This past Sunday Jordan Spieth stood on the 12th tee at Augusta National on a collision course with history. He was seven holes away from becoming the youngest player ever to win two Masters’ green jackets. He was a great shape to become only the fourth player EVER to win this august major championship in back to back years joining Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods. Wow.
He stood on the 13th tee on a collision course with history of a different kind. He now faced the very real prospect of being the person who authored the single greatest collapse in major championship golf. Seven strokes, two Pro V1’s in the drink and a second straight Masters victory down the drain. Sure he could have eagled 13 and birdied 15 and 16 to win but he didn’t. Actually we all knew he couldn’t. He had been fighting his swing all week (he even flew in his coach for an emergency practice tee session) and on the 12th tee fought that battle and lost it again. Then he lost his mind. He played his third from the wrong spot, played it too quickly and laid the sod over his historic opportunity.
It brought back memories of Greg Norman who took a six shot lead into the final round of the 1996 Masters and lost to Nick Faldo. But the Norman collapse was a more gradual decent into defeat. Spieth’s was more sudden and worse. Norman bogeyed the first, fourth and ninth holes (he did birdie #2) while Faldo (playing alongside) birdied 2, 6 and 8 (he also made bogey at 7) so Greg’s lead at the turn was down to just two. In 2016 Spieth birdied 6,7,8 and 9 and marched to the tenth tee with a FIVE shot margin. Back in 1996 Norman then bogeyed 10 and 11 while Faldo made pars and the lead had evaporated altogether and both he and Faldo stood on the 12th tee 9 under par. It’s true Norman then dunked one (ONE) into Rae’s creek, made double bogey to Faldo’s par and Norman was two behind. He never got any closer. It was death by a thousand cuts, a steady stream of losing shots. Spieth on the other hand suffered a self-inflicted guillotine to the neck, a release of the lead with firehose force. And he did it without having to look in the eyes of the man who would overtake him.
All of this brings me right around to the most maligned major championship runner up in golf history, Jean van de Velde. Every golf fan older than 25 remembers the 1999 British Open, not because Paul Lawrie won it in a playoff but because Jean van de Velde lost a three shot lead on the 72nd hole. People (many of them smart, many more I respect) still consider the Frenchman’s folly as the biggest and most pronounced collapse in tournament golf. I disagreed then and I disagree now. It just so happens, for me, there is also now a worthy replacement. If you don’t know, or don’t remember, of which I speak you can find it on YouTube. I recommend it. van de Velde and the rest were playing Carnoustie and he had come to the 72nd hole with a two stroke lead. Then up ahead Justin Leonard bogeyed the par 4 and van de Velde’s lead was three. He pulled driver out of his bag, people gasped, television announcers questioned the play but as the BBC’s Peter Allis mentioned on the air van de Velde HAD made a four and two threes on the hole that week all while using a driver off the tee.
I spoke with a sports psychologist about this and without mentioning names or situations I asked if I had a game plan in regard to playing a hole and that game plan had been successful three straight days, should I change it on a fourth and final go round. His answer was absolutely not. He added that changing at that point would be allowing doubt to creep in, an admission that you were vulnerable.
Water, in the form of a burn (Scottish for brook), runs down the right side of the 18th at Carnoustie and then wraps around to form, for lack of a better term, a moat in front of the green. Jean van de Velde stuck with his game plan and hit his driver. Hit didn’t hit it all that well, finding the rough to the right of the water, ending up near the 17th tee. But he was dry. It left him a second shot of just more than 200 yards. He now had two choices; lay up with a short iron hitting it into the fairway and leaving another short iron to the green. But even that play would mean a departure from strategy and a third shot that now would come under increasing pressure would still have to clear the Barry Burn. So instead he made the prudent (in my opinion then and now) play, long iron, more than enough club to carry the hazard, aiming right of the flag to avoid any chance of hitting it out of bounds left. Then he did exactly what he set out to do. Maybe he caught a bit of the “flier”, maybe adrenaline gave his smack a little extra kick, maybe he hit it where he aimed it. Don’t know. What I do know is that after hitting a not perfect but perfectly acceptable shot Jean van de Velde was the recipient of the worst break in major championship golf.
His golf ball hit a railing attached to the grandstands erected to the player’s right of 18 green. It hit the grandstand railing at the precise spot and angle that would send it ricocheting back and to the left, eventually settling in the high grass on the other side of the burn. This is why I firmly believe Jordan Spieth’s “misfortune” at Augusta is far more egregious and memorable than the one van de Velde suffered 16 and half years earlier. Jean suffered an incredibly bad break. Jordan hit two incredibly bad shots. The Frenchman’s fate was determined by an inch. If that ball had flown an inch higher, or an inch farther to the right or left it would have ended up in the grandstands, on some fortunate fan’s lap. Free drop, greenside, four shots from there to claim the claret jug. There was no break, good, bad or indifferent, associated with either of the young American’s shots on Sunday (except for maybe Jordan’s heart). The only poor shot Jean van de Velde hit that day was his third (it went into the burn) but if not for that fateful inch, that unfortunate railing, it wouldn’t have ever been struck.
People said that day it was the biggest choke in major championship golf history. I didn’t. People still say it today. I don’t. The Wall Street Journal even went a step further by putting it at the top of its list of all sports in Tuesday’s column titled, “The Anatomy of the Epic Sports Choke”. People will think it 20 years from now. I never will. By the way his triple bogey seven didn’t even lose him the British Open. It merely put him in a playoff with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie (which he subsequently lost to Lawrie).
Adam Scott bogeyed the final four holes of the 2012 British Open and lost to Ernie Els. Ed Sneed bogeyed the last three holes at Augusta and lost The Masters in 1979. With the 54-hole lead at Pebble Beach, Dustin Johnson shot an abysmal 11 over par final round and lost the 2010 United States Open. Arnold Palmer led by SEVEN shots with 9 holes to play at the 1966 U.S. Open and LOST to Billy Casper. I’ve already mentioned Norman and now Spieth. ALL worse than Jean van de Velde. So can we finally give the guy a break?