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Remembering the Drama of the 1999 Open Championship

By: | Mon 19 Mar 2018

THE 1999 Open Championship will go down in history for probably the most dramatic finish seen at any major in golf’s long and storied history. In many respects, it remains is a tournament that is still remembered more for the man who lost it than for the Scot who would won the Claret Jug, but that would be a disservice to Paul Lawrie's incredible final day display.

It was the championship when a French golfer called Jean Van de Velde stood on the 18th tee requiring a double-bogey six to win and eventually took a seven, holing a brave putt on the final green to force his way into a playoff with Lawrie and the American Justin Leonard.

Lawrie famously said afterwards: “Jean should have won. No disrespect, I’m glad he did what he did. I can’t explain it but I had a feeling someone could come through who wasn’t supposed to.”

Incredibly, Lawrie came from 10 shots behind on that fateful Sunday to catch and beat Van de Velde and win The Open at Carnoustie in the most dramatic of circumstances, just a few miles from his home in Aberdeen.

There had been a gap of 24 years since The Open had last been played at Carnoustie. Essentially, the tournament had outgrown the facilities on offer in the area. But improvements to the road links and accommodation saw the R&A take the tournament back to a course that is widely regarded as the toughest on the rota. Tommy Fleetwood reduced the links to 63 shots during the Alred Dunhill Links Championship last year – a score that still leaves most people who have played or walked the course shaking their heads in disbelief.

The players were not exactly thrilled with what they found when they arrived at Carnoustie in 1999. Narrow fairways and thick rough caused havoc in the wind, as demonstrated by the fact that not a single player managed to break par on Thursday. It was brutal, and first-round leader Rod Pampling missed the cut after an 86 the next day.

Van de Velde – looking to become only the second Frenchman to lift the Claret Jug after Arnaud Massy in 1907 – shot a 68 in the second round and followed it with a 70 on the Saturday. Added to his opening round of 75, it left him level par after 54 holes, and five shots clear of Leonard, the 1997 champion, and Australia’s Craig Parry.

No man in major championship history had ever come from 10 strokes behind in the final round to win an event and Lawrie, a 30-year-old from Aberdeen ranked 241st in the world seemed an unlikely candidate to change that fact. Scores of 73, 74 and 76 had left him at 10-over heading into Sunday but Lawrie carded a magnificent round of 67 to take the clubhouse lead at six-over, although that was still six shots behind where van de Velde had started the day. The Scot knew that he was going to finish well up the field but when he completed his round it never entered his head that he might actually catch the 33-year-old Frenchman.

But Van de Velde was battling on the course, discovering just how tough Carnoustie could be. He was three over par after 11, while Parry was three under for the day and, remarkably, had moved into a one-shot lead. It didn’t last. Parry faded with double bogeys at 12 and 17 and eventually missed out on the playoff by a shot, while Argentina’s Angel Cabrera lipped out a birdie putt on the last to do likewise. Meanwhile Leonard bogeyed the last hole, one of the toughest in championship golf, to join Lawrie in the clubhouse on six-over.

Van de Velde got up and down to save par on the 15th, 16th and 17th holes, and came to the 18th leading by three. What happened next is now part of Open Championship folklore.

Knowing a double bogey would secure the Claret Jug, Van de Velde pushed his drive far to the right – on to the 17th hole. Incredibly, he chose to go for the green with his second shot with a two iron, when a wedge short of the Barry Burn would surely have given him the title.  It went right, hit the grandstand and bounced back fully 50 yards into a horrendous lie in knee-high rough. His lie was awful. He should have hacked out sideways but chose to go for the green. Instead, the ball finished in the burn. Van de Velde removed his shoes and socks and clambered into the water. Before he did so, the top of his ball was clearly above the water, and he felt that he could play it, But the tide was coming in and by the time he got to his ball it was submerged. He had no shot.

He ended up taking a penalty drop. From there he pitched his fifth shot into the greenside bunker, chipped to eight feet with his sixth and, incredibly, produced a nerveless putt to card a 77 and force his way into the four-hole aggregate play-off with Lawrie and Leonard.

Lawrie later said that his late coach, Adam Hunter, told him to look Van de Velde and Leonard in the eye when he got to the tee at the first playoff hole, and the Scot said that Leonard was as white as anybody he had ever seen. The colour was drained from his face. Van de Velde was shot to pieces.

Lawrie led by a stroke after three holes of the playoff and as the three replayed the 18th, Leonard found the water, while Van de Velde found the rough and the Scot hit an incredible four-iron approach to four feet to seal the Claret Jug with a birdie – a three-shot victory over the Frenchman and the American.

Van de Velde was magnanimous in defeat, saying: “I made plenty of friends because a Scottish man won. But there’s worse things in life. You have to remember, putting in perspective, it’s a game… it’s a game. It’s not, you know, like life and death or whatever. It’s your name down on a trophy. Nobody died."

Lawrie became the first Scottish-born player since Tommy Armour in 1931 to become Champion Golfer of the Year in Scotland and Hugh Campbell, chairman of The R&A Championship Committee, summed up one of the great Opens. He said: “There was triumph, tragedy, romance, farce, pathos and controversy.”

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Tags: The Open Carnoustie

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