On Sunday at the British Open, trying to make himself feel better perhaps, Jean Van De Velde said, "Who'll remember in 100 years?"
The answer is that everybody in 2099 who still cares about golf will remember the Frenchman's triple bogey on the 72nd hole. Van De Velde only needed a double bogey to win. As Davis Love III said, "That was the most disastrous thing I've ever seen in sports."
Golf has been around 800 years. Unfortunately for Van De Velde, some deeds never die. They just grow more legendary the longer we inspect them. If the blunder is fabulous enough, 100 years is nothing. Need proof?
In 1885, considerably more than a century ago, David Ayton led the British Open by five shots with two holes to play. On the par-4 17th at St. Andrews--the Road Hole--Ayton was safely in front of the green in two shots. Yet, he did not win. Or even finish second.
From 40 yards away, with nothing but grass between him and the cup, how many more shots did it take the Scot to hole out? Nine more shots!
Weak chip. Rolls back. Pitch over green. Weak chip. Rolls back. Pitch over green into bunker. Three shots to get out of bunker. Two putts. An 11.
See, it's easy. Ayton finished third, two shots behind Bob Martin, who is as obscure now as 1999 champion Paul Lawrie may be in another 114 years.
The first time I visited St. Andrews, I went to a golf bookstore. In the front window was "The Book of Golf Disasters." Ayton is Chapter 1. That's the kind of immortality Van De Velde can expect to attain.
Ayton and every other collapser, choker, dumbo, careless whiffer, scorecard misreader, rules misinterpreter and gimme-misser now gets to move down one rung. Nothing matches Van De Velde.
Not Arnold Palmer losing a seven-shot lead in the final nine holes of the '66 U.S. Open. Not Palmer making a double bogey at the 72nd hole of the '61 Masters when he knew he needed just a bogey to tie Gary Player for a playoff. Not Greg Norman blowing a six-shot lead at the 1996 Masters. And not even Sam Snead with a quadruple bogey on the 72nd hole in the 1939 U.S. Open to miss a playoff by one shot. At least Slammin' Sammy, in the era before leader boards, mistakenly thought he needed a birdie to win and a par to tie. So, he had a reason, of sorts, to be aggressive.
Van De Velde's misadventure seems to grow, not shrink. Has there ever been a moment in modern sports when so many fans could have--with no special skill--done the deeds the person in the spotlight failed to handle?
How should Van De Velde have played that final hole, needing only a 6? "Nine-iron, 9-iron, 9-iron," said Love. That's not humor. The 18th hole at Carnoustie is designed to be tough if your goal is 4, but comfortable if Col. Bogey (the average player) wants a 5. There are two generous layup areas that leave an easy third-shot pitch to the green. It's truly a hole where 10,000 people in the gallery could have made a 6. By comparison, Bill Buckner's World Series error--heretofore perhaps the simplest foul-up--was heroic stuff. At least the ball was bouncing.
Usually, catastrophe in golf hinges on one bad swing or foolish decision that leads, inexorably, to the next circle of hell. Snead, Palmer and Norman never had an easy escape route, an obvious way to sidestep fate and still win the prize. On Sunday, golf kept throwing Van De Velde a lifeline and he kept chucking it back with grand Gallic insouciance.
"Need help? Moi?"
Some pros might have been foolish enough, or full of themselves enough, to hit driver off the 18th tee, as Van De Velde did. However, if your tee shot is 40 yards off line, isn't that a hint that you're not in complete control? When your ball finds a fluffy lie in the rough--between two bends of the creek that could have swallowed your ball--isn't that the break of a lifetime?
Van De Velde's post-round quotes concerning this crisis juncture are both endearing and painfully revealing. "Would you have understood if I had pulled out a wedge? Would you have thought, 'What the hell is he doing?' . . . Next time, I hit a wedge, okay? You'll say I'm a coward, whatever. Next time I hit a wedge."
Where did "coward" come from? Clearly from inside Van De Velde's head or inside his culture. Why was he so concerned with the opinion of others? Nobody in golf would call it anything except smart and obvious for him to wedge short of Barry Burn, then pitch over it to the green. In golf society, kissing the trophy answers all questions about how you got it.
Yet Van De Velde had other issues. Did he feel like an outsider who would be denigrated as a fluke if he didn't win with style? If he stumbled to the house, would he somehow be only half a champion? For the sake of underdogs, or Frenchmen, or both, did he have to pull a "Tin Cup" and win defiantly, or else go down in what might be seen as romantic flames?
The fictional Tin Cup character in the movie of the same name tried the same shot over and over. Van De Velde got to screw up the whole bag. After his crazy 2-iron second shot hit the grandstand, the ledge of the burn and ended in high rough, he could still have saved himself. Wedge back to the fairway, dude. Pitch on. Two putts. Win the British Open. Van De Velde said his "lie" dictated that he go forward, not sideways.
Van De Velde didn't want to go sideways. Better to go at the flag, apparently, and end up in Barry Burn. Even then, with his pants rolled up and his shoes and socks off, our Musketeer still wanted to swash his buckle. But as he approached his submerged ball, it sank deeper in the burn. Van De Velde claimed that the ball seemed to speak to him: "Hey, you silly man. Not for you, not today."
If nothing else, Van De Velde finished with style. Not on the course. He double-bogeyed the first hole of a three-way playoff. His elegance came in diagnosing his own undoing. Asked if he "lacked focus" on the last hole, he said, "No. But maybe humility."
Few activities in life resemble golf in its insidious ability to attack your common sense and self-esteem, while tapping into every neurotic twitch in your psyche. Sometimes, you walk off the course feeling like you've been inhabited by aliens. Perhaps the best reason not to play golf is because it teaches you so much about yourself--so much that you don't want to know.
In this country, Van De Velde might get some static. But in France, who knows? He carried off his whole disaster with panache, right down to his broad philosophical dismissal of the whole experience as "just a golf tournament," a mere triviality compared with real suffering in the real world.
In various interviews, Van De Velde kept returning to his existential view of golf suffering. But with a new wrinkle.
"Who'll remember in 200 years?" he said.
Ah, 200. You're getting there, Jean. Just keep adding those hundreds.
CAPTION: Crash, burn: Jean Van De Velde dries off during disastrous 18th-hole collapse in British Open on Sunday.
CAPTION: After blowing a three-shot lead on the 18th hole, Jean Van De Velde asked, "Who'll remember in 100 years?"