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Sink or … Swim? Remembering Jean Van de Velde’s British Open Meltdown, 20 Years Later.

The French golfer’s catastrophic 72nd hole at Carnoustie was not the stuff of abject failure, but a doomed folk hero undone by his danger-seeking. And it’s why we continue to think about it (and rewatch it) today. 

Ross Kinnaird /Allsport/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A brief history of Gallic catastrophes: Constable Charles d’Albret running into a hail of longbow arrows at the Battle of Agincourt; Napoleon leading his heedless campaign into the teeth of an unforgiving Russian winter; Jean Van de Velde, the 152nd-ranked golfer in the world, teeing off on the 18th hole of the 1999 British Open, tournament seemingly in hand.

This weekend’s Open Championship marks 20 years since the suave and little-known Van de Velde hastened to ignominy, blowing a three-shot lead on the final hole at Carnoustie in a Monty Python–esque series of misjudgments. It remains to this day the go-to 15 minutes of YouTube for those of us heavily addicted to golf’s uniquely visceral anxiety porn (don’t judge). Epic in scale and preordained to end badly, it is hubris and catharsis and all of the elements of Greek tragedy mainlined into one par four. I watch it over and again with rapt attention and try not to tear my eyeballs out like Oedipus.

But within the pantheon of golf’s famous collapses—a vein-opening sub-genre which ranges from Arnold Palmer’s 1966 U.S. Open faceplant (a seven-shot lead lost on the final nine holes) to Adam Scott’s British Open implosion in 2012 (he bogeyed the last four to lose by one)—it is also a meltdown ripe for reappraisal.

Longtime Guardian links guru Scott Murray, who has followed the sport for decades, half-remembers: “I might have dreamt it or made it up myself, but I feel like [Van de Velde] said he wanted to win the Open like D’Artagnan. And that is just like so typically French, you know, to want to win this thing in swashbuckling style.”

In other words, Van de Velde’s shot-down-in-a-blaze-of-glory moment was not the stuff of abject failure but rather of a doomed folk hero undone by his danger-seeking. “What are you rebelling against?” the 18th hole seemed to ask. “What have you got?” Van de Velde responded, taking out his driver.

With the fabled Barry Burn running down the right side of the hole and out of bounds off the fairway to the left, most players would have taken iron off the tee at 18. But Van de Velde had been aggressive all week, and he doubled fatefully down on that strategy here. On the BBC broadcast, longtime voice of British golf Peter Alliss offered this as Van de Velde impertinently misclubbed: “I’m not sure this is right.” And surely enough it proved wrong. Terribly wrong. Van de Velde’s tee shot carried so far to the right that it landed on the 17th fairway. After that, Murray recalls thinking, “Hey, this is going to be fun now! He’s probably not going to balls it up, but there’s a slim chance.” (Side note: I learned the term “balls it up” from reading Murray’s inimitable hole-by-hole coverage of golf’s majors and now routinely apply it to shortfalls in every walk of life.)

All week, Carnoustie had proved a miserable challenge. At the start of the final round, Van de Velde was the only player at level par—everyone else was over. Two-way winds, punitive rough, and a diabolical setup made the course veritably unplayable for many of the world’s best. Sergio Garcia wept after shooting an 89 in the first round. Tiger Woods entered Sunday tied for fourth, but at seven shots over par.

And yet Jean Van de Velde, of all the field—which included nearly every highly ranked player in the world—had forged a path. The first 17 holes of his final round were a roller coaster: He had lost a five-shot lead to Craig Parry by the 11th, regained a two-stroke advantage on the 12th and then managed to be three strokes clear when he stepped up to the tee box at the last. And he’d had his share of good fortune—even his far-flung tee shot had come up just short of the water hazard. “Some golfing god is with him,” Alliss intoned gravely. But golfing gods are notoriously mercurial.

“His first shot was way out near the 17th hole, and it nearly went in the water,” Murray says. ”And so after that you figure he’s just going to wedge his second into play, get it up near the hole and win in extremely boring fashion. Instead, he takes out his 2-iron.”

For professionals and weekend hackers alike, the 1- and 2-iron are clubs incredibly difficult to control—so much so that they have largely been replaced by hybrid woods. Former pro Lee Trevino once famously said that if you find yourself caught on a golf course during a lightning storm, “Hold up a 1-iron. Not even God can hit a 1-iron.” Van de Velde had simple options and three strokes to play with. He could have essentially taken a knee and run out the clock. But where’s the fun in that? Instead he called a hook-and-ladder play.

The next crucial sound heard on the broadcast was Van de Velde’s 2-iron shot smashing against the grandstand, and then bouncing into the deep rough, still a long distance from the green. “That was one of those things where fate was against him, because the ball could have bounced off the grandstand and gone further right, or stayed in the grandstand, and it would have been a free drop,” Murray says. “I mean, it was objectively speaking about as bad of golf as a professional could play in that situation. He’s hit two shots and not one of them has landed on the hole yet. But at least he went for it!”

Van de Velde went to hit his third shot from a terrible lie, where he had to negotiate tall grass and bunkers to reach the green. And a water hazard. “I don’t understand what is happening … ” Alliss remarks on the broadcast, as if suddenly having switched to reading Orson Welles’s radio play War of the Worlds. Van de Velde hit his shot, and the ensuing splash brought a terrible groan from the gallery.

“After the first two shots, it wasn’t exactly a surprise when the third went into the hazard.” Murray recalls. “But then he climbed into it. And I thought: ‘Please, please don’t hit it. Please don’t play it from there.’”

This is a reference to the most iconic moment of the Van de Velde passion play, when the golfer took off his shoes and waded stoically into the greenfront creek in an effort to surmise the feasibility of hitting his ball out of six inches of water.

Jean Van De Velde of France looks at the cup from
Jean Van De Velde looks at the cup from deep in the burn next to the 18th green during the final round of the 128th British Open Championship.

Alliss, at this point nearly operatic with grief, could scarcely contain himself: “This is so, so, so, so sad. And so unnecessary.” And as Alliss responded to the image of Van de Velde wading barefoot, he appeared on the brink of intervening personally: “Will somebody kindly go and stop this?” But of course it had all gone too far for that.

Oft overlooked in this saga is what happened after Van de Velde’s tragi-comic aquatic excursion: a sort of normalcy took hold. The Frenchman surveyed his options and realized that hitting out of the water was suicide. He took a drop and chunked his penalty fifth shot into the greenside bunker. Then he needed to get up and down and sink a triple-bogey putt in order to qualify for a three-hole playoff.

Murray sees a kind of heroism in what happened next: “Many of the most famous meltdowns in golf happened to great players—Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot or Rory McIlroy at the Masters in 2012. Whereas, Jean Van de Velde was not reaching his potential, he was dramatically overachieving for 71 holes, and then he regressed to the mean after that.”

When the Frenchman made a slick 8-footer to qualify for the playoff, the poignant dignity of the moment was deepened by the madness that had preceded it: “It had descended into farce and he was in the grip of this mania,” Murray says. “Events had overwhelmed him. But he still got up and down and I think that proves that while he made a mess of 18, I don’t think he bottled it.” (I also learned this English term for choking from Murray and now apply it routinely to everything that causes me to panic, which is most things.)

Perhaps the most salient evidence of Jean Van de Velde’s everyman, rebel-without-a-clue appeal is the fact that we’re still discussing him today. In sports as in life, we are celebrated for our greatest achievements, but truly defined by our comportment in our lowest moments. I believe what keeps me coming back to Van de Velde is the paradoxical cementing of a legend in a moment of great unraveling. He accepts his fate ruefully while never sacrificing his square-jawed panache. Although he would eventually succumb in the playoff to local hero Paul Lawrie, he remains far better remembered than even some of the tournament’s past winners.

“Sorry Todd—but no one remembers Todd Hamilton,” Murray says, referring to the 2004 British Open champion. “Or other one-off major winners: Rich Beem. Shaun Micheel. Golf’s a bit weird like that. You could win one of the biggest tournaments of all and no one remembers you. But people always remember the person that threw it away.”

And so it is with Jean Van de Velde, the daredevil who took history’s center stage for the briefest of moments, fired all his guns and watched them explode into space. Yes, he played the 72nd hole of the 1999 British Open with the rational acuity of your average serious acid head. Yes, he waded sockless and shoeless into infamy. But he took us on the wildest of rides in the process.

Nous sommes tous Jean Van de Velde! Jean Van de Velde est nous tous!

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.