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Beware the 18th hole

10 JUL 2018

By Peter Mumford

The Open Championship returns to Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland this year for the first time since 2007. That year, Padraig Harrington beat Sergio Garcia in a playoff to win his first major.

However, much of the talk as The Open nears will be about the one before that, the one where Frenchman Jean Van de Velde imploded on the final hole, throwing a nearly insurmountable lead into the waters of the Barry Burn.

The year was 1999 and Van de Velde was about to make history. Ultimately, he did, just not the kind he imagined as he stood on Carnoustie’s 18th tee with a three-shot lead. All the Frenchman needed was a double bogey to win the Claret Jug and secure the first major championship for France since Arnaud Massey had captured The Open in 1907.

Van de Velde pondered the 18th momentarily, then confidently pulled out his driver. Spectators were shocked.

The Barry Burn crosses the 18th fairway three times and players must be conscious of the hazard along the left side of the fairway in the landing zone. This generally forces them to play to the right side of the fairway. In 1999, the R&A had decided to let the fescue at Carnoustie grow, turning the golf course from a tough penal test into an almost impossible one. The fairways were pencil thin and the long rough made them look even narrower. The fescue on the right side of the 18th was some of the longest and thickest on the course.

Van de Velde pushed his drive to the right but miraculously it flew the fescue and landed in the 17th fairway. Everyone breathed a momentary sigh of relief. It was to be short-lived though as the Frenchman next pulled a 2-iron in an attempt to go for the green instead of laying up in the middle of the 18th fairway.

To his credit, Van de Velde hit a terrific approach, but the golf gods were not with him that day. The shot ricocheted off a guard rail on the grandstand, back across the Barry Burn that fronts the green, into a thick stand of fescue. At almost any other time, in any other tournament, that shot hits a spectator and drops into the bleachers, giving Van de Velde a free drop near the green.

Now faced with another impossible shot, he made his third bad decision on the hole. Instead of pitching out laterally to the fairway, he attempted to go for the green again but chunked his pitch (3rd shot) into the Burn.

We’re not sure exactly what was going through Van de Velde’s mind at that moment but safe to say he was befuddled. Perhaps he felt the Open Championship slipping away and panic setting in. In fact, it was still possible to take a penalty drop and get up and down for double bogey to claim victory.

Instead, Van de Velde went fishing. Specifically, he removed his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants and climbed down the steep rock wall into the water below to see if he could play his ball. After examining it for a long time and taking a few practice swings, much to the delight of the crowd, he determined that the ball was unplayable and elected to take a drop. A smart decision but perhaps too late.

Van de Velde’s chip rolled across the 18th green into a bunker. His sand shot was only mediocre but to his credit, he made the seven-foot putt for a triple bogey and a three-way tie with Scotsman Paul Lawrie and American Justin Leonard.

Lawrie had started the day ten shots behind Van de Velde and made the most of his good fortune in the playoff.

The 1999 Open Championship may go down as the biggest collapse in major championship history, rivalled perhaps by Greg Norman’s 1996 debacle at the Masters and Arnold Palmer’s meltdown at the 1966 U.S. Open. However, each of those tournaments should be remembered for the fine play of Paul Lawrie, Nick Faldo and Billy Casper respectively, who each played stellar golf to get into position to win, just in case something happened.

Carnoustie has a habit of producing odd finishes and victims as well as victors. And the 18th hole seems to figure prominently in each. Tom Watson won his first of five Open Championships at Carnoustie in 1975, making up three strokes on leader Bobby Cole of South Africa on the final day and ultimately prevailing in a playoff against Australian Jack Newton. But all that was before Johnny Miller blew a decent chance at the Claret Jug on the final hole. All he needed was par to win but a wayward tee shot and failure to extricate himself from the fairway bunker proved his undoing. Miller didn’t even make the playoff.

The ’99 Open introduced the world to Sergio Garcia, a 19-year old Spanish phenom who was considered a threat to win a major in his rookie year. After shooting 83-89 on Thursday and Friday though, Garcia was left sobbing in his mother’s arms as he declared that Carnoustie was just too tough. The Spaniard got over it and was back again in 2007, entering the final round with a three-shot lead over Steve Stricker and six over Harrington.

It’s not that Garcia played poorly on that last day; Harrington was just magnificent. Once again, The Open came down to the dreaded 18th hole. Like Johnny Miller, all Garcia needed was par to win. His approach found a greenside bunker and the next left him ten feet from his first major. But the putt slid agonizingly by the hole. Harrington easily won the playoff and ‘Carnastie’ had another victim.

Given that The Open only returns to each course in its championship rota after a lengthy stretch away, these stories have plenty of time to percolate and become stuff of legends for the next showing. Watson, Miller, Harrington, Garcia, Lawrie and especially Van de Velde are all part of Carnoustie’s modern heritage, which will add another chapter in a couple of weeks time.

Will we see another strange finish this year? Another miraculous come-from-behind victory or another inconsolable victim of the 18th hole?

Leading into the Championship, the weather has been quite dry, leaving the golf course firm and fast as it is meant to be played. The fescue will be dry and wispy. Jordan Spieth will be looking to repeat as Open Champion, while a long list of top players will be trying to ensure he doesn’t.

Ironically, one of the leading contenders will be 2017 Masters Champion Sergio Garcia, who has figured somewhat tragically at Carnoustie in both previous Opens.

Does anyone believe in third-time lucky?


Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag