Van de Velde handled catastrophic collapse like a champ

Associated Press
France's Jean Van de Velde stood in the water of the Barry Burn that crosses the 18th fairway to see whether his ball, (bottom center) was playable during the final round of the 1999 British Open. Van de Velde held a three-shot entering No. 18 but took a 7 on the hole and ended up losing in a playoff to Paul Lawrie. The collapse has made Van de Velde one of the most memorable losers in major championship golf history.
Correction, July 18, 2007: In a Sunday feature on golfer Jean Van de Velde, former Augusta State golfer Brad Adams was misidentified.
The Augusta Chronicle regrets the error.
VIDEO: Watch golfer Jean Van de Velde play the 18th hole at Carnoustie with only a putter. [9 min. 30 sec.]

The Carnoustie Golf Hotel opened for business only two weeks prior to the 1999 British Open played there. So historically it had some catching up to do with the famous links it looms above.

 

On that front, the hotel named its finest suites for the icons Carnoustie has unveiled - Tommy Armour (the 1931 Open champion), Henry Cotton (1937), Ben Hogan (1953), Gary Player (1968) and Tom Watson (1975).

Only one suite, however, is named in honor of a British Open loser. And a Frenchman, to boot.

"Oh yes, we have a Jean Van de Velde Suite," said Grant Armstrong, a manager at the hotel since it opened. Armstrong remembered only as an afterthought that they also named a suite after native Scot and 1999 winner Paul Lawrie.

"It's a bit of a shame that everyone remembers 1999 as the Open that was lost instead of won," Armstrong said. "Everyone thinks of that as Jean Van de Velde's Open."

And so it was. Van de Velde might possibly be the most famous losing figure in the history of major championship golf. His final-hole collapse despite a three-shot lead on the 72nd tee box is so emblematic of championship catastrophes that Van de Veldian has entered the golfing lexicon.

"You get your money's worth from the French," BBC commentator Peter Alliss old his audience as Van de Velde's triple-bogey nightmare unfolded. "There have been momentous mess-ups on the final hole but this would rank with the best of them."

Yet instead of retreating in shame, Van de Velde held his head up. With his jovial personality and c'est la vie spirit, he turned himself from a tragic figure into one beloved.

"Don't be sad," he told a solemn crowd of reporters immediately afterward. "At the end of the day, it's a game."

It would be understandable if Van de Velde never wanted to go back to Carnoustie, never wanted to relive the third-degree Barry Burns he suffered on his psyche. In fact, Van de Velde will not compete this week as the British Open returns to Carnoustie as a mysterious intestinal ailment derailed any plans to qualify. He has chosen not to revisit 1999 in interviews as the 2007 event approached.

But Van de Velde did go back to Carnoustie before the end of 1999 and exacted a small measure of revenge against the 18th hole that ruined his becoming the first Frenchman since 1907 to win a major. The good-natured, self-deprecating circumstances that took him back produced perhaps the finest and funniest golf film ever made.

This is the story of an infomercial that was really a short documentary film called "Scotland in December," which gave a glimpse into the extraordinary man who didn't win the British Open.

Van de Velde set an Open record for fewest putts taken in 1999, making, as he said, "three kilometers of putts" that week to compensate for a vicious course setup that had savaged most of the field. He did it with a Never Compromise putter he'd put in his bag prior to winning his Open qualifier.

Even on the crushing final hole, Van de Velde made an 8-footer for triple that got him into the three-man playoff.

He was so good, in fact, with the putter that some television analyst somewhere made an absurd claim,

"He could have played the entire hole with his putter and gotten under seven."

It was that line that put an idea in the head of Never Compromise founder Vikash Sanyal to try to capitalize on Van de Velde's infamy with a commercial.

"He lost, but the way he lost was endearing," Sanyal said. "People felt for him and he wasn't spiteful or nasty about it. He was just human."

And that simple premise lured one of the most renowned advertising minds in the business to create the film.

"Don't know if we'd have had a story to tell without it," said film creator and writer Mark Fenske, whose legendary successes included Nike ads and an MTV Award-winning Van Halen video.

The story that came out of it was a short work of genius, and a moment almost as memorable as the events of July when Van de Velde took his shoes and socks off and stepped into the Barry Burn and infamy.

Fenske's intent was to never sell putters. He made that clear from the start.

"I said an infomercial - in the typical style of an infomercial which is a series of increasingly unbelievable promises that end with a cascade of additional sweeteners to the offer - would kill the company's name if they wanted to be taken as legitimate club-makers," Fenske said. "The infomercials that run on TV, not just in golf but all over the place, are done to fleece the weak-minded. I think they're evil. I told them we wouldn't do that and they agreed and we didn't."

With Fenske and director Dan Levinson - whose most recent acclaim is the Sopranos spoof for the Hilary Clinton campaign - on board, the next step was getting Van de Velde. That task fell to former Augusta College golfer and Never Compromise tour executive Barry Adams.

"It didn't take any coercing," said Adams of Van de Velde. "He had enough sense of humor to go back."

Van de Velde's sense of humor is what impressed everyone after the Open.

"It happened and it happened in front of 250 million people," Van de Velde said months later. "So I guess everywhere I'm going to go, people are going to talk about it. And you know, I've got to try to handle it as well as I can."

The film team and Van de Velde returned to what some say is the world's most unforgiving course during Scotland's most unforgiving season - winter.

"A golf course in Scotland is fun anyway, but in off season there's the feeling of being backstage with the folks who make it happen," said Fenske. "December is not a time people go to golf courses, or to Scotland. So it felt unusual. And being there to film a golf pro play one hole with a putter, well, there's nothing in that but fun."

With a limited budget and only one camera, Van de Velde would get three opportunities to play the 18th hole using only his putter to see if he could in fact beat his Open score of 7.

"We told him, 'You're only going to get three times and if you don't break it you don't break it,'" Sanyal said. "We've got to keep this real."

The reality of it shows through.

"Nothing was scripted before we shot," said Fenske. "Couldn't be. We didn't know what would happen. What happens in the film is exactly what happened, in the order it happened. Jean did and said what he did and said. ... Telling exactly the truth as it happened about a remarkable and cool guy in a compelling situation is the charm of the film."

The half-hour film is nothing but charming from beginning to end. Carnoustie was closed on Dec. 16, 1999, and was in fact covered with a thick sheet of ice. The course superintendent ran a hose from a hot water tap in the clubhouse men's room just to de-ice the green.

"We wouldn't do this for anyone," he told Levinson. "Only for Mr. Van de Velde."

And the film probably wouldn't have worked with anyone else. Van de Velde pulls it off with extraordinary wit and grace.

"A great deal of that, I think, sprung from what a genuine guy Jean was," Fenske said. "He was impressive start to finish."

Fenske had worked with numerous athletes doing Nike ads through the years and understands the strain on athletes trying to be actors.

"It's hard for them," Fenske said. "David Robinson, the basketball player, was startlingly gracious and down to earth when we shot him slow motion in water for about eight hours for Nike. Van de Velde was his equal, and he did it while being filmed doing something he could have looked silly doing. He didn't, I think, because he wasn't afraid to look silly."

The 18th hole at Carnoustie is called Home - which is where most sane people would be in December when the temperature is zero centigrade with 20 mph winds blowing off the North Sea.

"Mind you, I've got to be stupid, really, coming out there only with my putter," said Van de Velde as he set out for his first attempt.

"He was amazing because he couldn't be all bulked up like the rest of us," said Sanyal. "We all looked like we were going to Alaska with big parkas on. But he had to be in wardrobe. For the most part he was exposed. He had just a great attitude and was a pleasure. Upbeat and real giving."

Oooooh, you're in Scotland, Johnny

playing on the 18th hole

Oooooh, you're in Scotland, Johnny

and he's driving with his putter and it's

Cold, cold, cold

Aside from Van de Velde and the compelling footage of his quest, what makes the film so entertaining is Fenske's voice-overs and original songs and lyrics by John Kapelos. From the title song "Scotland and December" to the climatic "Gotta get a six" the hysterical and playful score carries the spirit of the film and its star performer.

"The music was inventive and fun," Fenske said. "Another part of the charm."

Monsieur Van de Velde,

you are in your own private hell.

Ze problem you are making,

is of your own undertaking

Van de Velde got a 9 in his first attempt. The next morning in his second try, he found the burn again and made 8.

Deja vu Jean

don't let it happen to you again, Jean

What you did last July really stunk

like old socks left in a trunk

This deja vu stuff is all punk

Smell like a rose, Jean, and not like a skunk

He turned right around and went back to the tee for his final attempt.

"He wanted to do it the first time, but it didn't happen," said Levinson. "He wanted to do it the second time and it didn't happen. But the third time he really wanted to do it. We didn't talk about it, but he wasn't out there just as a marketing experience. When the third time came around he was really trying to do it."

Dozens of club and hotel employees joined the media and film crew on the 18th fairway to watch and root Van de Velde on. They cheered when he cleared the Barry Burn with his third shot.

"That's my Sunday best," he said.

Two long putts later and Van de Velde was staring at a 4-footer on the less-than-plush green and using a putter bent out of alignment from hitting 300-yard drives with it.

"Mr. Van de Velde cannot walk on this 18th green at Carnoustie without some feelings about his internationally televised loss last July," the narrator said as Van de Velde sized up his putt. "However, any jaded, experienced professional golfer has to be so cavalier, so assured that he gives the past and his previous disappointments no thought at all. As is obviously the case with Mr. Van de Velde."

His young daughters, bundled up like Eskimos, ran out onto the green and stood beside their father as he putted. He makes it, thrusts his arms in the arm and makes a "V" with his fingers to the camera

"Six! That was a six. In the end. Victory."

It felt like that to everyone there.

"It was quite bizarre because he actually beat his score and everyone was rooting for him," said Armstrong, who was among the gallery. "When he actually sank his putt for 6, everyone cheered like he won the Open."

This was the money scene they were hoping for.

"It was about going out and seeing a guy in a sense try to exorcise whatever demons there might or might not be," Levinson said. "If he made it great. If he didn't great."

That he made it made it great.

"You got some insight into him," Levinson said. "He's about to take a putt that will give him a 6 and his little kids run out. Then he makes the putt and his whole family comes out. I will say there was a palpable feeling the air that he did, in one manner or another, vindicate himself. He was hugging his kids and it wasn't just a show."

This climatic part of the film is covered by a dreamy voice-over by Van de Velde himself

"You win the Open," he said. "The crowd goes crazy. Huge victory for France. Van de Velde wins first major championship, takes home the claret jug ... he takes home the claret jug ... he takes home the claret jug."

That, said Fenske, was the heart of the film.

"That was a glimpse into what the not winning may have meant to him," Fenske said.

"Scotland in December" saw only limited air time in the spring of 2000 on The Golf Channel and a few stations in the South. Its greatest exposure came during the next year's British Open when ABC showed more than two minutes of highlights from the 30-minute commercial in its flashback look at Van de Velde's collapse.

"That more than paid for the commercial," Sanyal said.

The infomercial didn't generate tons of sales for Never Compromise. But it set them apart as a unique company, and it was later sold to Cleveland Golf.

"I think a lot of people saw that and thought, 'Wow, what a great piece; one of the best things ever done in golf advertising,'" Sanyal said. "And I think a lot of people saw it and thought those guys are just weird. There's elements of truth to both those things."

Adams said being there to watch it take place "was a surreal experience."

"It couldn't have been easy even though he made it look easy," said Adams.

Fenske, who currently teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, says this labor of love "was more fun than most."

"If you're lucky enough in any media career, you do something in an area that you care about that impresses your friends and stays around awhile," Levinson said.

As for Van de Velde, he expressed his pleasure with the rough cuts he saw and thought it captured his approach to golf.

"No, I don't think the lost opportunity was eating at him," Fenske said of his conversations with Van de Velde. "He talked about the game being a game in the film and I think that's mostly how he felt."

Ultimately, Van de Velde's performance illustrates his repeated defense of his course management on the climactic hole of the 1999 British Open - as flawed and luckless as they may have.

"You know I kept my composure and kept my head," he said. "I mean I didn't need to go for glory that wasn't even glory, that wasn't something absolutely mad I was trying to do. And, you know, it just came out to be a nightmare.

"To me, it was in the spirit of how I see the game and how I like to play it. I didn't play that shot because it was something that was almost impossible to do. I didn't take any risks there. But to me that was a shot that was dictated. And so I just played."

For that perspective alone, Van de Velde deserves to be immortalized with a suite of his own in the Carnoustie Golf Hotel. The Frenchman may be gone from the major spotlight, but he gave the world two moments at Carnoustie that will never be forgotten.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com

ONLINE EXTRA

Click here to view the complete infomercial.


136TH BRITISH OPEN GOLF CHAMPIONSHIP

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Carnoustie, Scotland

Purse: $8.46 million (4.2 million pounds)

Winner's share: $1.51 million (750,000 pounds)

Defending champion: Tiger Woods

Television: Thursday-Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., TNT. Saturday, 7 to 9 a.m., TNT; 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., ABC-Ch. 6. Sunday, 6 to 8 a.m., TNT; 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., ABC-Ch. 6.

 

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