Slightly more than 17 years have passed since Jean Van de Velde gift-wrapped the Claret Jug for Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie and became a sports punchline.
After some 6,227 days, Van de Velde has made peace with his final-round meltdown at the 1999 British Open. It didn’t come easily.
“It took me a little while to get to sleep normally,” Van de Velde, now 50, recalled Tuesday at TPC Twin Cities in Blaine while taking a break from practicing for the 3M Championship. “You have to live with what happens in this world.
“You must not let something that trivial ruin your life. We all have bigger challenges.”
There’s not much bigger than what Van de Velde encountered on a global stage.
Ahead by five strokes to start the final day of the 1999 British Open, Van de Velde had outplayed Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, David Duval, Davis Love III and every other player in the field that weekend. But he couldn’t escape the pressure of trying to win a major.
Van de Velde came to the par-4 18th with a three-shot lead. His name was already engraved on the famed trophy when he roped his tee shot well right and plunked his second into knee-high rough after it bounced off a railing in the grandstand. His third shot plopped into the Barry Burn in front of the green. After initially rolling up his pant legs to attempt a chip from the water, he took a drop and eventually settled for a crushing triple bogey.
Van de Velde and Justin Leonard lost to Lawrie in a playoff.
“If you play well [at Carnoustie] you get a reward,” Van de Velde said. “If you don’t play well, it will punish you big time.”
Tom Lehman called Van de Velde’s second shot “maybe the most unlucky break in the history of golf.” If it came to rest in the grandstand, he would have been given a free drop and probably would have won the championship.
“You couldn’t get unluckier,” said Lehman, who won the British Open in 1996. “When I think about him, I don’t think about so much the collapse as how unlucky he was. If that ball misses the pole and goes into the grandstand, he wins by two.”
Van de Velde played in four more British Opens after 1999 but did not play in 2007 when the championship returned to Carnoustie. He has remained largely out of the spotlight since he retired from competitive golf five years ago to run the French Open event on the European Tour.
Yet there it was again two weeks ago when Van de Velde returned to the scene of the heartbreak. He qualified for the Senior British Open at Carnoustie by way of his past Ryder Cup status.
He missed the cut at 13 over par, a score that included a you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me double bogey on 18 in the opening round.
“It felt like the right thing to go and play,” he said. “My hopes were not very high, which is a good thing, because I was not too bashed because of it.”
Van de Velde claims he only plays 10 to 15 times per year. “Friend rounds,” he said.
Since turning 50 in May, he has found some of the old “fiery temperament” he played with in the 1990s.
He is playing this week in Blaine on a sponsor’s exemption, the only way he can get into tournaments for now. He received a similar invite from the PGA Tour Champions event in Endicott, N.Y., and plans to also play September events in Calgary and Pebble Beach.
Tuesday at TPC Twin Cities, Van de Velde was seen shaking hands and trading information with other event representatives. They are opportunities Van de Velde said he is grateful to have, even though his permanent residence remains in southern France.
“With the right amount of practice and right amount of invites, I might be tuned for the end of the year,” he said. “And you never know what might happen in between.”