How van de Velde, John­son en­dured

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY BOB GILLE­SPIE Spe­cial to The State

Dustin John­son was 14 years old in 1999, a young up-and-com­ing golfer with dreams of play­ing pro­fes­sion­ally. Nat­u­rally, he was watch­ing the fi­nal round of The Open Cham­pi­onship (aka Bri­tish Open) on TV from his Irmo home. He and oth­ers saw that Sun­day turn from a corona­tion into per­haps the worst fi­nal­hole col­lapse in the his­tory of golf’s ma­jors.

Feel free to in­sert your own ironic com­ment here.

“I vaguely re­mem­ber watch­ing” that day in 1999, but “not the de­tails,” said John­son, 33.

He might be the only per­son in golf who can say that.

Most who were watch­ing that day can re­cite chap­ter and verse of the shock­ing con­clu­sion, when a largely un­known French player, in­stead of hav­ing his name etched on the Claret Jug, carved out a spot in the game’s lore — and not in a good way.

Lead­ing by three shots as he stood over his sec­ond shot on the 18th hole at Scot­land’s bru­tal Carnoustie Golf Club (“Car­nasty” to the lo­cals), Jean van de Velde, then 33, pro­ceeded to mix ques­tion­able strat­egy and hor­ren­dous luck into a se­quence that was painful to watch. That in­cluded the

un­for­get­table mo­ment when he waded into a tidal creek (a “burn” in Scot­land), pants legs rolled up, in a vain at­tempt to hit his fourth shot out of the wa­ter.

Ul­ti­mately, the stunned van de Velde signed for a triple-bo­gey seven, drop­ping him into a four-hole play­off ul­ti­mately won by Scot­land’s Paul Lawrie. Any­one who has ever played golf watched that day with a mix­ture of hor­ror and em­pa­thy.

John­son? “I don’t re­mem­ber how I re­acted to it,” he said.

Not sur­pris­ing. The world’s No. 1 player’s oth­er­wise stel­lar ca­reer has been marked by both a string of blown op­por­tu­ni­ties in golf’s ma­jor cham­pi­onships – most re­cently at last month’s U.S. Open at Shin­necock Hills when, lead­ing af­ter two rounds, he shot 77-70 to fin­ish third by two shots – and, at least out­wardly, by his abil­ity to shrug off such dis­ap­point­ments.

There was a fi­nal-round 83 that cost him the 2010 U.S. Open; his self-in­flicted penalty on the fi­nal hole that kept him out of a play­off in that year’s PGA Cham­pi­onship; an out-of­bounds shot at the 14th hole at Royal St. Ge­orge that cost him a chance in the 2011 Open Cham­pi­onship (he fin­ished sec­ond).

In 2015 at St. An­drews, John­son – shades of last month – com­fort­ably led The Open through 36 holes be­fore slump­ing to a tie for 49th. Most wrench­ing of all for its sud­den­shock end­ing was that year’s U.S. Open at Cham­bers Bay, where his fi­nal­hole three-putt – one putt would’ve won, two would’ve forced a play­off – handed the ti­tle to a shocked Jor­dan Spi­eth.

John­son’s re­demp­tive vic­tory in the 2016 U.S. Open got the “best player never to win a ma­jor” mon­key off his back. But this most re­cent re­sult ... well, maybe it let the mon­key out of its cage again? Af­ter­ward, John­son re­port­edly de­parted Shin­necock Hills at a gal­lop, de­clin­ing to talk to re­porters.

So, you may ask, why bring up all of this now?

Be­cause this month (July 19-22), The Open Cham­pi­onship will re­turn to Carnouste, 19 years af­ter the van de Velde col­lapse. The now-52-year-old French­man will be there work­ing as an an­a­lyst for French tele­vi­sion.

And John­son will be there, of course. As will the no­to­ri­ously ra­bid Bri­tish press, no doubt ly­ing in wait.

“I’ve had my own sit­u­a­tions I’ve gone through (in ma­jors),” John­son said prior to this year’s U.S. Open, “but the last one I had a chance to win (in 2016), I won. So I’ve got good vibes go­ing for­ward.”

We’ll see how that works out. Van de Velde, though, would tell John­son to con­tinue not beat­ing him­self up over his ma­jors track record. As 1999’s “tragic fig­ure” now sug­gests, some­times dis­as­ter has a rain­bow at the end.

Re­mem­ber­ing that day in 1999 Van de Velde’s ac­cented but flu­ent English came over the phone from his home in Montde-Marsan, France. He was re­mem­ber­ing his most re­cent visit to Carnoustie as an en­trant in the 2016 Se­nior Bri­tish Open, only his sec­ond com­pet­i­tive tour­na­ment fol­low­ing in­juries and ill­ness in 2010-11 and a five-year stint (2012-16) run­ning the French Open.

“That was a fun ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “I hadn’t played for, ba­si­cally, six full years.” At Carnoustie, he “played poorly,” open­ing with an 83. “The sec­ond round was much bet­ter, but I was ba­si­cally done af­ter that.”

He says there were no 1999 flash­backs then; af­ter all, he’d played Carnoustie in three Dun­hill Cups be­fore mov­ing on to his French Open po­si­tion. “There are other holes that I’ve tripled along the way,” he said, and chuck­led. “Luckily for me, I sur­vived the trauma.”

It’s eas­ier to laugh nearly two decades re­moved from 1999, yes? In fact, van de Velde said, it took him “72 hours” to re­bound from that day. “Go­ing back home, and two days at home; af­ter that, plenty of time to have the adren­a­line come out of my veins, time to think about what hap­pened, time to calmly re­flect on what hap­pened.”

So .... what did he con­clude? Did a young player choke on the pressure of per­haps claim­ing golf’s old­est ma­jor cham­pi­onship? Noth­ing of the sort, he said.

That fate­ful Sun­day, he ar­rived at the 18th tee brim­ming with con­fi­dence; in­deed, he’d felt that way the en­tire round, he said. “I felt very com­fort­able on the golf course. It was the first time I was in such a po­si­tion in such a big tour­na­ment — but there’s al­ways a first time, even for the great­est play­ers in the world.”

On the 18th tee, he noted that the wind, at his back there all week, was now in his face. The hole “went from a 2-iron (and) wedge to a driver (and) 4-iron,” he said. “I knew it was go­ing to be tough, but I knew as well it was go­ing to take quite a bit for the other play­ers to catch me.”

Still, this was van de Velde’s first time in such a spot­light, so there were doubters. TV an­a­lyst Mike Tirico, among oth­ers that day, ques­tioned why the player would hit driver on the nar­row fin­ish­ing hole, when a se­ries of 5-iron shots eas­ily could’ve reached the green in three shots, set­ting up a pos­si­ble par, or bo­gey or dou­ble at worst.

“As soon as (van de Velde) holed out on 17, the late, great Bob Ros­burg said, ‘Cur­tis (Strange), there’s no way this guy is go­ing to take drive here, right?” Tirico said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “And that was the first seed of the calamity be­ing planted for me.”

For van de Velde, doubt would only come later. “There was no hes­i­ta­tion ... I thought driver was the club,” he said. “I don’t know why it wouldn’t be. If I wasn’t mak­ing any­thing silly, (the fin­ish) wasn’t go­ing to be that dra­matic. Oth­ers have asked if I was wor­ried, but I was pos­i­tive.”

That didn’t change even af­ter van de Velde launched a tee shot that flew so far right that it landed in the 17th fair­way. Five-time Open Cham­pi­onship win­ner Tom Wat­son – who would have his own fi­nal-hole heart­break in 2009 when he nearly be­came the old­est ma­jor cham­pion at 59 – re­cently re­mem­bered think­ing: “(Van de Velde) just got a great break. He’s got a per­fect lie and (is think­ing), ‘OK, I can knock it over the burn in front, not a prob­lem.’

“Then,” Wat­son con­tin­ued, “he got a rot­ten break, and things tran­spired from there.”

Ar­riv­ing at his ball, van de Velde briefly pon­dered what Tirico, Strange and oth­ers were now sug­gest­ing: hit his sec­ond shot side­ways back to the 18th fair­way. But the player re­jected that no­tion.

“The an­gle com­ing back to the left was quite poor, the fair­way was di­ag­o­nal,” he said. Van de Velde also wor­ried about a shot fly­ing too far left and out of bounds. By com­par­i­son, go­ing straight at the green with a 2-iron made the most sense to him. “My thought was, get over (the burn), and from there you’ll find a way to make the five or six” he needed to win.

His 2-iron shot flared slightly right, head­ing for the grand­stand be­hind the green. No prob­lem, he thought; he’d get a free drop from the bleach­ers and be pitch­ing a short shot into the green. Then: Wat­son’s rot­ten break.

“How in the world did I hit a piece of metal hold­ing the (bleacher’s) rail­ing?” van de Velde asked, yet again. The ball car­omed off the rail­ing, back to­ward the burn, hit­ting the stone wall bor­der­ing it be­fore land­ing in deep, gnarly rough. Now he was in trou­ble.

“Some peo­ple say it was des­tiny,” van de Velde said, a shrug au­di­ble in his voice. “Some­times you just go (in) the wrong place at the wrong time. No mat­ter what you do, that’s just the way it is.”

From there, it all went to hell.

His fat third shot into the wa­ter, the rolled-up pants legs, the even­tual penalty drop, his fifth shot into a bunker. Amaz­ingly af­ter all that, he blasted out and sank his 8-foot putt to at least get into the play­off. But his mo­ment was gone.

Asked if he had it all to do over, which shot would he want to try, van de Velde doesn’t hes­i­tate. “Oh, the third one, ob­vi­ously,” he said. “I would hit it side­ways and wher­ever it fin­ished, even in the rough, I’m sure I would’ve had a bet­ter lie and bet­ter an­gle to get­ting on and mak­ing (a) six.”

A 19-year-old sigh: “It’s not a big prob­lem,” he said.

Just part of the jour­ney. Call it what you will: res­ig­na­tion to his fate, a de­sire to move on with his ca­reer, a re­silience that, some would say, also has been a sav­ing grace for Dustin John­son when ma­jors blew up. Of Carnoustie in 1999, van de Velde is adamant: “I do not re­gret any­thing.

“We play golf to get into po­si­tion to win com­ing down the stretch in ma­jor cham­pi­onships. Now, do I re­gret not hav­ing my name on the (Claret Jug)? Of course, but do I re­gret what I went through, what it brought to me and the way it made me af­ter that? No, no, no ... not at all.”

Though he’s never met Dustin John­son, van de Velde is an ad­mirer. It would not sur­prise him to see the tall, ath­letic player hold­ing the Claret Jug come Sun­day. “I think he re­ally has the full pack­age go­ing (to Carnoustie),” he said.

“He’s young, ex­tremely tal­ented, and there’s no rea­son — if he’s putting to­gether all the el­e­ments — he wouldn’t be in con­tention on Sun­day. He’s won the U.S. Open, so he knows what it takes to get to the fin­ish line.”

Has van de Velde con­sid­ered seek­ing out John­son, shar­ing their sin­gu­lar his­to­ries? Not re­ally.

“He’s come back and won one (in 2016),” he said. “From what I’ve heard, he’s di­gested those losses and been able to move on with his ca­reer” — the way the man with his­tory’s worst col­lapse has moved on with his life.

Van de Velde paused be­fore adding, “Maybe he can ap­pre­ci­ate that not win­ning those pre­vi­ous chances helped him win the one he did.”

That seemed to be the case in 2016. Go­ing for­ward? As van de Velde learned post-1999, who knows what lies ahead?

AP file photo

In 1999, Jean van de Velde stood in “the burn” that crosses the 18th fair­way to see if his ball is playable.

AP file photo

Dustin John­son plays the third round at the 2015 Bri­tish Open at St. An­drews, Scot­land. He com­fort­ably led that Open through 36 holes be­fore slump­ing to a tie for 49th.

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