Very much stranger than fiction

It’s not always the case that no one ever remembers who came second.

Shane Lowry did not let slip a six-shot lead with one hole to play in the Open Championship at Royal Portrush. He was never likely to, of course, and it may be true to say that in a few years times no one will readily recall it was Tommy Fleetwood who finished runner-up. But it’s not always the case that no one ever remembers who came second.

Very much stranger than fiction
Tommy Fleetwood on the 18th during day four of The Open Championship 2019 (Richard Sellers/PA Wire)

Twenty years ago last Thursday, Jean Van de Velde failed to win the Open Championship at Carnoustie. The unheralded Frenchman had led by five shots after 54 holes and still had an advantage of three (rather than six) standing on the tee of the par-four final hole. You will know what happened next.

Having been fortunate to miss the waters of the Barry Burn with an errant drive from the tee, he went for the green with his second shot, instead of, say, hitting a couple of wedge shots and playing the hole as a par-five given that a six would win it for him. His approach shot ricocheted from the grandstand into thick rough, from where he hit his ball into the burn, from where he took a penalty drop, pitched into a bunker, took two to get up and down and went into a playoff with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie which the latter won.

So other than the slightly belated 20th-anniversary link, why am I mentioning this now? Because an enormous stroke of bad luck which did for Van de Velde came to my mind while watching an extraordinary stroke of good luck in the Cricket World Cup Final a week ago yesterday. Then a probable pivotal moment occurred when, in the final over of regulation play, a throw by New Zealand’s Martin Guptill hit the bat of England’s Ben Stokes and, by sheer accident, the ricochet turned what would have been two runs into six. (I’m not wading into the stuff about whether it should in fact only have been five runs.) As you will also know, England won the subsequent sudden-death playoff… sorry, super over.

At Carnoustie, Van de Velde’s ball hit a railing on the stands and took the bounce it did. To hit  a target as slim as that railing would pretty much be like hitting it straight into the hole. Had his ball finished in the grandstand, its likelier destination, he would have a got a free drop and surely won the Open. Instead, the fates well and truly stuffed him. A Hollywood scriptwriter wouldn’t have dared to suggest the ending that happened at Lord’s or Carnoustie; no one would try to pass this off as fiction. Nathan Leamon, an analyst with the England cricket team, last year published a novel called The Test which had a seemingly dramatic denouement but with hindsight was banal compared to the real thing,

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Leamon and his friends had something, a huge something, to celebrate after their victory in the cricket. His loss in the golf eventually led to Van de Velde’s divorce from his wife, Brigitte. “After Carnoustie, Jean wasn’t the same person,” she said. “He had changed.” Is that any wonder? I remember Seve Ballesteros telling me that on the night after that Open he had woken up three times, having had the nightmare it had happened to him.

Fine margins indeed. At least Martin Guptill, who was run-out with the final ball of overtime, had his teammates to console him. As is usually the case in golf, Jean Van de Velde was essentially on his own.

You can follow Robert Green on Twitter @robrtgreen and enjoy his other blog plus you can read more by him on golf at

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