Sports

What Happened to French Golfer Jean Van De Velde?

There are collapses in sports. And then there are COLLAPSES in sports. Jean Van De Velde’s final-hole performance at the 1999 Open Championship fits the latter. Van De Velde’s finish just over 20 years ago was a dramatic rollercoaster ride and precisely the reason we love sports so much. An out-of-nowhere success story turns disastrous in the blink of an eye. What happened to Jean Van De Velde after his collapse at Carnoustie

Who is Jean Van De Velde?

That was the question everyone was asking after day two of the Open Championship. Frenchman Jean Van De Velde entered the tournament ranked No. 152 in the world. Most people, including members of the media, hadn’t heard of him, much less knew how to pronounce his name.

Van De Velde turned pro at 20, and by the time he entered the Open, he had won one tournament, the 1993 Roma Masters. He was the No. 1-ranked golfer in France, a country not exactly known for churning out top-flight golfers. The last French golfer to win a major golf title happened in 1907. 

After his second-round performance at Carnoustie in what golf commentator Curtis Strange described as “the hardest test of golf in my life,” Van De Velde sat atop the leaderboard one shot clear of Angel Cabrera and two shots ahead of Jesper Parnevik. 

The final round and epic collapse

Following a 1-under third round, Van De Velde held a five-shot lead over Justin Leonard and Craig Parry. The tournament was essentially his for the taking. And it appeared that way until the 18th hole, when Van De Velde held a three-shot lead stepping up to the tee.

The Frenchman never strayed from his week-long aggressive approach and hit driver on the 18th, a move heavily criticized by most of the ABC broadcast team. His tee shot sailed right, but got lucky, landing in an open spot on the 17th hole. On Van De Velde’s next shot, with a 2-iron, he blasted the ball toward the hole. It caromed off the bleachers, hit the top of a stone wall, and landed in the thick grass on the other side of the moat-like burn.

Van De Velde had a difficult lie on his third shot and had to clear Barry Burn. He didn’t. The ball landed in the water and seemingly appeared to float for a few minutes as the Frenchman removed his shoes and prepared to hit the ball out. Ultimately, he decided against it and took a drop. On his fifth shot, he hit his ball into the green-side bunker. 

After his bunker shot, Van De Velde drained a clutch putt to make it into a three-way playoff with Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard. The pressure, however, was too great. Lawrie pulled out the victory and Van De Velde finished second, forever making his mark in golf history for one of the biggest collapses the sport had ever seen.

What happened to Jean Van De Velde after the Open?

Back home in France, the media mocked him. His epic collapse made headlines for days. The golfer who was so close to etching his name in the history books as one of France’s greatest golfers, had his name forever recorded in the history books, but for a completely different and embarrassing reason.

A few months later, however, the reaction was very different at the golf club where Van De Velde regularly played. In the club’s golf school for kids, enrollment typically ranges between 10-15 young golfers. That September following Van De Velde’s showing at the Open Championship, more than 100 kids showed up. They wanted to be like Jean. Golfing was cool in their eyes.

Van De Velde saw that, and it inspired him. Although he continued playing professionally through 2008, he never contended for another major. Since that time, Van De Velde has focused on sharing his passion for golf with younger players. 

“Now I play golf for the fun and thrill. I can pass something on to some youngsters who will be interested by the game. That fills me up. When I see that, that makes me super happy.”

Jean Van De Velde

When asked how much he thinks about the 1999 Open, Van De Velde doesn’t flinch. “Things happen for a reason. You find out what you’re made of. It’s a game. It’s nothing more. Nothing else.”

Van De Velde has the right approach to the game of golf and life. And that’s worth more than any championships or trophies.