2001: Van de Velde finds good in wake of Carnoustie, but game now seems lost

BY JEFF RUDE

Lemont, Ill.

Jean Van de Velde, British Open protagonist circa 1999, is not in this year’s Open Championship. He will try to qualify because he dearly wants to return to the tournament for which he’s infamous. He is attempting to regain his form of two years’ past. His confidence is down, his swing off, his short game unproductive, his thoughts fighting the negative. He needs work.

So there the affable Frenchman was on the practice range at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club, two days before the Advil Western Open began, pounding balls for four hours, almost all with a 7-iron. He went through more than a dozen buckets and about half as many Gatorades in the heat.

“I think it’s 15 buckets, including the one on the middle of the range that I kicked pretty hard,” Van de Velde said, smiling. “I haven’t done this for 15 years, so I need to catch up.”

This was no ordinary practice session. Often during the ball-beating marathon, Van de Velde’s wife, Brigitte, analyzed and critiqued his swing in French. He refers to her as his “eyes,” someone who knows if his swing is right, based on her 13 years of up-close viewing. At times their discussions appear animated to the point of argumentative.

Which calls for a lesson in culture.

“We’re from the south of Europe,” Van de Velde explained later. “If you see Spanish people speaking together, or people from the south of France speaking together, you always think they’re arguing.

“We’re not arguing. We’re talking with our hands and with our eyes. That’s the way we communicate.”

Van de Velde, of course, hopes to talk with the English at the July 19-22 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where he once played in the British Amateur. He is entered in Open qualifying July 15-16 at the Southport & Ainsdale Golf Club, down the street from Royal Birkdale. His first stab at qualifying came at the Western, where the top eight finishers not otherwise exempt won tickets to Lytham.

But Van de Velde said he came to the Chicago area with a larger goal than the British Open. He came here trying to find his game and rhythm. Before tying for 70th at the Western, he had missed the cut in seven of 11 PGA Tour events and ranked 148th in earnings this year. His season has included two monthlong breaks and a best finish of tied for 13th at the Buick Invitational in February. And he hasn’t fared better on the PGA European Tour, where he has missed two cuts and tied for 57th in his only other start.

“I haven’t made a good impression, and I need to get some points on the board as quick as I can,” he said. “I feel I’m a better player than before, but the results don’t show that at all. I’m trying not to put too much negativity in my brain. I’m trying to be more patient, which is something I’m not known for. Patience isn’t my virtue.”

Van de Velde’s tie for second at the ’99 British Open at Carnoustie, of course, turned him into a golf curiosity and helped him achieve his goal of reaching the PGA Tour after several years in Europe. As a Tour rookie in 2000, he finished second twice and ended up 60th in earnings. But the Carnoustie hangover took its toll.

“Last year I gave a lot of time and energy to things outside of golf tournaments,” he said. “I kind of burned myself out.”

The roots of the burnout trace to the 18th hole at Carnoustie. Van de Velde, an unlikely contender, took a three-stroke lead to the 72nd hole of that Open, only to make a bizarre triple-bogey 7 and fall into a three-man playoff won by Scot Paul Lawrie. His troubles started when his approach hit a grandstand rail and bounced back across the Barry Burn into high rough. After his third shot found the burn, he entered the water with rolled-up pants before deciding against a splash-out attempt. Following a drop, he wedged into a bunker on his fifth shot and got up-and-down to get into the four-hole playoff.

Then, as now, Van de Velde has shrugged, even laughed off the misfortune, preaching often that golf is only a game. He maintains the Carnoustie experience brought him so many more positives than negatives – entry to the PGA Tour and major championships, international affection and fame, marketability and the realization he could compete at a high level.

“I’ve had more people pay attention to me because of the way I reacted than the way I performed,” he said. “They probably remember my legs more than anything.”

A brick on top of the Barry Burn’s bank has been engraved with Van de Velde’s name. Again, he’s fine with that.

“That’s my place,” he cracked. “That’s where I drowned.”

Van de Velde says he has returned to Carnoustie “two or three times.” He says he has many “good flashbacks.” While others will remember the 18th hole odyssey, he prefers to recall the 15th, where he saved par from 10 feet.

“It was so noisy when I approached the green, but when I got over the putt there was not one noise,” he recalls. “Nothing. If a bird had a made a noise, I’d have heard it. I stood over the putt and thought, ‘Has everyone gone?’ ”

Nearly two years later, Van de Velde watched on television as Retief Goosen three-putted from 10 feet to fall into a U.S. Open playoff he would win the next day. He could relate.

“I read where I must be smiling when Retief three-putted from nowhere,” Van de Velde says, “but I felt sad. I don’t need to see other guys have problems and struggle to feel better.

“I felt bad.”

All over again.

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