Eight years ago at the Carnoustie championship links in Scotland, the world of professional golf went haywire, and it has been haywire ever since. As the British Open returns to the same course for the first time since then, Carnoustie has a chance to put things right.
Most golf fans and even many of the most casual observers will remember the last regulation hole of the 1999 British Open. With one hole to play, Frenchman Jean Van de Velde led by a seemingly secure three strokes. At the time, the very notion of a Frenchman winning The Open Championship was about as far-fetched as that of an Eskimo developing a winery on frozen tundra. Perhaps fittingly, Van de Velde proceeded to let the Eskimos off the hook.
First came the reckless use of a driver -- commentator Curtis Strange called it "stupid" before the Frenchman even hit the ball -- that sent Van de Velde scrambling to a narrow spit of soil well right of the fairway. Then came another reckless shot, an attempt to reach the green rather than merely pitch safely back to the fairway. The ball caromed off the bleachers, back across the Barry Burn (stream) into nearly knee-high rough. Again, Van de Velde could have pitched out to the fairway, but again he tried for the green -- and this time, he landed in the burn itself.
He proceeded to wade into the burn to consider whether to try to hit the half-submerged ball, only to take a penalty stroke and drop behind the burn after agonizingly lengthy consideration. From there he hit his fifth shot into a sand trap, blasted out to seven feet, and somehow sank that knee-knocking putt for a triple-bogey to at least maintain his spot in a playoff with 1997 champ Justin Leonard and unheralded Scotsman Paul Lawrie. More hilarity ensued in the playoff, which Lawrie finally won with a birdie after one of the best four-irons ever struck. Watching the events unfold was like watching a twisted episode of The Three Stooges, except that Van de Velde played Curly, Larry, and Moe all at the same time.
PROFESSIONAL GOLF HASN'T BEEN rational ever since. Until that time, winners of major championships were almost always either established stars or else rising phenoms. The previous 10 major winners, for instance, were Messrs. Woods, Els, Leonard, Love, O'Meara, Janzen, O'Meara again, Singh, Olazabal, and Stewart. For most of the history of golf, that sort of sharing of the major wealth among well-regarded players has been the norm.
After Van De Velde, though, the golf world's axis shifted. Most noticeably, we've seen the Tiger Woods show: victories for Woods in 11 of the next 31 majors, which by historical standards is even more freakish than was Van de Velde's collapse. (In the purely professional, post-Bobby Jones era, only the nine titles in a 22-major stretch by Ben Hogan came close.) Woods' combination of talent, grit and willpower is admirable certainly -- but it is just as certainly otherworldly, and alien to the ordinary rhythms of the game.
As Woods has dominated, the other top contenders have won far fewer majors -- freakishly so -- than would be expected, while lightly regarded players again and again have taken titles. During the comparable stretch of Nicklaus's career, from the 1963 Masters through the 1971 PGA (the first major played that year), only Orville Moody (1969 U.S. Open) and Dave Marr (1965 PGA) could be said to have boasted merely fair-to-middling careers, while every other major winner in that period was or would become a long-time, multiple tour winner. (Even Moody and Marr, while only winning one and three times, respectively, on tour, were longtime respected players, somewhat akin to three-time winner Chris DiMarco today.) By contrast, this Woods era has seen major titles won by out-of-nowhere (or almost nowhere), never-win-again (yet) folks such as Shaun Micheel, Rich Beem, and Todd Hamilton; the utterly unknown Ben Curtis (to his credit, Curtis did win twice last year, but his overall record remains underwhelming); and solid-but-second-tier foreign players such as U.S. Open winners Michael Campbell, Geoff Ogilvy and Angel Cabrera.
But it has been the manner of so many of the major victories, even more than the identity of the winners, which has been so repeatedly bizarre. In the 2001 British Open, Ian Woosnam was vying for the lead when he discovered an extra club in his bag and was forced to take a two-stroke penalty. In the Open Championship of 2002, Gary Evans was vying for the lead on the penultimate hole when he lost a ball in the rough even in front of the eyes of thousands of fans and international TV cameras to see where it went. The next year, Mark Roe was in contention after a brilliant third round when he was disqualified for accidentally signing the wrong scorecard. That was also the year that mystery man Ben Curtis won while superstars Davis Love III, Vijay Singh, Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods all threw away chances to win, and while European star Thomas Bjorn took three brain-dead shots to escape a greenside bunker at the 17th hole to gift-wrap the title for Curtis.
The U.S. Open has been similarly beset with near-Van-de-Veldian bizarreries ever since Carnoustie in 1999. In 2001 Stewart Cink missed an 18-inch putt on the 72nd hole to blow a chance at the title, only to watch as Retief Goosen missed a two-footer of his own to fall back into a playoff (which Goosen, to his credit, did win the next day). In 2006, of course, the usually reliable Jim Furyk missed a five-footer for a 72nd-hole par that would have secured a playoff spot, then Colin Montgomerie double-bogeyed the same hole from the middle of the fairway, and then Phil Mickelson engineered his now-infamous, lock-brained, off-the-tent, off-the-tree, double-bogey to likewise miss the playoff by one stroke. It was the second time that Mickelson had suffered a goofy double-bogey down the stretch of a U.S. Open: He also did so by three-putting the 17th hole on the final day from a mere five feet to lose to repeat-winner Goosen in 2004.
The PGA has been slightly less immune to true oddities, but the gag-fest between established stars Singh and Leonard in 2004, before Singh finally won it, was unusually painful to watch, and Leonard also threw away the 2002 title in a painful manner in order to set up Beem -- who did one of the weirdest disco boogies in the history of the civilized world, right there on the 18th green, after outlasting Woods for the victory.
It's time for the madness to stop.
CARNOUSTIE THIS YEAR IS SET UP utterly unlike the torturous, near-impossibly penal course of 1999. If anything, its set-up this year, with much wider fairways and much lighter rough, is too easy. But that set-up, while helping the sometimes wild-driving Woods, also will bring a host of other established stars into contention -- especially since Carnoustie's huge but unusually flat greens will let the players putt aggressively and with confidence. Rather than a spluttering, gagging scene of Sadism, this year's tourney might well be a shootout.
It should be a fun one to watch. Carnoustie is a bit of an odd course. (I played there in 1999 just three weeks after that year's Open.) It is the most park-like, least links-like course on the entire Open rotation, with only the first and second holes giving much of any sense of nearby sea. Almost no dunes line the fairways. The usual British "humps and hollows" are far less pronounced. A number of holes (especially the 9th) even feature groves of pine trees, a feature as out of place at a usual Open Championship as a Frenchman in the lead.
Yet it's an enjoyable course to watch nonetheless. The history of "Hogan's Alley," the frighteningly narrow strip of fairway between the bunkers and the OB fence on the 6th hole, is enticing. The Barry Burn winding through the course plays wonderful tricks on a player's mind. The Burn's diabolical meandering on the final two holes is enough to give palpitations to just about anyone. And, of course, the memory of Van de Velde's disaster will add spice to the proceedings.
A large number of top players are performing well just as the tournament starts. Leonard, who lost in that 1999 playoff (and thus who obviously likes the course), is finally out of the doldrums and in fine form. Woods is having another excellent year. Mickelson finished second this past weekend at the Scottish Open. Els finished third, one stroke behind Mickelson. Cabrera, fresh off his U.S. Open triumph, also likes Carnoustie, missing the playoff in 1999 by just one stroke. Jim Furyk, who finished in the top 10 at Carnoustie in 1999, is coming off a string of top-five finishes in the United States. Montgomerie won a tournament in Europe just two weekends ago. Singh has been playing steadily, too, and the long-dormant Garcia seems to be rounding into shape again as well.
Look for a score significantly under par to win this week. And look for the tournament to be a good show again, but this time with no hint of freakishness. Carnoustie unleashed a hobgoblin of weirdness into professional golf in 1999, but it's time for the hobgoblin to retire. After all, Van de Velde isn't even in the tourney this week, and vineyards can't grow on tundra.
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