningham that it would be no bad thing if Van de Velde slipped back into the pack to relieve the pressure.

This is what happened but no sooner had Craig Parry taken the lead than he relinquished it and Van de Velde (this was only the third time he'd ever played in the fourth round of an Open) took a grip again. From the 13th to the 17th he went par, birdie, par, par, par. At the penultimate hole he nailed a two-iron approach to the 17th green. He thought he could do the same at the 18th. He went with what he was most comfortable with.

"What happened next was a freak," Cunningham said. "Virtually anything could have happened to his ball and he would still have been fine. Even if it had rebounded off the stand into the Burn he would have had a greenside drop and been playing four." Instead, of course, the ball ricocheted back off a path, went backwards over the Burn and buried itself in the rough. Van de Velde didn't choke; he got too brave and he got mugged.

"The response has been phenomenal," Cunningham said. "We've had letters, e-mails and faxes from people who have never met Jean but were bowled over by the way he played, the entertainment he provided and the dignity he displayed at the 72nd hole and in the play-off."

The following day Van de Velde received an invitation to play in the US PGA Championship at Medinah next month, his debut in a major in America; he could become the first Frenchman to play in the Ryder Cup and the Masters beckons next year.

"As soon as you think that such and such a shot was worth x-amount, life becomes very difficult," Cunningham said. "The most important thing now is to get Jean in the right state of mind. Maybe it's true that to win a major you have to lose a major."

What is not true is that nobody remembers who comes second.

First Tee, page 15