Tournament officials had already engraved his name on the championship trophy. There was just one hole to go. Just one. Jean Van de Velde of France had such a huge advantage going into the final hole at the 128th British Open that he could shoot a double-bogey and still walk away with the championship. The gallery cheered as he walked to the box, saluting the man they assumed would be the new British Open champ.
But what transpired was what many consider the worst collapse in sports history. Worse than the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, who blew the National League pennant after leading by 6½ games with 12 games left. Worse than Greg Norman, who entered the final round of the 1996 Masters with a six-shot lead but shot 78 and lost to Nick Faldo by a staggering five shots. Worse than the Houston Oilers, who blew a 35-3 lead and lost to Buffalo in the 1992-93 AFC playoffs. Worse than the 1986 Boston Red Sox, who were one strike away from winning their first World Series since 1918 but blew a two-run lead in Game 6 of the Series, lost the game, and then lost Game 7.
As Van de Velde approaches the 18th and final hole on a cold, damp Sunday afternoon at Carnoustie, the little voice in his head says, "Play it safe. Take no risks. Stay out of trouble. Tap three eight-irons up the fairway if you have to. Just stay out of trouble. All you need to win is to make double-bogey. That's it. A double-bogey and you still win. How easy is that?"
But Van de Velde whips out his driver. Mistake No. 1. His tee shot drifts more than 20 yards to the right of the fairway. He lucks out, however, when the ball sails over the water, lands safely on dry ground and winds up sitting up on low rough, in a little horseshoe-shaped peninsula just behind a curve.
Now Van de Velde is faced with another choice: whether to just play it safe, take a wedge, chip back into the fairway, then hit an approach shot onto the green, followed by two putts, and walk away with the championship.
Instead, Van de Velde goes for the green with a 2-iron. "I only had 185 yards to carry the water," he would say later. "The ball was lying so good." He carries the creek all right, but the ball sails wildly to the right, hits the grandstand beyond the creek and caroms backward over the creek again into rough that's knee high. Big problem. So he needs to get over the creek again, and his ball is buried. Now he can't even pitch into the fairway with his next shot.
His third shot on the par-4 No. 18 flies weakly out of the deep rough and lands in the creek. The gallery gasps. Suddenly, Justin Leonard, who shot 6-over and is in the clubhouse, rushes to the driving range to warm up for a possible playoff. After having sat in the clubhouse for more than 90 minutes, Paul Lawrie likewise realizes that yes, he could still win this thing, despite being 6-over, just like Leonard.
Now working on his fourth shot, Van de Velde is looking at his ball sitting in the creek. He has two options: he can take a penalty stroke and a drop or play the ball from the water. He removes his shoes and socks, raises his pants legs over his knees and walks into the water. The crowd roars. Photographers practically fall over one another as they slide down the bank, taking pictures.
Van de Velde considers a 60-yard pitch shot from the water onto the green. But when he steps into the water, the ball sinks, forcing him to scrap the idea. He is forced to take his drop and penalty stroke, and yet he still finds himself in deep rough.
He's now 60 yards from the pin. His pitch shot clears the creek, and lands in the front green-side bunker. He needs to get up and down just to tie. He hits a nice bunker shot from about 25 feet that rolls five feet past the cup. Then, on his seventh shot of the hole, he makes the pressure putt, sending the match to a playoff with Lawrie and Leonard. As the ball disappears in the cup, the stands erupt and Van de Velde celebrates -- pumps his arm, twirls his visor and hurls his ball into the stands -- as if he had just won the Open.
Van de Velde has played the first 71 holes of the tournament at 3-over. Now he plays the 72nd hole at 3-over. He has birdied No. 18 two days in a row, and now he triple-bogeys it.
Into the four-hole playoff they go -- Lawrie, Leonard and Van de Velde. All three players start badly at No. 15, hitting drives left of the fairway. Van de Velde's is the worst of the three tee shots. He hits a provisional second tee shot in case his first shot isn't found. The ball is located, but Van de Velde makes a double-bogey, while Leonard and Lawrie bogey.
Lawrie takes the lead at the difficult No. 17th hole, hitting a 4-iron from 225 yards that lands about 25 feet left of the pin. He makes the putt for birdie to take a one-stroke lead. Van de Velde also makes a 26-foot birdie putt at No. 17, tying him with Leonard, one stroke behind Lawrie as they go to No. 18. On the final hole, Lawrie clinches the title with a beautiful 4-iron from 221 yards that stops three feet from the pin and an allows him an easy putt for the win.
"Maybe it was asking too much for me," Van de Velde would say afterward. ""Maybe I should have laid up. The ball was laying so well. Next time, I hit a wedge, and you all forgive me?"