VAN DE VELDE SNUB IS OPEN TO DEBATE
There was no hint of health problems for Jean Van de Velde when the question of a wild card for him into the Open was raised earlier this year.
There was no hint of the health problems to come for Jean Van de Velde when the question of a wild card for him into this week’s Open Championship was raised earlier this year.
“It’s not fair to anyone else. It won’t happen. It’s just not possible,” said Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal and Ancient Club.
“If anyone deserved one to an Open at Carnoustie it would be Jean Van de Velde – I remain amazed at what happened – but the Open is a major championship.
“We have never issued an invitation in the modern era. People earn their way in.”
What was not pointed out to him at the time was that the other three major championships in golf – the Masters, US Open and USPGA Championship – do in fact issue invitations.
They do it for different reasons too and, many would argue, sometimes for far less deserving reasons than Van de Velde, who dominated the 1999 tournament first with his brilliance over the first 71 holes and then with his less glorious exploits, taking a triple-bogey seven down the 72nd and losing the subsequent play-off to Paul Lawrie.
The Masters last year, for example, issued an invitation to Zhang Lian-wei, making him the first Chinese player to appear at Augusta. There were clear commercial benefits in such a decision, although then club chairman Hootie Johnson did – with a smile on his face and to laughter from the assembled media, it has to be said – deny such a connection.
“We felt that it was good for the game of golf to extend a hand to the most populous nation in the world,” he said.
“He is a good golfer and we thought it was entirely appropriate.”
Asked as a follow-up if the decision had anything to do with selling television rights to China he replied: “No. I don’t talk about our business, but I’ll answer that question. No.”
The US Open, which limits their exemptions to past winners to 10 years rather than the “65 and under” category for the Open, has handed out wild cards to greats like Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Hale Irwin, but also to young Australian Aaron Baddeley after he won the Australian Open. Baddeley was also invited to Augusta.
Meanwhile, the PGA of America, which runs the final major of the season, asked Ian Woosnam if he wanted to play at Medinah last August because they also run the Ryder Cup and Woosnam was the European captain. He declined the invitation.
All the Open had to do then was say they were falling in line, but not having done it for Van de Velde it is hard to see them doing it any time in the foreseeable future.
Despite all the tests he has been having, including the scariest one yet this week to see if there might be a bone cancer causing his sickness for the last three months, Van de Velde said on Monday that he probably would have travelled to Carnoustie if a wild card had been offered.
“I’m pretty sure that I would have honoured the invite, because of all the memories that it brings back and everything.” he said.
“But saying that, would I have been able to compete? I would say that 99% the answer would be ‘No’.
“But as a sportsman, going there just for the sake of going there I have respect for the place and the tournament as well. And for all the people that are going to be there I would liked to have come.”
So the Open goes ahead without Van de Velde – he very much hopes to be back at Birkdale next July if he can qualify, of course – and it goes ahead too without another added ingredient.
The first is Seve Ballesteros, who could if he wanted go on playing in the event for another 15 years, but has announced his retirement from all golf following a sad decline over the last decade.
Choosing Carnoustie to announce his decision was fitting, he felt, because it was where he made his debut at the age of 18 in 1975. But many others will feel that Royal Lytham, where two of his three victories came, or the ‘Home of Golf’ St Andrews, scene of probably his greatest moment in 1984, would have had symmetry too.
Not playing one more time has, of course, prevented a fans’ farewell to the 50-year-old Spanish star, so loved over the years for the excitement he injected.
But they may have their chance yet. The 2010 Open at St Andrews will mark the 150th anniversary of the very first Championship and, remembering the popularity of the four-hole Champions Challenge held on the Old Course in 2000 early in Open week, perhaps it could be repeated.
The 88-year-old Sam Snead was among the 22 winners of the Claret Jug who competed in twos or threes seven years ago and what an ovation could be given in 2010 to Ballesteros if he was involved in some such competition.
This column by Mark Garrod, PA Sport’s Golf Correspondent
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