As Jean van de Velde returns to Carnoustie, Mike Tirico looks back at what he calls "the most unique moment" of his career
At the end of his press conference ahead of the PGA Tour Champions' Dick's Sporting Goods Open earlier this month, Jean van de Velde was asked what comes to mind when he thinks of the 1999 Open Championship. The 50-year-old Frenchman making his senior tour debut had this to say:
"What comes to my mind? It was very windy, always comes to my mind," van de Velde said before describing his practice schedule, his aggressive strategy off the tee, and ending with, "But yeah, it was an exceptional week when you're up ahead, you're in front of the three, you get caught, you get back ahead again. It's a good problem to have. It's a nice feeling to get, so it's great memories."
"Exceptional" and "great" probably aren't words you'd expect to hear from a guy describing a tournament in which he had one of the worst collapses in golf history -- a 72nd-hole triple bogey that led to Paul Lawrie winning a playoff. But then again, 17 years is a long time. The 1999 British Open pre-dated Tiger Woods’ historic 2000 season and the Tiger Slam. It came before another crazy finish at Carnoustie between Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia in 2007, and even longer before a 59-year-old Tom Watson nearly captured the claret jug at Turnberry in 2009.
Mike Tirico was on hand for all of those memorable moments and yet this time of year he gets asked about 1999 more than any other tournament. Tirico was working his third Open that fateful Sunday, doing play-by-play for ABC when the relatively obscure Frenchman forever became a symbol of disaster on the golf course by letting the claret jug slip away. Seventeen years is a long time, but Tirico remembers what happened that day at Carnoustie vividly.
The Frenchman is back there to play in this week's Senior British Open, and the event will be broadcast by Tirico’s new network, NBC/Golf Channel. Although, Rich Lerner and Lanny Wadkins will take the spots in the 18th tower that Tirico and Curtis Strange occupied in 1999, Tirico will have van de Velde on his mind. We caught up with Tirico at the 145th Open Championship at Royal Troon to get his recollections of "the most unique moment" of his career.
“It was the most contentious major in terms of player reaction that I’ve been around. Essentially, the greenkeeper went rogue on the R&A and the club. The golf course conditions were brutal and the weather conditions were brutal. So together, it became a week of full calamities all the way around.”
“As soon as he holed out on 17, the late, great Bob Rosburg said, ‘Curtis, there’s no way this guy is going to take driver here, right?’” And that was the first seed of the calamity being planted for me and for us. Now the fun begins from there.”
The 18th hole
But van de Velde did hit driver, and. . .
"People forget, he missed so bad with his tee shot, he drove it into the 17th fairway. But he gets lucky. Then, in some ways, his play on his second shot was safe, because he thought he could clear the burn. Obviously, the prudent play is to layup short, but his feeling was, I’m hitting it OK and if I hit it over the burn, I’ll be fine."
“There should be a 'Sports Science' shot on that ball hitting the railing like that. The probability of what happened is so out of this world. If you took a bucket of balls for a week, there’s almost no way, you get the bounce he got. Almost anything else happens, he’s fine. He got one of the worst breaks imaginable."
"I’m not the biggest believer in the golf gods – but that’s the golf gods. The fact that that ball hit that spot.
It's in the burn! When Tirico blurted that out after van de Velde's third shot, he was as stunned as anyone. What were his thoughts on how to handle such a dramatic turn of events?
"It was time for Curtis and Rossy, guys who have won majors and lived through this, to express their shock. They could see he wasn’t making clear decisions at this point. There’s no way he should have even thought about hitting that shot out of the burn."
At one point, Strange said it was “the most stupid thing he’s ever seen.” Did Tirico agree?
"Of course! He said what everyone else was thinking."
There's no cheering from the press box, but. . .
"If you go back and listen, you’ll hear I said, ‘You don’t root for or against anyone, but somehow, somewhere in you, you have to hope this goes in.’ And that was just an honest reaction. He had become the center of this circus and you just wanted to see him have a shot in the playoff."
"Sports are cool to me because individuals know what comes with success and they also know what comes with failure. And these men and women put themselves back in that position after they fail. And that’s really hard to do. Your watching a guy have the worst moment of his professional life in front of the golf world. I just wanted to see him have another chance in that playoff. Considering that pressure, that was a helluva a putt he made."
"I've always meant to ask him about this after, but I think van de Velde went up to the hotel and changed his pants. He definitely went up to the hotel and delayed the playoff. It was pretty dark and Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie were waiting, our on-course people were waiting and everyone was out there freezing. They waited for a long time for the playoff to start. It was so odd that you couldn’t script it and say ‘OK, this is plausible that these events could take place in this order.’”
"It’s all the way up there for me as the most unique moment I’ve been a part of on the air. The late Jim McKay was with us as a host and he has seen everything in sports. After 18 ended, we took a break -- it had to be half an hour from 17 to after 18 -- he leaned in and said, 'I don’t know if you’re ever going to see something like that again in your career, but you did a good job.' That sticks with me and I get chills thinking about it because that’s the guy I grew up watching. So I don’t care what anybody else says, if it was good enough for Jim McKay, it’s good enough for me."
As for van de Velde, he never seriously contended in a major again. A series of injuries curtailed his career and he won one more time at the 2006 Madeira Island Open to give him a second European Tour title. He retired from that tour in 2011 and has been running the French Open since. Now 50, he's decided to dabble in some senior events.
"Ever since I retired you feel like you kind of miss the adrenaline of competing," van de Velde said before his PGA Tour Champions debut, "and I have to say that's not something that goes away that easily."