2002: Levet no Van de Velde, but still falls shy

Gullane, Scotland

As extroverted Frenchmen go, it is arguable who is more exuberant, Thomas Levet or Jean Van de Velde.

Levet may have the edge.

At the British Open, Levet nearly did what Van de Velde failed to do three years ago at Carnoustie. He came within two good tee shots of winning the claret jug.

Like Van de Velde, Levet lost a playoff for the British Open. Unlike Van de Velde, he picked up the winner. Van de Velde may have rolled his socks up and waded into Carnoustie’s Barry Burn in 1999, but he didn’t try to hoist Paul Lawrie onto his shoulders. Levet picked up Els on the 18th green – all 210 pounds.

Levet will play in the PGA Championship courtesy of his second-place finish at Muirfield. Get ready for the lap of honor to end all laps of honor if he happens to win.

That’s what Levet did when he won last year’s Victor Chandler British Masters at Woburn – in a four-man playoff, no less. Levet ran around the 17th green high-fiving the crowd when his birdie putt dropped to give him his second PGA European Tour title.

He probably would have sprinted down both sides of Muirfield’s 18th fairway if he’d won the British Open.

Levet’s nickname on the European Tour is “Texas Tom.” It comes from the Frenchman’s brief stint in the United States in 1994, when he became the first Frenchman to earn a PGA Tour card. He is a popular player on the European circuit, probably because he likes to play money games on practice days. He plays regular practice rounds with countryman Marc Farry, with the Frenchmen taking on all comers. For example, Tuesday at Muirfield he and Farry won money from Malcolm Mackenzie and Bradley Dredge. It was obviously a good omen.

Levet believes in omens. In his golf bag, he carries a small coin with a shamrock on it, with “the luck of the Irish” written underneath. Levet found it last year at Woburn before the British Masters and put it in his bag. It’s been there since.

There were other good omens for the Frenchman before the final round began.

“I was hitting the ball really good on the range,” he said. “I was hitting the ball really straight, and I could do whatever I wanted with the club, draw, fade, high, low. I said, ‘This feels good today,’ and I started really nicely.”

Like Van de Velde, who was on the grounds at Muirfield working for the BBC, Levet came close to becoming the second Frenchman to win the British Open, following Arnaud Massy in 1907. Yet when he started the final day, his sights were on playing in next year’s British Open at Royal St. George’s – not on winning.

“I wanted to get an exempt spot here for next year,” he said. “My goal was just to play solid and try to make some putts if I could.”

He had 29 putts in the final 18 holes, but none as big as the one he holed on the 17th, where the 31-year-old Parisian hit a driver and a 2-iron to 45 feet. He then stood over the ball knowing an eagle would tie the lead.

“It is unbelievable to hole a putt like that, but I had made it before,” said Levet, who made a similar putt during a practice round.

The eagle putt put Levet into the four-man playoff, which he led by a stroke after holing a 40-foot birdie putt at the par-3 16th.

At the 18th, Levet’s tee shot found the right rough. He hit a good second shot toward the green, but it missed clearing the bunker 22 yards short of the putting surface. He played out and two-putted from 60 feet for a bogey that eventually left him tied with Els.

Levet hit another poor drive at the 18th in his sudden-death playoff with Els, this time finding the left fairway bunker. He played out, found the green with his third shot and two-putted for bogey 5. When Els holed out for victory, Levet lifted the large South African.

“He’s not that heavy, actually,” Levet joked.

Van de Velde would have been proud.


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