Jean van de Velde’s brain fade is undoubtedly the abiding memory of the 1999 Open Championship. But the fact that Paul Lawrie was the one who ultimately took advantage of the Frenchman’s misfortune at Carnoustie deserves far more than a footnote.
Lawrie trailed van de Velde by 10 shots going into the final round of what had been an attritional Open. Before that fateful Sunday, his best round of the week had been an opening two-over-par 73.
In calm conditions, Carnoustie is difficult enough. But when the wind blows, it becomes arguably the toughest course on the planet. It’s not nicknamed ‘Car-nasty’ for nothing.
It was certainly hard work in 1999 with the halfway cut set at 12-over. Australian Rod Pampling had the outright lead after an opening 71, but failed to make the weekend after a second-round 86. Sergio Garcia carded an 89 on his major debut as a professional. Defending US PGA champion Vijay Singh also missed the cut with a two-round total of 19-over.
But van de Velde led the field on one-over after two birdies in the last three holes on Friday saw him sign for a magnificent 68. Saturday was perhaps even better considering the enormity of the situation.
Just three players broke par in round three and van de Velde was one of them. With Carnoustie’s narrow fairways almost impossible to locate in the wind, he stuck to his driver off the tee saying, “If I miss the fairway, I might as well miss it very close from (to) the green.”
The gameplan worked because his short game was in wonderful nick and his putter was red hot. A monster 80-foot birdie putt on the 14th was the highlight but the cheer which greeted his 40-footer on the last will probably stay with him forever. A round of 70 and a five-shot advantage going into Sunday’s denouement.
Van de Velde’s only previous European Tour win came in the long-forgotten Roma Masters in 1993, and his lack of experience at the sharp end was to cost him dearly.
There was little sign of the drama to come for most of Sunday but Lawrie was making a spirited effort to finish inside the top five. He had six birdies in a 67 to match the best round of the week and set the clubhouse target of six-over.
The Aberdonian had not exactly pulled up trees in his seven years on the European Tour. He came to attention in the 1993 Open at Royal St Georges, shooting a final round 65 to finish tied for sixth behind Greg Norman. His best year on tour was 1996 where he was 21st in the Order of Merit, largely due to victory in the Catalan Open.
Two lean years followed but in February 1999 he scored his second tour win at the Qatar Masters. And just as he had done six years previously, the Scot produced some last round Open heroics to guarantee some serious prize money.
Justin Leonard should have overtaken him, but he tried to make birdie at the last to put pressure on van de Velde and dumped his approach into the Barry Burn. The 1997 champion made bogey to tie Lawrie for the lead. That left just van de Velde who made birdie at 14 after consecutive bogeys on 11 and 12 to sit comfortably in the lead on three-over.
Contrary to perceived wisdom, van de Velde had a two-stroke advantage when he teed off at the last as Leonard’s dropped shot came a couple of minutes later. Determined to stick to his attacking game plan, he took driver and went way off course. His second hit the grandstand and bounced back into thick rough and then he found the burn with his third shot and you know the rest.
After his aborted wading expedition, van de Velde actually did well to hole his putt for triple bogey and a spot in the four-hole playoff with Lawrie and Leonard. Incredibly, that gave him a total of just 101 putts for 72 holes, possibly the greatest putting performance in major history but one which would ultimately prove in vain.
With the rain lashing down and the crowd cheering Lawrie on, all three men found trouble off the 15th tee. Lawrie and Leonard both took bogey fives but van de Velde had to take a penalty drop and ended up with a double bogey.
After a trio of pars at the 16th, van de Velde made a fine birdie at 17 to draw level but Lawrie followed him in with Leonard making par. Van de Velde missed the fairway with his drive at the last and, just as he had done in regulation, Leonard went for broke with his approach. It was deja vu all over again as the American again found the Barry Burn.
That gave Lawrie the chance to seal victory and he took it with both hands. A glorious approach to four feet and the Claret Jug was his. He was the first Scot to win the Open since Tommy Armour in 1931 and the first victorious qualifier after the dawn of exemptions.
Arnaud Massy’s Open triumph of 1907 remains the only French major success but van de Velde has never shown any bitterness about the events at Carnoustie 92 years later. That September, he and Lawrie made their Ryder Cup debuts in the ‘Battle of Brookline’ which Europe lost. Tempers boiled over in Sunday’s singles following Leonard’s birdie at the 17th, as the US team invaded the green with Jose-Maria Olazabal still to putt.
After a series of injuries, van de Velde bounced back to form in 2005. He lost out in a playoff to Jean-Francois Remesy at the French Open before claiming his second tour win at the 2006 Madeira Island Open. He was also a driving force behind bringing the 2018 Ryder Cup to Paris.
Lawrie struggled when he tried to crack the PGA Tour Stateside but had the odd success back in Europe, most notably in the first Dunhill Links of 2001 which comprised rounds at Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and St Andrews.
He ended a nine-year drought in March 2011 at the Andalucia Open before clinching his second Qatar Masters title the following February. He was back at the top of his game and victory in the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles saw him make his second Ryder Cup in 2012.
This time Lawrie was on the winning side as Olazabal’s men came from 10-6 down to clinch an improbable victory. Lawrie’s 5&3 win over Brandt Snedeker was the most one-sided on the day as Europe pulled off the Miracle of Medinah.
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Also published on Medium.