Jean van de Velde stood at the 18th tee in the final round of the 1999 British Open on a collision course with destiny. The Frenchman was in the final group and sporting a commanding three-shot lead. Instead of laying up, van de Velde grabbed the driver. After a seven stroke adventure, including a 50-yard ricochet of the grandstands, van de Velde found himself in a three-man playoff. Scotsman Paul Lawrie eventually emerged as the victor.
I was 24 at the time and watching closely. Prior to that week, like most Americans, I hadn’t heard of van de Velde, who spent his career on the European Tour. In losing, he captured my imagination. I admired his bravado and stubborn self confidence. He was the type of antihero that appealed to me at that time. He didn’t lay up. He went for it.
Ironically, van de Velde is most remembered for the shot he didn’t hit on that fateful hole. With his ball in the shallow Barry Burn, the 33-year-old waded into the creek and contemplated fishing it out before ultimately taking a drop. Van de Velde helplessly standing shin deep in water with his pants rolled above the knee might still be my most vivid golf memory.
Friday, the Frenchman, having turned 50 in May, found himself in Blaine competing in the 3M Championship on the PGA’s Champions Tour. My friend Tom and I also were in attendance as spectators. By chance, the three of us headed to the first tee box at the same time. As van de Velde left the practice green to tee off in the day’s final threesome and walked along the rope beside us, Tom and I pulled golf balls out of our pockets and asked him to sign.
The steely look on his face immediately softened. He smiled and politely obliged. I welcomed him to Minnesota and asked if he’d visited the state before. He meekly said “no”. Based on French stereotypes and the heckles he’s undoubtedly endured, I expected van de Velde to be some combination of aloof, arrogant or rude. Instead, there was a gentle kindness about him that immediately disarmed.
After our meeting, Tom and I inevitably began discussing the British Open meltdown. And, while following him for a few holes, we quickly found out everyone else was too. There were the predictable cracks when he walked by a pond, “We know van de Velde likes the water.” Some were just curious, “What year was that 97? 98?” Others still incredulous, “He hit the driver?!”
Van de Velde has been carrying this with him for 17 years. He’s heard the whispers, the taunts, the second guessers, yet he still golfs. He perseveres. There is something deeply heroic about the grace and ease in which he carries this burden. He doesn’t run from it. He owns it.
As I walked around the course throughout the day, saw John Daly, Bernhard Langer, Tom Lehman and many others, van de Velde was never far from my mind. I began to realize how much I admired him, related to him. How strong he was. I remembered that it’s our failures, not our success, that truly give us the opportunity to learn and grow.
After he completed his round, Tom and I met our hero again, this time it was calculated. Van de Velde, humble and gracious with us and the few fans still around, posed for pictures and signed autographs.
After securing the photo above, I shook van de Velde’s hand and told him that I admired his perseverance and found it inspiring. He looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you.”