Three weeks have passed since Jean Van de Velde etched his likely golfing legacy as The Folding Frenchman in the British Open at Carnoustie, Scotland. And yet, he has come to the heartland of America this week still making merry, still exhibiting a delicious smile and a "c'est la vie" attitude toward one of the greatest collapses in major championship history.
He was introduced this morning at a news conference at the 81st PGA Championship here as "golf's breath of fresh air," and for the next 30 minutes, Van de Velde charmed his listeners with his remembrances of his triple-bogey 7 at the 72nd hole and the aftermath of his Carnoustie catastrophe.
With a three-shot lead as he stepped to the 18th tee on the final day and needing double bogey to win, he barely clawed into a playoff with Justin Leonard and eventual champion Paul Lawrie of Scotland. Lawrie birdied the last two holes of the four-hole playoff to prevail.
Van de Velde said today he had not watched a tape of the bizarre finish until Tuesday night when he appeared on the Golf Channel. It was not a pretty sight, but he had no choice.
"It was pretty funny," he said. "I mean my face was pretty funny, especially after I hit that drive. It went so far right. I didn't know where the ball was, and someone told me. I looked at my face, and I was still smiling. I knew that I got away from trouble. It might have been better if I had gone in the water."
Van de Velde had 190 yards from the right rough to the green, and had a good lie. He has been widely criticized for taking the testosterone route to glory -- a 2-iron he wanted to hit over a stream (the Barry Burn) about 120 yards in front -- instead of simply using a wedge to the fairway. He mis-hit that 2-iron into the bleachers down the right side, saw the ball clank off metal, actually cross over the water, hit a rock and bounce back behind the stream into a dreadful lie.
"I could stand there all day trying, even aiming at the grandstand, and I'm not sure one ball would come back the way that one would come back," he said. "So that's the way it goes."
His third shot went in the Barry Burn, and that's when it really got ugly. Newspapers around the world carried the picture of Van de Velde, his pants rolled above his knees, wading into the Burn thinking he could hit his ball out and still make a double-bogey 6.
When it sank below the surface after he stepped in, he was forced to take a penalty shot and drop on dry land. He hit his fifth shot into a greenside bunker, blasted to seven feet and made a very tough putt just to get into the playoff. When he double-bogeyed the first extra hole, he and everyone else knew it was over.
Van de Velde reportedly was in tears in the scorer's hut when he finished the 72nd hole before the playoff, but today he said that was untrue. "I made a joke," he said. "They were laughing."
Still, he admitted, the tears did come later when he had a little time to think about what might have been, perhaps his one and only chance to win a major championship and become the first Frenchman since 1907 to accomplish the feat.
"It was the feeling of being so close, and it was always a dream for me," he said. "I had it in my hand, I could almost touch it. And then in five minutes, it's gone."
Still, he insisted, despite all the second-guessing he has heard and read lately -- including some severe criticism of his seemingly clueless caddie, Christophe Angiolon -- Van de Velde said no one was to blame but himself. He also said he would still hit his driver off that 18th tee rather than a short iron that would have been a far safer (and wiser) option.
"Maybe it's in my temperament," he said. "You can say whatever you wish, like, `You should have played it like a par 5.' I'm not hitting irons off the tee on a par 5, and considering where that ball finished, I would have gone for it. If I have a chance to reach a par 5 [in two shots], I always go for it. . . . It was in the spirit of how I see the game and how I like to play it. It's not fun hitting a 9-iron if you can hit a 3-iron on the green. What would you do that for? I wouldn't do it. I haven't done it.
"I couldn't live with myself knowing that I tried to play for safety and blew it. That's not in my nature. So I made my choice."
The caddie is with him again this week. The airlines lost his golf clubs for a time, but they arrived on Tuesday so he could play 11 holes. And the crowds have been particularly pleasant as he makes his way around during practice rounds.
Van de Velde said he has been the object of more attention than he possibly could have imagined after not winning the tournament. He said his countrymen and the French media were mostly sympathetic to his plight, but also proud of his effort to get into a position to win. This week, he said he also has received encouragement from spectators and his fellow competitors.
He also has no intention of changing his joie de vivre approach to a game that he kept saying today is just that, a game.
"I think people take it too seriously," he said. "When I walked in the press room [in Carnoustie] on Friday [with the lead], everybody was so serious about everything," he said. "I thought `Geez, what's going on here?' We're just out there hitting a golf ball, and here we go walking behind it and hit it again. Fair enough, it's a big deal, but not that big a deal.
"I play at that game because I enjoy it. The day I'm not going to enjoy it is the day I'm going to pull out a 9-iron on the tee box if I feel it's too narrow, even if the fairway is 60 yards wide. I'll give the clubs to the kids out there.
What can I say to people who can tell me, `You should have done this, you should have done that.' Maybe I will answer to them, `Well, I haven't seen you on the tee of the 72nd hole three shots ahead, so if you ever get that chance, I'm going to give you a quarter and you give me a phone call.' "