A Decade Later: Jean Van de Velde and the Greatest Collapse Ever

Excruciating!” —ESPN.com

The biggest blunder in golf history.” —CNNSI.com

Simply beyond belief.” —Time

A nightmarish practical joke.” —The New York Times

It has been 10 years, and there have been innumerable efforts to articulate exactly what happened on the 72nd hole of the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie. But like what was ailing Lou Gehrig and what Michael Jordan could do on a basketball court, what transpired to Jean Van de Velde over the course of those 15 minutes can only be described by concocting a new, idiosyncratic adjective: Van de Veldian.

Van de Veldian means a collapse so monumental that it cannot be duplicated. A collapse so epic that it remains as stunning to rewatch today as it was to see live a decade ago. A collapse so legendary, so beyond-comprehension, that the word “Van de Veldian” has not been needed to describe anything else.

It is inarguable that Van de Velde remains the author of sports’ biggest collapse of the last 10 years, and perhaps considerably longer. The only serious competition for the honor comes from three New York teams:

A. 2002 New York Giants, who blew a 24-point lead in 17 minutes in a Wild Card game against the San Francisco 49ers. What saves the Giants is that they were screwed by poor officiating.

B. 2004 New York Yankees, who blew a 3-0 lead to the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS. This is the most serious contender, but largely because of the two teams’ histories. It’s not like the Yankees had a chance in Game 7, and it’s not like the Red Sox overcame a prohibitive gap in talent or didn’t go on to sweep a better Cardinals’ team a week later.

C. 2007 New York Mets, who lost a seven-game division lead in the final 17 games of the regular season. What saves the Mets is that they were screwed by a bullpen that had considerably overperformed for five months and not one, but two teams (the Phillies and the Rockies) catching fire down the stretch.

But think of the incredible concatenation of events required for Van de Velde to complete his collapse at Carnoustie:

1. Justin Leonard’s bogey at the 18th comes too late for Van de Velde to realize his lead is three, and not two as he assumes.

2. His first drive has to miss the burn (the small, rock-walled creek of water that winds its way throughout the 18th hole). If it goes in, Van de Velde has time to recover and—even if he hits another one in the water—can still make double bogey, as Padraig Harrington did on the same hole eight years later.

3. His second shot has to bounce off the grandstand, bounce off the barrier of the burn, and then settle in a tempting lie in the rough. This was one of the trickiest good luck/bad luck shots in golf history.*

*Good luck: It didn’t go in the grandstand or the burn.

Bad luck: If it went in the grandstand, it’s a free drop, albeit in nasty rough. If it went in the burn, then the following would not have happened.

4. His third shot has to be chunked so miserably and plop into the burn that it elicits stunned gasps from the crowd. This remains the most memorable crowd reaction in any sporting event I’ve ever watched. If I were Van de Velde, that sound would echo in my mind every night. Plus, Mike Tirico tops it off nicely with his incredulous, “It went in the burn!”

5. The ball has to be sitting on the water high enough to allow Van de Velde to even consider hitting it out.

6. The ball has to wait for Van de Velde to take off his shoes and socks, roll up his pants, and get in the water barefoot before sinking.

7. Van de Velde has to hit the next shot into the bunker, right next to his partner, who then cruelly holes out for a birdie.

8. Van de Velde has to, somehow, after all that has happened, nail a seven-foot putt to force a playoff. Nobody has ever gone from unclutch to clutch (and, in the playoff, back to unclutch) in such rapid succession.

Just about any one of these things happening is remarkable. But for all of them to happen back-to-back-to-back, for Van de Velde to narrowly miss the burn twice before wading into it, for Craig Parry to make the bunker shot Van de Velde needed to make seconds later, for all of this to transpire is nothing short of absurd—in the Ionescan sense.

Van de Velde’s 72nd hole at Carnoustie, then, wasn’t just a collapse; no, it was a farce, a tragicomedy being acted out on center stage, with the same man starring as both the tragic hero and the court jester. The Frenchman didn’t just lose the Open on the 72nd hole; he also lost his grip on reality and, seemingly, his sanity.

It isn’t hard to imagine bigger collapses: a player losing a four-shot or five-shot lead on the last hole, or just a golfer with a longer resume than Van de Velde making the same mistakes. But it’s impossible to imagine a bigger collapse actually happening, and certainly not in the incomprehensible way this one did.

It was epic, monumental, farcical, unforgettable. But more than anything else, it was Van de Veldian.

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