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On This Date in Sports July 18, 1999: The Choke at the Open

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Paul Lawrie of Scotland captures the Open Championship, winning a three-way four-hole playoff at the Carnoustie Golf Links. Lawrie set a PGA record rallying from ten strokes back on the final day to win the tournament, but that was not the story. The story was the stunning collapse of Jean van de Velde on the final hole after he blew a three-stroke lead by finishing with a triple bogey.

The 1999 Open Championship came to the Carnoustie Golf Links for the sixth time. It was the first time they were held there since 1975. The course located in Eastern Scotland was notorious for being difficult for golfers due to its terrain and climate. The first day saw just how difficult things could be as Rod Pampling of Australia recorded an even-par 71 to hold a one-stroke lead after the first 18 holes.

On Friday, Jean van de Velde of France made his move, shooting a three-under-par score of 68. After two days, van de Velde held a one-stroke lead over Angel Cabrera of Argentina and Jesper Parnevik at +1. Meanwhile, some of golf’s biggest names Greg Norman and Tiger Woods, lurked three strokes off the lead at +4.

Saturday saw Carnoustie take its toll on the field, as the scores rose across the board, with Tiger Woods shooting a three-over-par 74 to sit a +7. One golfer that withstood the challenges of Carnoustie was Jean van de Velde, who held a five-stroke of American Justin Leonard, who had won the Open Championship two years earlier, and Australian Craig Parry. Parry had the round of the day, with a four-under-par 67 to sit a +5 through three rounds. Jean van de Velde, meanwhile, was steady shooting a one-under 70 to sit at even par through three rounds. Paul Lawrie, meanwhile, had a difficult third round, shooting a 76 to sit at +10 entering the final day of competition.

With a five-stroke lead, the Claret Jug was within the grasp of Jean van de Velde, looking to become the first Frenchman to win the Open Championship since Arnaud Massy in 1907. Van de Velde was born in Mont-de-Marsan, France, on May 29, 1966. A virtual unknown, van de Velde, had won just once on the European tour in 1993. He had never previously finished in the top 25 at a major championship.

The final day appeared to be going according to the script, as Jean van de Velde held steady atop the leaderboard, despite the course giving him some early troubles as he recorded three bogeys on the front nine but recovered with a birdie at the turn. Craig Parry made a run and briefly gained the lead when van de Velde recorded a bogey on the tenth hole. However, he quickly faded with a triple bogey on the 11th. He would finish the final round with a 73 and was tied with Angel Cabrera for fourth place with a seven-over par 291. Justin Leonard spent most of the day shooting par but appeared to have played himself out of contention when he finished the day with a  bogey on the 18th and sat six over par with a 290. Leonard was tied for second, as Paul Lawrie who began the day, +10, had a terrific final round, shooting a four-under-par 67, to finish his four days +6 in a tie with Justin Leonard.

Even with the worst round of the tournament, Jean van de Velde went to the final hole needing to avoid a catastrophic mistake to win the tournament as he sat a +3, with a three-stroke lead over Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie. Despite the comfortable lead, van de Velde shoe to be aggressive and used his drive and went off course, badly missing the fairway. His second shot would bounce off the grandstand and into a heavy rough. Trying to get the ball out of the knee-high rough, van de Velde played his third shot into the burn guarding the 18th green. By now, it was clear Jean van de Velde was having an epic meltdown in slow motion with the whole world watching. At first, he tried to play the ball out of the burn, taking off his socks and shoes, before finally taking a drop shot with a penalty stroke. With his margin for error decreasing, van de Velde found a bunker on his fifth shot and needed to hole out to maintain his lead. Knowing if he played it safe, he would finish tied for the lead; van de Velde pitched out and knocked home the ball on his seventh stroke to finish in a three-way tie, a 290 with a final round 77.

After his stunning collapse, Jean van de Velde’s headed back to the 15th hole, to being a four-hole playoff against Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard. All three golfers started the playoff poorly, with Lawrie and Leonard recording a bogey five while van de Velde’s shot a double bogey. Each golfer continued the struggles on the 16th with another bogey. On the 17th, Jean van de Velde finally recovered with a birdie, which was matched by Lawrie, while Leonard settled for a par. Back at the 18th, Jean van de Velde again found the rough, while Justin Leonard landed in the burn. However, Paul Lawrie was on target and recorded his second straight birdie to end his playoff at even par, while Leonard and van de Velde each had a bogey and finished three strokes back.

The 1999 Open Championship would be the only major Paul Lawrie would win, as he had a solid career on the European tour but struggled whenever he attempted to play on the PGA tour in the United States. The stroke comeback on the final day would be the largest in the history of the Open Championship or any regular PGA tournament. Justin Leonard would not win another major playing in the era of Tiger Woods but had a solid career. Meanwhile, Jean van de Velde faded into obscurity. His best finish at a major besides the disaster in Carnoustie would be a 19th place finish at the Masters in 2000. He would just one more tournament on the European Tour as any major collapse on the golf course now is called pulling a van de Velde.