Jean Van De Velde had just finished an interminable practice
round, and now he was late. The Frenchman was due to be
interviewed by CBS's Jim Nantz at 5 p.m. in Medinah's massive
clubhouse on the eve of the PGA Championship, but Van de Velde's
game, played with Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Tom Pernice Jr.,
had moved at an escargot's pace and didn't end until well past
six. Then, coming off the 18th green, Van de Velde was further
delayed when he was swarmed by a bunch of frantic, pen-wielding
kids, whom the golfer calmed with his favorite English
word--"Relax, relax"--before making several dozen new fans by
signing every last request. Ever since July 18, when he played
the 72nd hole of the British Open in seven strokes and with the
oddest mixture of panache and horrid luck the old Scots game has
ever witnessed, the interest in Van de Velde has soared.
The golfer made his way to a suite on the second floor of the
clubhouse, an extraordinary building with colorful arched
ceilings, 60 feet high. Van de Velde, who grew up in a converted
14th-century church in a small town in southwestern France,
marveled at the building. He's interested in architecture. He's
interested in wine. He's interested in skiing, soccer,
bullfighting, bicycling, rugby, skin diving. He's interested in
music. He's interested in a great many things. He walked over to
a clubhouse wall, in no particular hurry. "Iz theese fa-breek or
pent?" he wondered aloud. Fabric or paint. His accented English
invariably brings smiles--his imitation of Inspector Clouseau is
nearly effortless--and he can express intricate thoughts in
English far better than most native-born Americans. He ran his
fingers over the wall. "Ah, pent. Superb."
He was in the midst of a hectic day, and still he looked like a
million francs. He had already been in this suite, in the
morning, sitting before NBC's cameras, answering questions about
his pending inaugural appearance in the Ryder Cup. Now he was
finally sitting with Nantz, who was wearing a coat and tie for
the occasion. Van de Velde, 33, was wearing brown-and-white
saddle shoes, sheer socks, lime-green pants with an extra heavy
hem, so that they would hang just so, a white Lacoste shirt, no
hat. (Try to find an American golfer who doesn't wear his
sponsor's hat during an indoor interview.) Van de Velde declined
makeup. His cheeks are perpetually pink. His upper lip is about
as thin as a Patek Philippe watch, and above it lies his
considerable nose. His eyebrows are thick and dark and so is his
hair, which he parts in the middle. He's about as Continental as
you can get.
Nantz asked Van de Velde if he has seen Tin Cup, the movie in
which Kevin Costner plays Roy McAvoy, a journeyman pro who dunks
one ball after another in the water on the last hole of the U.S.
Open, blowing his chance for victory by prizing pride over
prudence. Van de Velde has seen it. He sees all the popular
American movies. He doesn't think you can compare Tin Cup with
what happened to him at Carnoustie. "He went for the dream, the
perfect shot," Van de Velde said. "I was just playing my game."
One of the CBS tech guys smiled kindly, even though this
chitchat further delayed his dinner. The man was charmed. Van de
Velde has that effect on people.
Analyzing Van de Velde's British Open performance brings out a
person's deepest feelings about winning and losing. Golf
people--Tour pros, Tour caddies, reporters, officials,
fans--have responded to Van de Velde's collapse with a mixture
of disbelief, sadness, pity, disgust, even anger. Van de Velde's
own response is far more interesting. At a press conference
before the PGA Championship, Van de Velde and a reporter had
Reporter: "Jean, you say that golf is not a big deal. What is a
big deal in your life?"
Van de Velde: "My family is a big deal in my life. Health is a
big deal in my life. Having people feeling good around me is a
big deal. The rest is a bonus."
The French have a word for this attitude. So, actually, do we.
Standing on the 18th tee on the Sunday of the British Open--last
pairing, three-shot lead--Van de Velde was having the time of
his life. The home hole at Carnoustie is a brutish 487 yards,
with a stream, the Barry Burn, that comes into play twice,
numerous bunkers, nasty rough and out-of-bounds left and over
the green. It is a par-4 in name only. Van de Velde hit driver
off the tee because, as he said last week, "I always hit driver,
whenever I can." Many have been critical of that decision. They
don't recall that when Tom Kite came to the final hole of the
1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach with a two-shot lead, he hit a
downwind driver, despite the ocean that lines the left side of
the hole and the out-of-bounds on the right. He won with a par.
Van de Velde pushed the ball wildly to the right, over the burn
and drew...a perfect lie in light rough. The golfing gods were
smiling on Van de Velde all week, as Tiger Woods said at
Carnoustie, and they continued to. The Frenchman had 189 yards
to clear the burn in front of the green. "I am a professional
golfer," Van de Velde said at Medinah. "I miss my two-iron, it
still goes 200 yards." He pulled his two-iron from the bag and
pushed the shot. He carried the burn easily. The ball was
sailing into the grandstand. No big deal, Van de Velde thought,
that's a free drop. And that's when the golfing gods stopped
smiling on Van de Velde. The ball ricocheted off a grandstand
handrail, bounced off a stone wall that lines the Barry Burn and
careened backward into a patch of untamed grass.
"I thought about going sideways, back to the fairway, but I
didn't think I could necessarily get it out, and if I did, I
thought I might hit it through the fairway to the rough on the
other side and draw another bad lie," Van de Velde said. He was
thinking clearly. He was not going berserk under the pressure.
He tried to play a heroic shot, but the grass was just too thick
to get the club face on the ball, and his third shot finished in
the middle of the burn. That's the shot he regrets, not the
driver, not the two-iron. If he could live his life over again,
he would try to pitch out and onto the fairway.
He has other regrets. He wishes he could have jumped into the
burn immediately after his ball did, because when his ball first
hit the water only about a third of it was submerged. "I could
have played it," Van de Velde says. But the tide was coming in,
and by the time he removed his shoes and socks and waded to his
ball it was unplayable.
He took a drop, for his fourth shot, then, for his fifth, hacked
a shot out of the rough and into a greenside bunker. His playing
partner, Craig Parry, had beaten him there. "He says to me, 'Let
me get out of your way,'" Van de Velde recalls. "Then he holes
the shot. I say to myself, The chances of that shot being holed
are 1,000 to 1, and he does it. Now the chances for me are 2,000
to 1." The bunker shot that Van de Velde played, and the
eight-footer for triple bogey he made to get himself into the
playoff with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie, should be regarded
as one of the alltime clutch up-and-downs. Instead, it has been
Van de Velde's play in the four-hole playoff was mostly poor. He
was not ready to go, but he is not making excuses. For his
approach shot on the last playoff hole, Lawrie was 221 yards
from the hole on 18, with the Barry Burn looming again. He had a
one-shot lead, and his opponents were in trouble. He yanked a
four-iron from his bag. Peter Alliss, commentating for the BBC,
did not say, as he did about Van de Velde's play on the 72nd,
"It's beyond a joke. He's gone gaga." Lawrie smashed his
four-iron, and his ball stopped three feet from the hole. He
made his 3 and won by three. Lawrie finished gloriously, the way
a champion wants to and expects to, the way Van de Velde wanted
to and expected to. "When it was over, I cried like a baby," Van
de Velde said last week at Medinah. "But much good has come from
Carnoustie. It got me here."
Last week at Medinah, Van de Velde and his wife, Brigitte, made
friends wherever they went, and they went everywhere. Van de
Velde's clubs failed to arrive with him on Aug. 9, and when they
still had not turned up the next morning, Brigitte and Jean went
on a self-guided tour of Chicago, one of several trips Van de
Velde made into the city. Last Thursday, after shooting a
first-round 74, the Van de Veldes and Jean's manager, Jamie
Cunningham, made an hourlong drive into downtown Chicago in
search of a good Japanese restaurant. On the drive in, Van de
Velde did an excellent imitation of Bernhard Langer--capturing
perfectly Langer's peculiar lack of inflection--and what it
would be like to be Langer's partner in a competition. ("You
vill hit the vedge here and you vill enjoy it.") A friend from
France, Christophe Rondelet, also was in the car. He wore a
beret with the words JEAN VAN DE VELDE 2-IRON CLUB on the front.
Van de Velde surrounds himself with people who don't take things
They don't take everything lightly, though. On the golf course
Brigitte ran into a well-known French commentator who had said
disparaging things about her husband's play at Carnoustie. She
unleashed a five-minute tirade at the commentator while he stood
there stammering. The night before the PGA started, Cunningham
and the Van de Veldes had dinner with Tom Crow, the founder of
Cobra, to discuss a contract extension. Van de Velde, who is
ranked 96th on the U.S. Tour money list on the basis of two
events--the British Open and the PGA Championship, in which he
finished 26th--has been discussing with Brigitte, Crow,
Cunningham and others the advantages of playing the U.S. Tour
next winter, should he finish in the top 125.
The Van de Veldes love the United States. But France is home to
them, despite the fact that they live now in an apartment in
Geneva with their two daughters, Alexandra, 6, and Sophie, 2.
There are tax advantages to living in Geneva, and there are
schools that teach in English and in French, which is important
to the Van de Veldes, who want their children to be bilingual.
Also, Geneva is convenient when your work takes you all over
Europe. But a small town in southwestern France, Mont-de-Marsan,
where Brigitte and Jean grew up, is still the center of their
universe. On the Sunday night after the British Open, Van de
Velde and his wife and his caddie and his friends had a long
dinner that went on until 2 a.m. Monday morning. There was much
wine and much laughter that night. Early on Monday, the Van de
Veldes had planned to return to Geneva. Brigitte had another
idea. "Let's go home," she said, meaning Mont-de-Marsan. "Let's
be with family." And that is what they did.
Before long, letters and E-mails started to arrive from people
who had watched the Open and saw in Van de Velde's grace and
lusty play something they liked, something with which they could
identify. The golfer was taken with one letter in particular. A
man wrote, "The next time someone says, 'Even I could have made
a 6 on 18 to win,' tell them, 'Here's 10 pence. Give me a call
when you get a chance in your next major.'" The Frenchman loved
that one, brought it up again and again in his week at Medinah,
where he hit driver every chance he had. The letter gets right
to his whole point. He didn't win. At least he was there.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN Horsin' around When Van de Velde wants to have a good time with Sophie, it helps that Euro Disney is one of his sponsors.
COLOR PHOTO: BEN CURTIS/PRESS ASSOCIATION Making a splash The way Van de Velde handled himself during and after his ordeal at Carnoustie endeared him to legions of fans.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN Ladies' man Van de Velde cried "like a baby" after the Open but found solace with (from left) Sophie, Brigitte and Alexandra.
He played the 72nd hole of the Open with the oddest mix of
panache and horrid luck the game has ever seen.
"My family is a big deal in my life," says Van de Velde. "Health
and friends are a big deal. The rest is a bonus."