Golf Channel’s ‘Go Down Swinging’ recounts the infamous 1999 Open

CARNOUSTIE, UNITED KINGDOM: Jean Van De Velde of France hits from the rough of the 18th fairway at Carnoustie Sunday 18 July 1999 during regulation play of the 128th British Open Championship. at Carnoustie Sunday 18 July 1999. Van De Velde's ball hit the spectators' bleacher and bounced into the rough which helped lead to his triple-bogey 18th and eventual loss of the Open in a play-off. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Gerry PENNY (Photo credit should read PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images) Patrick Hertzog/Getty Images

Golf Channel’s ‘Go Down Swinging’ recounts the infamous 1999 Open

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Golf Channel’s ‘Go Down Swinging’ recounts the infamous 1999 Open

When Jack Graham began producing ABC’s coverage of the British Open in 1997, one of his goals was to frontload his commercial breaks so that the larger audience tuning in during the final hour would see more action and fewer ads.

That plan worked perfectly at the 1999 Open. When the final twosome – Jean Van de Velde and Craig Parry – reached the 18th tee, ABC had only one more commercial break remaining. The only problem was that the tournament had been a dud – a 71-hole slog across a famously difficult course, seemingly leading to victory for a little-known professional from France.

“Then we had the craziest hour I’ve ever experienced in any sport,” said Graham, now Golf Channel’s vice president-golf events. “It just got progressively nuttier. … I’m sure I’ve (produced) football games that had a last-minute interception, but nothing that went on for 45 to 50 minutes like this.”

That slow-motion series of mistakes and mishaps is what made Van de Velde’s collapse so memorable. “It’s Buckner if you’re a Sox fan, Bartman if you’re a Cubs fan,” a bartender tells his clueless customer in the new Golf Channel documentary of the 1999 Open, “Go Down Swinging,” which airs July 9 at 9 p.m.

CARNOUSTIE, UNITED KINGDOM: Jean Van De Velde of France looks at the cup from deep in the burn next to the 18th green at Carnoustie 18 July 1999 during the final round of the 128th British Open Championship. Van De Velde lost his lead on the final hole and forced a 3-way play-off. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Gerry PENNY (Photo credit should read GERRY PENNY/AFP/Getty Images)

Jean Van De Velde got wiped out on the 72nd hole of the 1999 Open Championship. (Gerry Penny/Getty Images)

But Buckner and Bartman were shocking because they were so sudden; we remember Van de Velde’s collapse more like a full-length movie filled with dramatic plot twists. He arrived at the 18th tee with a three-shot lead and ABC’s Bob Rosburg he’s “gotta play an iron. The only thing that can get him in any trouble is if he drives it in the burn.” To which ABC’s Curtis Strange replied, “Rossie, just as you said that, the driver headcover came off.”

In “Go Down Swinging,” Van de Velde explained why he stuck to his strategy of playing so aggressively off the tee that week.

“A lot of people hit irons to try to keep it in play,” Van de Velde said. “But really, with the conditions that hard, it was as difficult to keep the ball on the fairway with a 2-iron. I decided to be quite aggressive and play drivers off the tee.”

That drive off 18, of course, sailed right, just missing the Barry Burn. “At this moment, our feeling was, ‘Wow, we will win the Open,’” Van de Velde’s caddie, Christophe Angiolini, recalls in “Go Down Swinging.”

We all know how it played out. One had the sense that the announcers were watching a horror film, hands over their eyes, peeking through their fingers, as the story unfolded. They questioned every Van de Velde decision: “Don’t hit the driver! Don’t go for the green with the 2-iron! Don’t try to pitch over the burn! Just chip out and hit it on the green! And for goodness sake, don’t even think about trying to play a shot out of the burn!”

With no obligation for ABC to go to commercial break, we saw it all unfold in real time.

At one point, Graham recalled in a recent interview with Golfweek, hole announcer Ian Baker-Finch hit talkback, which allowed him to speak directly to the production truck, and said, “‘This is making me physically ill.’ I thought, ‘My God, it really does hit a player.’”

When the clock approached the top of the hour, Graham’s associate director reminded him of the need to give local affiliates a station break.

“I can distinctly remember saying, ‘If some guy in Kansas City really wants to take his viewers away, he can do it, but I’m not helping him,’” Graham said.

One suspects that ABC anchor Mike Tirico captured the mood of most fans watching the event. With Van de Velde facing a 7-foot putt just to make a playoff, Tirico said, “You root against no one, you root for no one,” Tirico said at the time. “But you’ve gotta hope that this goes in.”

Like any drama, the 1999 Open needed a denouement – in this case, a forgettable three-man playoff. It was slow in starting because Van de Velde returned to his room to change clothes. That led to Tirico’s memorable quip, “He went back to the hotel to change into something more comfortable.”

We can laugh at that now as we watch it replayed in “Go Down Swinging,” but it wasn’t always that way.

“It was tough to accept before,” Angiolini says. “A long time ago, it was very stressful to watch or to talk about this story. But now, 20 years after, it’s OK.” Gwk

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