By PAUL NEWBERRY
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Jean Van de Velde would have preferred to be at Carnoustie this week, staring down his golfing demons in person.
Instead, the guy who threw away the 1999 British Open is tackling a much more frightening adversary: a mysterious ailment that has his doctors puzzled and Van de Velde fretting about whether he’s got some sort of dire disease.
On Monday, he went in for an exam that will hopefully rule out any signs of bone cancer. Later this week, he’s scheduled for another major test in hopes of determining what’s been causing all his pain and nausea. He’s looking to get a full medical report within 10 days.
“To be really honest, I think my health is more important than playing in a golf tournament,” said Van de Velde, his career on hold.
The dashing Frenchman will forever be linked with this devilish links course along the Scottish coast, where he squandered a three-stroke lead on the 72nd hole. The most lasting – some might say pitiable – image was Van de Velde standing barefooted in the Barry Burn, his pant legs rolled up as he considered whether to try to hit the ball from the chilly water.
He wound up making triple bogey, forcing a playoff, and lost the claret jug to Paul Lawrie, whose record 10-stroke comeback in the final round is largely obscured by Van de Velde’s follies (and who even remembers there was a third player for those four extra holes, Justin Leonard?).
Van de Velde graciously accepted his stunning defeat, an attitude that has endured over the years even as it became more and more apparent that he had blown his one and only chance to win a major championship.
He’s only qualified for one major over the last five years, missing the cut at St. Andrews in 2005. There was talk of giving him an exemption into this week’s Open, but he would have been in no condition to play.
Over the past few months, Van de Velde’s declining health has sapped his will to tee it up. Only 41, he was initially diagnosed with a form of glandular fever. But the aching in his shoulder and joints won’t let up, so doctors ordered up additional tests to ensure that nothing more sinister is going on.
Van de Velde is eager to get all this poking and prodding behind him so he can return to the course. Despite that one devastating hole eight years ago, it remains the place where he feels most comfortable.
“I still want to play golf. I still want to compete,” he said during a phone interview that was piped in to Carnoustie. “Right now, it’s just a little bit of a (setback).”
Until his health took a turn for the worse, Van de Velde had every intention of being in Scotland this week. If he didn’t earn a spot in the Open field, there surely would have been offers to work as a television analyst.
He wanted to come back. He longed to come back. Much like someone who turns off the lights to deal with their fear of the dark, he planned to deal with this lingering ghost on his terms, right out in the open for everyone to see. Right up until the last minute – which, in golfing terms, would be a week ago – he was determined to qualify.
His ailing body just wouldn’t allow it.
“I am very sad that that I’m not there this week,” Van de Velde said. “I have respect for the place and the tournament as well, and for all the people that are going to be there. Yes, I would have liked to have come.”
He’s still asked about Carnoustie at just about every event he plays. Sure, it’s gets old, but he rarely shows signs of being frustrated with his infamous place in the sport. Immediately after his loss, he said that no one would remember what happened in, oh, 200 years or so.
But eight years later? No one has forgotten.
“I think it’s going to last at least a good 15 to 20 years before people stop asking me questions,” Van de Velde said. “So, there’s probably another 12 to go.”
Even those who don’t bring it up – Van de Velde’s fellow golfers – are keenly aware of what happened the last time the Open was played at Carnoustie.
“When I was walking up the fairway,” Graeme McDowell said after getting in a few practice holes, “absolutely you’re reminiscing. It’s one of the more notable golf moments of the last 10 years, for all the wrong reasons. It’s one of those where you remember exactly where you were when it happened.”
McDowell was still a teenager, camped out in front of his television after his family had its Sunday dinner.
“I remember feeling sick for the guy,” he said. “It was a painful to watch. You never want to see that happen to any golfer.”
Right after his meltdown, Van de Velde insisted that he had no regrets about the way he played the 18th hole. Eight years later, he largely sticks to that way of thinking – even though he was, and still is, roundly condemned for the swashbuckling way that he attacked the hole with such a comfortable lead.
The driver off the tee, which veered off into a peninsula carved out by the burn. The 2-iron that struck and ricocheted straight back into knee-high rough. Instead of chopping out into the fairway with his third shot, he went for the green.
He wound up in the creek instead.
“It’s one shot I would have played differently,” Van de Velde conceded. “You know, people say we learn from experiences. That’s life.”
He rarely watches others playing golf on television, but he’ll be tuned in this week. And, if everything goes according to plan, Van de Velde will get well, qualify for next year’s British Open at Royal Birkdale – and not make a mess of the 72nd hole.
“That’s a date,” he said, just before hanging up the phone. “I’ll see you in Birkdale.”