Jean van de Velde had just finished an interminable practice round, and now he was late. The Frenchman was due to be interviewed by CBS's Jim Nantz at 5 p.m. in Medinah's massive clubhouse on the eve of the PGA Championship, but Van de Velde's game, played with Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Tom Pernice Jr., had moved at an escargot's pace and didn't end until well past six. Then, coming off the 18th green, Van de Velde was further delayed when he was swarmed by a bunch of frantic, pen-wielding kids, whom the golfer calmed with his favorite English word—"Relax, relax"—before making several dozen new fans by signing every last request. Ever since July 18, when he played the 72nd hole of the British Open in seven strokes and with the oddest mixture of panache and horrid luck the old Scots game has ever witnessed, the interest in Van de Velde has soared.
The golfer made his way to a suite on the second floor of the clubhouse, an extraordinary building with colorful arched ceilings, 60 feet high. Van de Velde, who grew up in a converted 14th-century church in a small town in southwestern France, marveled at the building. He's interested in architecture. He's interested in wine. He's interested in skiing, soccer, bullfighting, bicycling, rugby, skin diving. He's interested in music. He's interested in a great many things. He walked over to a clubhouse wall, in no particular hurry. "Iz theese fa-breek or pent?" he wondered aloud. Fabric or paint. His accented English invariably brings smiles—his imitation of Inspector Clouseau is nearly effortless—and he can express intricate thoughts in English far better than most native-born Americans. He ran his fingers over the wall. "Ah, pent. Superb."
He was in the midst of a hectic day, and still he looked like a million francs. He had already been in this suite, in the morning, sitting before NBC's cameras, answering questions about his pending inaugural appearance in the Ryder Cup. Now he was finally sitting with Nantz, who was wearing a coat and tie for the occasion. Van de Velde, 33, was wearing brown-and-white saddle shoes, sheer socks, lime-green pants with an extra heavy hem, so that they would hang just so, a white Lacoste shirt, no hat. (Try to find an American golfer who doesn't wear his sponsor's hat during an indoor interview.) Van de Velde declined makeup. His cheeks are perpetually pink. His upper lip is about as thin as a Patek Philippe watch, and above it lies his considerable nose. His eyebrows are thick and dark and so is his hair, which he parts in the middle. He's about as Continental as you can get.
Nantz asked Van de Velde if he has seen Tin Cup, the movie in which Kevin Costner plays Roy McAvoy, a journeyman pro who dunks one ball after another in the water on the last hole of the U.S. Open, blowing his chance for victory by prizing pride over prudence. Van de Velde has seen it. He sees all the popular American movies. He doesn't think you can compare Tin Cup with what happened to him at Carnoustie. "He went for the dream, the perfect shot," Van de Velde said. "I was just playing my game." One of the CBS tech guys smiled kindly, even though this chitchat further delayed his dinner. The man was charmed. Van de Velde has that effect on people.
Analyzing Van de Velde's British Open performance brings out a person's deepest feelings about winning and losing. Golf people—Tour pros, Tour caddies, reporters, officials, fans—have responded to Van de Velde's collapse with a mixture of disbelief, sadness, pity, disgust, even anger. Van de Velde's own response is far more interesting. At a press conference before the PGA Championship, Van de Velde and a reporter had this exchange:
Reporter: "Jean, you say that golf is not a big deal. What is a big deal in your life?"
Van de Velde: "My family is a big deal in my life. Health is a big deal in my life. Having people feeling good around me is a big deal. The rest is a bonus."
The French have a word for this attitude. So, actually, do we. It's perspective.
Standing on the 18th tee on the Sunday of the British Open—last pairing, three-shot lead—Van de Velde was having the time of his life. The home hole at Carnoustie is a brutish 487 yards, with a stream, the Barry Burn, that comes into play twice, numerous bunkers, nasty rough and out-of-bounds left and over the green. It is a par-4 in name only. Van de Velde hit driver off the tee because, as he said last week, "I always hit driver, whenever I can." Many have been critical of that decision. They don't recall mat when Tom Kite came to the final hole of the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach with a two-shot lead, he hit a downwind driver, despite the ocean that lines the left side of the hole and the out-of-bounds on the right. He won with a par.
Van de Velde pushed the ball wildly to the right, over the burn and drew...a perfect lie in light rough. The golfing gods were smiling on Van de Velde all week, as Tiger Woods said at Carnoustie, and they continued to. The Frenchman had 189 yards to clear the burn in front of the green. "I am a professional golfer," Van de Velde said at Medinah. "I miss my two-iron, it still goes 200 yards." He pulled his two-iron from the bag and pushed the shot. He carried the burn easily. The ball was sailing into the grandstand. No big deal, Van de Velde thought, that's a free drop. And that's when the golfing gods stopped smiling on Van de Velde. The ball ricocheted off a grandstand handrail, bounced off a stone wall that lines the Barry Burn and careened backward into a patch of untamed grass.