There’s reason golf junkies gear up in front of the TV for the Sunday of majors. Over the ensuing five or six hours of action there’s a chance for some drama or emotional payoff. Occasionally, there’s a lingering sense of having witnessed something really special. The 1986 Masters with Jack Nicklaus was deeply satisfying. The 2009 British Open at Turnberry with Tom Watson proved to be an incredible letdown. And there’s the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie, which is in a class of its own when it comes to wild, unpredictable outcomes.
I can still call up the range of feelings that passed through me as I watched the young, engaging Frenchman, Jean Van de Velde, squander a three-shot lead on the 72nd hole. The triple-bogey he made – during a part of it barefoot, with his pants legs rolled up - was perhaps the first time we got to witness a golf championship conclude in that liminal state bordering surrealist absurdity (“this cannot be happening”) and existential fate (“accept the hand you are dealt”). Now, thanks to an engaging documentary by Golf Channel’s Golf Films series, we get to relive the wild hour or so of events that made Van de Velde a tragicomic folk hero, someone more famous by losing that he ever would have become by winning.
Preview: “Go Down Swinging: The ’99 Open at Carnoustie”
I’m working here from a “fine cut” of the film, not the final version that airs Monday, July 9, at 9 PM on Golf Channel. But its basic shape won’t change – detailed replays of each of the seven fateful strokes Van de Velde recorded, interspersed with revealing interviews with various principals and commentators. Van de Velde comes off as he always has – graciously. Lead TV announcer at the time Mike Tirico seems appropriately apologetic that during the telecast he and his colleagues crossed over from commentators to editorialists. As Van de Velde considered hitting his fourth shot out of the water, Strange said something no one had ever heard from a golf commentator. “The more I think I think about it,” he said, “this is one of the more stupid things I have ever seen in my life.”
The one enigmatic figure in all of this turns out to be Van de Velde’s caddie, Christophe Angiolini, who from the modest comfort of a rural cottage shows us into a room brimming with memorabilia from that championship – his caddie bib and badge as well as news clippings and Van de Velde’s golf glove. It’s a reminder of the grip that such an event holds on people. Angiolini acknowledges he did not try to convince his player of an alternate strategy down that last hole. Understandable, given that a Tour caddie always has to defer to his player, but a little effort might have served as a sobering possibility amidst what can be bewildering pressure. What he said next made me think that he wasn’t much of a caddie, after all. In total, Angiolini accepts the equivalent amount of responsibility for the outcome to the share he was paid – “seven and a half percent of the purse.”
Van de Velde’s choice of driver off the tee was questionable, but thanks to this film I now see, as I did not before, that the real mistake was on the second shot, when he tried to hit the green with a 2-iron. Having lucked out on his wayward drive with a perfect lie from the far right, he should not have tempted fate a second time by bringing everything into play – OB left and long, the burn short and the stands right.
The result, as everyone knows, was one of the unluckiest bounces in major history. We get to see the imprint the ball made on the spectator railing and all that followed – a bad lie, a third shot dumped into a tidal burn, Van de Velde opting not to play from the water, and then a great up-and-down from a greenside bunker.
Script writer and co-producer Rich Lerner gives plenty of space and time to those who witnessed that final hole. Two decades later, their feelings about the moment are still palpable, though tempered by time. The one narrative conceit of the film that resonates as contrived is the setup in a mythical bar and the interspersed commentary by a bartender (actor Lenny Clarke) in a black and white checkered bowling shirt (!) talking to a mildly interested patron, a self-admitted “baseball guy.” When he orders a Scotch, the bartender wittily responds, “better make it a double. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what Jean Van de Velde needed.” Its function is to initiate newcomers to golf history. It works, up to a point.
All of this makes for an informative narrative that allows us to consider for ourselves the enduring question: is Van de Velde a fool or simply unlucky? He doesn’t seem to have suffered much for the outcome. At the time, his collapse was epic. Nearly two decades later, it still resonates as one of the most engaging, improbable moments of championship golf ever televised.