Golf-Open `99: The ifs that will haunt Van de Velde

Open aftermath: Frenchman loses way to millionaire's row but 20 minutes of madness at least ensure lasting notoriety
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THE ATMOSPHERE initially was akin to the post-match football interview with a manager who has lost badly and the sack is imminent. No one likes to make eye contact, ask the first question or intrude on over-public grief. An embarrassed silence follows.

What do you say to the man who has just blown the chance to become the Open champion and a millionaire? Sorry? Bad luck? You do not know and usually the interviewee does not know either. Just get this thing over with.

Jean Van de Velde cut through the awkwardness like the knife of dismay that was going to work on his innards. "I'll talk about anything but the 18th," he said, a surprisingly full smile across his face, because he knew it was what everyone there wanted to discuss. Not just in the aftermath of the 128th Open at Carnoustie but for the rest of his life.

Doug Sanders lost the Open when he missed a putt of 30 inches in 1970 to let in Jack Nicklaus via a play-off and never rested peacefully again. "I don't think about it much," he said. "Only about every five minutes." Henry Longhurst, commentating for the BBC, whispered: "There but for the grace of God ..." and his voice just tailed away in sympathy.

That was just one bad shot, a single moment when nerves reached down from his mind, grabbed hold of Sanders' arms with malicious intent and forced them to twitch. Van de Velde self-destructed over an agonising 20 minutes that will be an eternal torture of wrong decision-making.

Three shots up with one hole to play, he merely had to keep his head to become the first Frenchman to win golf's greatest prize since Arnaud Massy in 1907, but his head was precisely what he lost. Chance followed chance to alter his destiny and he resolutely ploughed on. The folly was almost heroic in its scale.

If he had stayed calm; if he had chosen to lay up on his approach to the par-four 18th; if he had employed a seasoned caddie to soothe the nerves instead of a young compatriot by the name of Christophe, who anxiously avoided giving his second name for tax reasons back home. If. The word will haunt him for eternity.

Instead he took the two-iron out of the bag and entered the history books for the most spectacular piece of sporting suicide since Jana Novotna lost the 1993 Wimbledon women's singles final when she was one point away from being 5-1 up in the deciding set.

"The option was hitting a wedge down the left side and then a pitch on to the green and two putt or three putt and walk off with it," he said. "Instead I hit a two-iron and pushed it a bit. I didn't hit a very good shot."

He could, and will, say that again. His ball crashed against a spectator gallery and into rough so vindictive his attempt at a recovery ended in Barry Burn.

"I could have done it the safe, boring way and maybe I should have. Maybe I shouldn't have bothered about what people would think of me."

"I'm obviously shocked by what's happened, devastated even. That choice was not crazy, but it made me live through a nightmare... C'est la vie, it's a game. I promise, next time I'll play safe.

"I wasn't at all happy with the idea of playing with a wedge. I think that would have gone against the spirit of the game... and maybe against the spirit of a Frenchman."

Then came the image that will be burned into people's minds: Van de Velde waded into the water with the notion of trying to splash the ball on to the green from where it floated.

Off came his shoes and socks, up came his trouser legs. It was laughable. It was ludicrous. It was Monsieur Hulot's golf holiday. It was appalling given the treasure that was being tossed away. It was watching a man so desperate to succeed reason had been tossed into the North Sea.

"I took off my shoes because at first there was three-quarters of the ball outside the water, lying on mud," he said. "It was pretty firm and I thought I had a chance of hitting it on the green. "Then the ball sank. It was telling me: `Hey, you madman, not for you, not today.'"

He took a drop, put the next shot in a bunker and it was a minor wonder given the stinging intensity of his disappointment that he holed a putt from seven feet to get into a play-off with the eventual winner Paul Lawrie and the American Justin Leonard. Not surprisingly, he never looked likely to prevail.

What now for Van de Velde but endless notoriety? Very little in all probability because his record - one tournament victory on the European Tour - does not persuade you that a chance of greatness will be offered a second time.

How he will cope with the damnation of missed opportunity even he will not know, but his grip on perspective as he surveyed his shattered dream was encouraging for anyone with an ounce of compassion within them. "Worse things have happened to other people," he said and went on to joke, "I've made a lot of friends today by allowing a Scotsman to win." Now he has to ensure his memories do not become enemies.

Sanders, too, realised the fickleness of renown after a cardiac arrest that left him in a coma for 10 days. "I left my mark on the game," he said when he resumed playing again, "and I would have settled for that at the start of my career." That, too, might be Van de Velde's sole consolation.

Back home the French press were in forgiving mood. There was a shower of mournful articles yesterday morning, in a rare distraction from the Tour de France - which has lacked any success for the home riders so far this year. The heavyweight Liberation hailed Van de Velde for "holding his club high so well, so long on British soil."

In L'Equipe, the national sports daily, the headline was, "And the Beast ate him". The general view was that his failure took nothing away from his performance over the previous 71 holes.

"Do we have the right to give up our childhood dreams?" the L'Equipe article began. "In one hole he demonstrated both the intense beauty and the cold cruelty of this sport. Seventy-one holes and one moment of distraction. Two hundred and eighty-eight strokes to live, two more to die. And that says it all."

Le Figaro concurred. In a piece headlined "Panache at half-mast", the paper observed that Van de Velde wanted to "tempt the devil. And he landed in hell."

The article went on: "What a week he made us live through. We simply hope that the terrible wound of Car-noustie and its hard lesson in realism will quickly heal."

history of major slip-ups

Jean Van de Velde joined a distinguished list of golfers who have blown big leads in major championships, but perhaps not in such dramatic circumstances, at the last hole.

1998 US Open: Payne Stewart four clear, shot 74 and lost by one to Lee Janzen.

1996 Masters: Greg Norman led by six, shot 78 and lost by five to Nick Faldo.

1994 Open: Jesper Parnevik, three shots ahead on the last tee but did not know it. He went for a birdie and bogeyed while Nick Price birdied the 16th hole, eagled the 17th and parred the last to win.

1986 US PGA: Greg Norman four clear, finished with a 76 to Bob Tway's 70 and lost by two.

1985 US Open: Taiwan's TC Chen four clear, but took eight at the fifth and lost by one to Andy North.

1979 Masters: Ed Sneed five clear, crashed to 76 and lost play-off to Fuzzy Zoeller. He was still three ahead with three to play.

1978 US PGA: Tom Watson five ahead, returned 73 to John Mahaffey's 66 and Jerry Pate's 68. Three-man play-off won by Mahaffey.

1970 Open: Doug Sanders missed a two and a half foot putt on the last hole at St Andrews to win the Open. His blunder let in Jack Nicklaus for an 18-hole play-off, which Nicklaus won by one shot.

1966 US Open: Arnold Palmer seven clear with nine to play, caught by Billy Casper and lost 18-hole play-off.