Return to the burn, but the shoes stay on

Van de Velde avoids water torture this time but game will never forget nightmare that transformed his career
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The Independent Online

When Jean Van de Velde plopped a wedge shot into the burn at the first hole on the Old Course yesterday it was, as they say, a case of déjà vu all over again. But, as a reminder of his Championship-wrecking visit to another burn at Carnoustie a year ago, it was totally unnecessary. We've never been allowed to forget.

When Jean Van de Velde plopped a wedge shot into the burn at the first hole on the Old Course yesterday it was, as they say, a case of déjà vu all over again. But, as a reminder of his Championship-wrecking visit to another burn at Carnoustie a year ago, it was totally unnecessary. We've never been allowed to forget.

The story of his bare-feet venture into the Barry Burn while ruining his golden chance of winning the 1999 Open has passed into the game's folklore via a million repetitions, most of them from the Frenchman himself.

Yesterday, his hands didn't even move involuntarily towards his boot-laces. "I thought about it but the water was too deep. I wish I could have tried, but it wasn't possible," he said. So he stayed on the bank and took a boring drop on his way to an opening bogey.

Despite a well-applauded 15-feet birdie on the 18th, he shot a level-par round that didn't thrill him. He had birdied the fifth to restore some hope after his brush with the burn but a poor tee-shot on the eighth led to a three-putt and his passage was rarely smooth after that.

He found a fairway divot on the 16th and another on the 17th after a lovely drive. He called over the rules official. "The divot hadn't been properly filled in and the ball was deep into it. I asked him what I was allowed to do and he said I was allowed to shut up and play it." As usual, he was pleasantly unruffled by his failure to improve his score and he brushed aside sympathy with the philosophical style we have come to love. "So, I'll shoot 64 tomorrow; bollocks."

Making his jaunty way around at St Andrews, he gave the appearance of a man thoroughly enjoying his return to the stage he left in such disarray last year. "I want to get myself into position to have another chance," he says. "That's what I dream of." It was not allowing the throwing away of a three-stroke lead at the last at Carnoustie to become a nightmare that began his impressive rehabilitation.

When his second to the 18th hit the grandstand and rebounded into horrendous trouble, the watching millions were subject to a grotesque sequence of error and misfortune. He used the experience to demonstrate a refreshing approach to his game and his life and earned the genuine admiration of millions. But it would be a mistake to think that his was a shallow, devil-may-careacceptance of what happened.

Although Van de Velde has managed to turn his crisis into a light operetta, he sometimes allows his reflections on the incident to stray into the sombre. He holds up his hand and makes a small hole with his thumb and forefinger to indicate the size of the projection on the grandstand that deflected his shot into his famous trouble. "That's how big it was," he complains. "And but for that the ball would have gone into the stand and I would have had a free drop from an easy place. I was incredibly unlucky." He doesn't continue with that imaginary chain of events because it would lead to the inevitable conclusion that he would have thus gone on to win The Open.

What would have then transpired is worth the conjecture. The controversy over Carnoustie's suitability as a fair test had devalued the contest to such an extent that only the appearance at the top of the final leaderboard by of one of the game's foremost players would have rescued the validity of the event. To many, for an outsider to win it would only confirm its devaluation.

It was an unfair assessment but Paul Lawrie would have been fully aware of the view and it would have certainly increased the burden that the Open champion carries. Lawrie hasn't made a bad job of the shouldering the task but his look of utter dejection when he came up the 18th on Friday to face the cut with a nine-over par total revealed the torment of a champion who had failed answer the critics by securing a worthy end to his reign.

The contrast between Lawrie and the Frenchman has been fascinating throughout the intervening year but was never more stark than at that moment. While Lawrie despaired, Van de Velde was being serenaded by his personal gallery with cries of "Allez Jean" as he smoothed his way to a 68 and a place among the top contenders.

It is quite possible that the relaxed and laconic style with which he reacted to the mishaps of last year's final hole might not have registered such an impact if it had been him and not Lawrie who walked off with the Claret Jug. It might work for Kipling but it is not always easy to treat the twin impostors of triumph and disaster just the same.

As it was, he made rubbish of the adage that no one remembers who finishes second. The manner in which he contrived that position offered a route into the curiosity of a much larger congregation than just the ordinary golfers who could identify with his troubles. This could be expected in the British Isles where we have a natural liking for the valiant loser and have ample opportunity to exercise it. But it is in America that he has found his most enthusiastic admirers. He has played 14 times on the US Tour over the past year and it hasn't hindered his cause that he has played well and attractively in earning over £350,000 in prize money and winning his Tour card for next year.

His off-course progress has been even more outstanding. American golf writers I've been talking to at St Andrews swear that if the Frenchman stood for mayor in any of the towns and cities he has visited he would win in a landslide.

Wherever he has gone, the local TV and radio stations have flocked to interview him and the top newspaper columnists have found him an irresistible subject. He has never tired of telling the tale over and over again and the appetite to hear it hasn't flagged either. The result is a popularity that will make his fortune.

There are many morals to this story and the one that ought to be heeded by some of our present stars is that the public are interested in what a sportsman experiences, bad moments as well as good. They buy into that entitlement when they turn up or tune in. Without naming any names, we have too many top players who are reluctant to share any of their feelings, especially after a bad day.

The world watched as Jean Van de Velde made the biggest final hole botch-up in the history of major championships. He hid nothing from them and they'll not easily tire from continuing to watch.