If you cover golf long enough, you’re bound to cover an event where the player who loses is a bigger story than the player who wins. As I prepare to cover my 125th major championship, The Open Championship at Carnoustie, I can’t help remembering what occurred in 1999. The loser was, and still is, a much bigger story than the player who won.
Please join me on a trip back in time to July 18, 1999 . . .
Early in the week, a friend introduced me to a colorful player from France by the name of Jean van de Velde. I was instantly impressed both with his swing and his flair. Betting on golf is legal in Scotland, so after our chat on the range, I made a 50-pound wager on van de Velde to win at huge odds. Going into the fourth and final round van de Velde led by five strokes over Justin Leonard and Craig Parry, by eight over Greg Norman, and by seven over Tiger Woods.
Members of the media seemed to be divided into two camps. Some of my media pals were trying to buy a portion of my wager on van de Velde, while others were looking to bet with me that van de Velde would not win. So, what do you think I did? I refused to sell any portion of my ticket, plus took on more wagers that van de Velde was indeed going to win. Yes, as the story unfolds, you’ll see that made me a loser on both counts!
As the fourth and final round unfolded, everything was going right for the Frenchmen. Additional media from France were dispatched to cover firsthand this breakthrough for French golf, as it had been 92 years since the last Frenchman, Amaud Massy, had put his name on the Claret Jug.
To say that I was already planning how I was going to spend my pending windfall would be highly accurate. As Jean van de Velde stood on the last hole, he was in possession of a three-shot lead. Media members who wagered with me against van de Velde were already streaming into my radio booth to pay off. I made a big mistake by taking their money before it was over. To this day, I regret doing that.
One hole to go leading by three strokes, I swear to this day that the engraver had already started carving Jean van de Velde onto the Claret Jug. Then, the unthinkable started to happen and unfolded like a really bad nightmare.
Van de Velde, bursting with confidence, opted to use a driver on the 18th tee, when, with a three-stroke edge, using an iron would have been a far more prudent option. His lack of judgment by not playing safe would prove to be his undoing as he found his ball in a terrible lie off the tee. And then, to make matters worse, instead of just chipping back into the fairway, he threw caution to the wind and decided to go for the green and the unthinkable continued to happen. His second shot flared way right, hit a railing on the grandstand, and bounced back into the water. The resulting triple bogey meant he at least managed to get into a three-way playoff with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie.
Paul Lawrie will always be known as the 1999 Champion Golfer of the Year and has notched his place in the history books for his 10-shot comeback resulting in victory, but Jean van de Velde was still the star of the story.
Jean van de Velde and I both learned valuable lessons from that July 18, 1999 Open Championship. Van de Velde will never again hit driver on the last hole when leading by three and for me, I learned never except a wager that might have to be paid back.