Golf's Most Heartbreaking Open

By johnhollfelder
David Cannon-Getty Images

With golf season incoming, we welcome another set of highly anticipated Majors. With the game’s biggest name preparing for next month’s Masters, we take a look back at one of golf’s most breathtaking collapses.

As a then kid, I vividly remember my endless disbelief while witnessing the train wreck of the British Open in 1999 at Carnoustie, Scotland. I grew up on the legendary stories of back nine finishes by Ben Hogan, miraculous one-iron shots by Jack Nicholas, and crowd-pleasing putts of Arnold Palmer. I hadn’t yet been introduced to the failures that mortal players who compete succumb to on golf’s biggest stage.

Sitting frozen in time, I watched Jean Van de Velde in the rivers of Carnoustie throw away the Claret Jug and his only opportunity to capture a Major. Van de Velde approached the 72nd hole needing only a double bogey (6) to become the first Frenchmen to win the Open since 1907. Despite his three-stroke lead and an ill-advised caddy, the perverse Van de Velde elected to take driver on eighteen.

The errant drive found itself no longer on the remaining hole, but a previous holes’ fairway. The golf gods graced the errant drive with a dry landing and a good lie. No harm, no foul. Or at least I thought.

After playing 71 holes of near perfect golf, only making a single double-bogey during the tournament, and concluding the two previous rounds with birdies on eighteen, it appeared he was primed to close out the Open in similar fashion. Faced with a long-range approach shot, he defied statistical common sense by choosing not to lay up.

He would later say, “I only had 185 (yards) to carry the water, which wasn’t very demanding,” he said. “The only thing you didn’t have to do was hit it left. So do you hit a wedge down the left side and then pitch on the green, or do you hit a shot over there and try to move forward with it?”

“The ball was lying so good, I took my 2-iron. … I pushed it a little. I didn’t hit a very good shot.”

To say he pushed it would be a gross understatement. Van de Velde’s shot hit the grandstand that runs along the right side of the green, ricocheted back, bounced off the top of the rocks on Barry Burn, and found a resting place in the tall grass short of the burn.

The shot would leave the grandstands gasping for air, as it became clear they were no longer watching the future British Open champion take a Sunday stroll up eighteen and into the history books. Even as they started to etch his name into the Claret jug, the whispers of the grandstand turned to astonishment.

His shot had ended up drastically short of the green and directly in the creek.

For a brief moment, Van De Velde had his shoes off and pants rolled up, preparing to try and play his ball from the water. After a moment of self-reflection and doubt, he wisely deemed it best to take a drop.

Now laying four, he could still manage a miraculous win by a chip shot to the green and a subsequent one-putt. Continuing the path of self-destruction, he would leave the chip shot once again short, and in a green side bunker.

Van de Velde would manage to get the bunker shot on the green, and with only the rain making noise, calmly delivered his 6-foot putt, concluding a disastrous triple-bogey eighteen. His infamous triple-bogey would secure him a spot in the three person playoff, but with the catastrophic mental collapse on the last hole of the Open, it was clear he had already conceited the Championship.

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