Golf: The Open - The tensions that toppled Van de Velde

The Open: Frenchman who had victory in his hands suffers last- hole water torture
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THE EPITAPH to Jean Van de Velde's Open Championship had been delivered on Saturday. "Anyone who has a lead has to sleep on it," Tiger Woods had said. Compared to the sweaty, torturous nightmares the Frenchman will suffer from now on, the sleepless restlessness of that night will rank as nothing.

Van de Velde suffered one of the most spectacular blow-outs in golfing history yesterday to end his chance of becoming the last Open champion of the millennium. He achieved sporting immortality, though: the ultimate fall guy.

How else can you describe someone who could afford to take a double-bogey at Carnoustie's 18th to claim golf's greatest prize and messed up so spectacularly he managed to drag himself into a three-way play-off with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie? Not surprisingly, he did not win it.

In fact it was amazing his nerves allowed him to make the appointment for the four-hole decider at all because they must have been shredded. The 18th, a par four of 487 yards, bears the nickname "Home" but you can safely say it will not be where Van de Velde's heart is.

His tee shot was a horrible hook that would have gone into Barry Burn, a stream twisting maliciously through the hole, had it not hit a post and bounced to safety. But if that was ugly it was nothing to Van de Velde's next which, strengthened by a sudden surge of unwanted and unneeded adrenalin, sailed over the flag and clattered into a metal stand and rebounded into thick rough.

Surely his suffering was over now? It was just beginning. He had four shots to sip from the old claret jug and most of the dangers had been cleared. Just one lay in his path and that was the burn between him and the green and with precise vindictiveness his ball curved into it.

What followed would classify as farce if you did not feel such sympathy for the 33-year-old journeyman from Mont de Marsan who has won only on tournament before, the 1993 Roma Masters.

In terms of pedigree he had no right to be anywhere near winning the Open, in terms of humanity it was not right he should suffer the agonies of indecision as his chance to win his life's ambition dangled precariously. His ball floated tantalisingly below him and, neglecting the steep stone walls he would have to clear, he contemplated trying to play it from where it was.

Off came his shoes and socks and rolling his trousers up he entered the cold, dark water. For several minutes it appeared his senses had been dulled so profoundly he might try to splash to safety, but with the crowd on the 18th green pleading with him to take the sensible option he finally heard and returned to dry land.

Taking a drop into more rough, his shot found a bunker, his next the green some seven feet from the flag. You would have bet your house that the shattered man in front of you would not hole it, but with commendable fortitude he rolled it in.

He was in the play-off yet his golf mind had left him and the deciding holes were, for him, a collection of mishaps. Leonard and Lawrie made their errors, but not on the same scale.

Earlier, the final day had appeared to be his and only his black and blue clothing suggested the mental bruising that was to come. Five shots ahead of the field overnight, even his draw had been kind to him because he had avoided the putter-twitching pressure of being paired with Tiger Woods or even Leonard.

Instead of a stranger the alien world of leading the Open would be shared with Craig Parry, a regular on the European Tour. He was in an unfamiliar situation but at least the face beside him was recognisable.

"What can happen?" he had asked. "I can lose it, that's all," and the thought must have crossed his mind he could discard this Open with his very first shot of the final round. His drive was to the right and took an unkind kick towards a bunker. Was it in? Van de Velde probably wished it was.

In the sand he would have at least had his feet level with the ball but it perched on the very edge of the trap and Van de Velde had to break just about every law in golf to make contact. His feet were behind, his balance hung on the tiptoes clinging to the turf and all the forward motion came from the arms.

Try that in the local driving range and your local pro will have a fit but the shot was crisp and the trajectory near perfect. The green was secured and so was the par. One down 17 to go.

His wayward driving always gave him problems and his rivals encouragement but after slowly burning off Parry after the Australian had briefly taken the lead, Van de Velde grew stronger by the shot and was in prime position to win. "Maybe I made two bad decisions at a bad time," Van de Velde said. "Or maybe I made two bad shots. It turned out to be a nightmare. But there are worse things in life and I read some terrible things that have happened to people in my newspaper this morning. It is just a golf tournament."

He had said something similar on Friday, belittling the tensions of the Open and even as he spoke he knew he was telling an untruth. He learned for certain yesterday.