The 128th British Open turned into a French farce today on the 72nd hole of regulation play. Ninety minutes later, bagpipes were bellowing in celebration behind the 18th green as a Scottish lad, 30-year-old Paul Lawrie from just up the road in Aberdeen, held the silver claret jug high over his head after his three-shot playoff victory over Frenchman Jean Van De Velde and American Justin Leonard.
Lawrie began this afternoon of high drama and occasional low comedy by trailing Van De Velde by 10 strokes. By day's end, Lawrie's final-round 67 and Van De Velde's devastating -- and seemingly foolish -- triple-bogey 7 at the 18th hole brought them and Leonard back to the 15th tee for an aggregate-stroke playoff in a drenching rain.
Lawrie birdied the 17th with a 15-foot putt to take a one-shot advantage over Leonard and Van De Velde. And when the four-year veteran of the European tour stuck his second shot at 18 within four feet of the hole and made the putt, thousands of his soaked countrymen began a celebration expected to last long into the night.
No one had won a major golf championship after beginning the final round trailing by 10 strokes, and it had not been done in PGA Tour history, either. Jackie Burke rallied from eight back to win the 1956 Masters by a shot over Ken Venturi, the largest previous deficit. And for good measure, Lawrie also became the first Scot to win the British Open on the home sod since Tommy Armour did it here at Carnoustie in 1931 and was the first qualifier to prevail in this tournament since 1962, when every player in the field had to qualify to get in.
"Pretty damned good, I've got to say," Lawrie said. "To birdie the last two holes here in the playoff is obviously a fairy story."
For Van De Velde, who needed to make only double bogey on the last hole in regulation to claim the claret jug, it was a nightmare story. And yet, when it was over, he was able to keep his collapse in perspective.
"Let me tell you, there are worse things in life," he said. "I read the newspaper [about the Kennedy tragedy] like you all did this morning, and some terrible things are happening to other people. It is a golf tournament, it is a game, and I gave it my best shot."
Van De Velde was referring to his play on the 487-yard 18th hole. After 71 holes, Van De Velde had a three-shot lead over Leonard, who had bogeyed 18 with a second shot into the Barry Burn guarding the front of the green.
Van De Velde hit a driver off the 487-yard 18th and pushed it badly, but he said it came to rest on a perfect lie in the rough. He said he had 189 yards to clear the burn and decided to go for a 2-iron shot instead of simply hitting a wedge to the safety of the fairway, 40 yards away, for a far shorter third shot to the green.
The results were disastrous. His 2-iron was not well-struck and hit the grandstand to the right of the green, bounced off the top of the rock wall edging the burn and came to rest in the thick rough that has plagued players all week. This time, he said his lie gave him no choice except to go forward again, and he dumped his third shot into the burn.
When he saw he might be able to hit the ball out with a sand wedge, he took off his shoes, rolled his pants up and went in after it. But as soon as he stepped into about a foot of water, he said the ball started to lower into the mud.
This time, he went back and took a drop, again in deep rough, then hacked his fifth shot into a deep bunker. Now he was in desperate straits, needing to get up and down from there just to make the playoff, and he composed himself enough to knock it within six feet, then make the putt.
"Next time, I hit a wedge, okay?" he said later. "You'll say I'm a coward, whatever. Next time I hit a wedge."
Meanwhile, Lawrie was on the practice putting green and Leonard dashed to the driving range when he saw Van De Velde's shot go into the burn. Leonard knew all about that troublesome stream himself, because he, too, found it with his second shot at the the 18th in regulation, leading to a bogey.
When Leonard teed off at the 72nd hole, he was two shots behind the Frenchman, and saw him on the 17th green needing only a short putt for par. Leonard said he thought he needed to make birdie to have any chance at getting into a playoff and hit a 3-wood off the tee to make sure he kept the ball in play.
He got all of it, but the ball took a bounce into the rough that left him with a slightly uphill lie. He never put the 3-wood back in the bag and said he never even thought about laying up short of the burn to try to get up and down for a par.
"I had 229 to the front edge of the green, which put me at 216 to carry the burn," he said later. "It didn't come out the way I'd hoped, and it ended up kind of trickling into the burn. Then I got it up and down for bogey, and at that point, I didn't think it meant a whole lot. I thought I'd lost at that point. I go into the scorer's tent, and the first thing I see is Jean hit it in the creek.
"Today, I basically lost the British Open twice in one day, which is maybe twice as hard to take."
Asked about Van De Velde's meltdown at the 18th, Leonard said, "As bad as I feel, he feels worse. That's tough to go through. To have a lead like that on the last hole and not be able to win, it had to be a sick feeling for him and through the playoff as well."
The playoff began badly for all three golfers. Van De Velde hit his ball in a clump of gorse down the left side and had to hit a provisional ball off the tee. Leonard and Lawrie were in the high hay left, as well, and had to wait nearly 15 minutes before Van De Velde first found his original ball, took an unplayable lie and eventually hit his third shot, leading to a double bogey.
Lawrie and Leonard bogeyed the 15th, and all three bogeyed the 250-yard 16th. But Lawrie opened a one-shot lead on Leonard and Van De Velde at the 459-yard 17th, the toughest hole on the course this week. Leonard parred the hole, missing a 45-footer by an inch. Van De Velde then rolled in an 18-footer for birdie that also gave Lawrie a perfect read of his own 15-footer.
At the 18th, fans in the grandstand began doing the wave as the players teed off. Van De Velde's drive left him with no chance of catching the Scotsman. Leonard was in the fairway, but his second shot went into the burn. With 221 yards to the flag, Lawrie then hit a 4-iron straight and true. The roar from the still-packed stands grew louder as the ball rolled uphill, finally coming to rest four feet from the hole.
"It's a huge thing to win the Open, no matter where it is, but obviously here it is extra special for me, being close to home," Lawrie said. "The playoff was just incredible, a circus. Everyone was shouting your name out, and it was hard to focus. But this was pretty special, pretty special.
"I feel sorry for Jean. He really should have won. Thankfully for me he didn't. . . . He had the tournament in his pocket."
A Championship Lost
All Jean Van De Velde needed was a double bogey at the par-4, 487-yard 18th hole to win the British Open. Here's what happened:
1. Jean Van De Velde tees off on the 18th hole, holding a three-stroke lead over Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard.
2. Using his driver, Van De Velde pushes the ball right and narrowly misses the Barry Burn. The ball lands on a finger of land near the 17th fairway.
3. Instead of pitching back into the 18th fairway, Van De Velde takes a 2-iron and goes for the green. The ball hits off the grandstand to the right of the green, bounces back and hits off the top of the rock wall edging the burn and back into the rough on the right side of the hole.
4. Van De Velde tries to hit out of the deep rough, but can't get his club through the high grass. The ball splashes into the burn.
5. After wading into the burn to check his ball, Van De Velde considered hitting out of the hazard but takes a one-stroke penalty drop instead. He's already taken four strokes and needs to record at least a six on the hole to win. From his drop in the rough, he hits into the greenside bunker.
6. Van De Velde's bunker shot lands 10 feet to the left of the hole. He sinks the putt for a triple-bogey 7 and puts himself in a playoff with Lawrie and Leonard.
Paul Lawrie, left, is the first Scot to win the British Open while in Scotland since Tommy Armour accomplished the feat in 1931 -- also at Carnoustie.
Biggest comebacks by the winner of a Grand Slam tournament entering the final round:
British Open: 10 strokes, Paul Lawrie, 1999-x
Masters: 8 strokes, Jack Burke, 1956
U.S. Open: 7 strokes, Arnold Palmer, 1960
PGA Championship: 7 strokes, John Mahaffey, 1978-x
x-won in playoff
THE LAWRIE FILE
Born: Jan. 1, 1969
Current Tour: European tour
Years on Tour: 7
Info: Lawrie, a native of Aberdeen, has two career wins in his seven years on the European tour, most recently at the Qatar Masters in February. After a ranking of 21st in the Order of Merit, the European tour equivalent of the money list, in 1996 he slipped to 52nd the next year and 62nd this year. This year Lawrie had played in 16 tournaments before the British Open, missing the cut in six of them, and placing in the top 10 three times.
Lawrie's previous high finish at the British Open was in 1993, when he shot a final round of 65 and finished sixth behind winner Greg Norman.
CAPTION: On No. 18, Jean Van De Velde sees trouble ahead, tosses ball to caddie after wayward third shot leads to triple bogey.
CAPTION: Paul Lawrie becomes first Scot to win British on home soil since 1931.
CAPTION: Justin Leonard watches putt on No. 18, isn't able to muster same heroics that enabled him to charge back from five-shot deficit to win 1997 British Open.