FULL TRANSCRIPT: Interview With Jean Van de Velde

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Below is a transcript of our interview with the golfer Jean Van de Velde, modified for your reading pleasure. Parts of this interview featured in the Freakonomics Radio episode “Why We Choke Under Pressure (and How Not To).”

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Jean VAN DE VELDE: Hello?

Stephen DUBNER: Yes, hello. Jean Van de Velde, this is Stephen Dubner, can you hear me?

VAN DE VELDE: Yes, Stephen, I can hear you. Hello.

DUBNER: Nice to meet you. How do you do?

VAN DE VELDE: I’m doing well, thank you.

DUBNER: I’m glad to hear it. So, if you would, begin by just introducing yourself, please say your name and what you do.

VAN DE VELDE: My name is Jean Van de Velde, I used to be a professional golfer, touring around, and now I do various things around golf, I do quite a bit of commentary as well, and I’m trying to enjoy life.

DUBNER: Now, I want to talk about the 1999 Open, obviously, but first, let’s talk about the Ryder Cup for a moment. You were, I believe, the first Frenchman ever to play in the Ryder Cup, and I understand you helped bring it to France this year, and I assume you’ll be announcing and perhaps involved. Can you talk just for a moment about what that means for you?

VAN DE VELDE: Well, it means the world, because as you know, for a professional golfer, put aside the major championships, I think, if you’re European or American, the pinnacle of any area is by playing in one of those teams. So, for me, coming from a country where, when I arrived in 1989 on the European tour, we were — it was three of us, to then winning on the European Tour, to being very close to win a major, to being the first Frenchman to participate in the Ryder Cup, it was personally a thrill. But it meant a lot, that a French player could do good things playing with a stick. So at the end of the day, to be asked, in 2000, to join the board of the Ryder Cup, and I represented the players, and I stayed there for about 15 years. I say that I’ve been to a lot of Ryder Cups, and it’s true that my biggest desire was to bring it to France. So, under the governing of a person called Pascal Grizot, I would say he was the mastermind behind bringing the Ryder Cup, he really believed we could do it. Well then, I helped as much as I could to make sure that we could secure it. So for us, to me, bringing it to France and seeing that golf is going to get recognition here in my country, is something that is of large importance.

DUBNER: Well, congratulations, and I can’t wait to watch, I hear the Golf National is a wonderful course, so I’m very excited. You would have been the first Frenchman to win the open, what we call the British Open, since 1907. First of all, before we get into the specifics of the 1999 Open — I’m curious, how does it feel to talk about it now? Is it difficult? Is it okay?

VAN DE VELDE: It’s never been difficult. From day one, from just after not winning the open, it was painful, for a while, but you’re a professional athlete.

DUBNER: So, in the interest of time, let me jump ahead a little bit. You stood on the 72nd tee of the tournament with a two-stroke lead, a double bogey would win it, a triple bogey would tie it. Talk about what it felt like physically standing there on that 72nd tee, and also emotionally.

VAN DE VELDE: Well, I’ll tell it again. At the time, I played the 72nd hole like I played any other hole on the golf course. People tell you, “Stay in the moment.” And you can do accordingly. So, I stood there pretty confident to be honest, 18 is one of the more difficult holes on the golf course without any doubt, because the hazard on the left, the hazard on the right.

DUBNER: And it’s long.

VAN DE VELDE: Huge bunkers on the right. And then you have the creek in front of you, out of bounds on the left. It’s a complicated hole. So, I thought, “You know what, play this hole the way it should be played, put the ball in play and then you’ll see from there, and off you go.” So I wasn’t overly emotional, or emotional at all. I was just really following my game plan and playing my game. People don’t realize that I had plenty of time to go blow the Open before. I was leading after 36 holes. So, of course you probably get a little tighter throughout the end, but I was playing, all 16 — 16 and 17 — but my nerves were holding pretty okay.

DUBNER: Carnoustie especially — Carnoustie is a wildly difficult course, and I believe that year, as you were leading, as you came into the final round with a big lead, I think Tiger Woods and others commented that no lead was really safe there. I’m curious what your sleep was like the night before.

VAN DE VELDE: If you look at it rationally, not too many players survived. So it would have been a lot harder to pick up, the difference being on Sunday that the weather was amazing, and then it becomes a little bit easier. The fact of the matter is, on Saturday night, you’re ahead — and that was not a situation I was accustomed to in a major championship. But I, having been in that position quite a few times, many times on the European tour, somehow, I did manage to calm myself down. Having said that, I didn’t sleep much. I wasn’t worried, I wasn’t anxious. I think I was just, you have so much adrenaline, it’s not even — I guess I was excited in a way, I wanted to play. I just wanted to get out there and make a shot.

DUBNER: Did you know what your lead was when you stood on the 72nd hole? I’ve read that there might have been some confusion about whether it was three or two.

VAN DE VELDE: Well, I don’t think there was any confusion. I think I was three ahead as I hit my stride. And Justin Leonard had finished before. So you know he was playing in the group ahead, he probably did as well, but I couldn’t see what he did — therefore, he made a 5, and then my lead changed from 2 to 3.

DUBNER: Right. Your drive was wide, but so wide that it was actually in a great place. Then you hit, I believe, a two iron — which, had there not been the grandstand there to the right of the green, would have landed in a perfectly fine place, roughly pin high. But instead it hit that rail on the grandstand, bounced onto the rock ledge of the burn, or the creek, as we call it, and then into knee-high deep rough. What was your response to seeing the result of that shot, which wasn’t that bad a shot. It was very well struck, obviously, so what was your response to that?

VAN DE VELDE: I could hear the noise, so I knew from there, I hit the grandstand. You know, this is something that has happened to, I believe, every golf player on the planet. Professional. So I thought, “Well, it must be in or somewhere,” and I knew that, looking at the golf course, that there was a dropping zone there for players whose balls end on the grandstand. It was very easy to pitch around. So the thing is, when I heard that noise, the crowd was very noisy, and then very emotional and making noise, and then again, “Wow.” So it was like, well, something has happened to the golf ball. As I arrived, I was like, “How can I be here?” Luckily it was explained that I hit the grandstand, and came back there. That was not the only thing. I hit the grandstand and then, as you say, the wall by the creek there. It’s unreal, it’s just unreal if you think about it.

DUBNER: And then you hit from the rough trying for the green, and instead into the burn, into the creek, then maybe one of the most famous T.V. moments in golf, we all watched you look down at the ball in the creek. It looked to be maybe above water, maybe below water. Then you got onto the wall and took off your socks and shoes and climbed down in there. And I’m just curious, I cannot begin to imagine what that feels like to be dealing with the difficulty of the play, the difficulty of the decision, but knowing also that the world is watching you in the most historic and famous golf tournament in history. What did that feel like to be debating whether to get the ball out of the water or not?

VAN DE VELDE: Well, I can tell you, as a player, as an athlete, you do not debate who’s watching what. You say, “Why can’t I do something here, in what conditions, what is it that I can play, to get me out of here and try to achieve what I’m trying to achieve?” So, the spectator does not interfere if you want to play a golf shot or not. So when you say accurately that I went on and on and looked at it, the ball was well above the water, only a third of the ball was underneath the water and it was lying on some type of sand. So, going out there, you can probably even blindfolded get it out of the water without any problem. And the problem was that a links course is by definition very close to the ocean. That one is particularly close, and the Barry Burn is — sea water drives through, for part of it, and goes out. And what I’m trying to say is that when the tides get up, it’s too close, and basically the ocean comes in, but the water goes back in the tide. And when it’s the low tide, there’s basically no water in the burn. And when I was going in there, the tide was out. Believe me when I say, it was going up quite rapidly, and within six minutes, I could definitely not get the ball anymore. It was way too hard.

DUBNER: Right. You then took a drop in, again, very deep rough, hit a pitch that was short of the green in the bunker. Your playing partner was in the same bunker, and holed out. If you had holed out from there, you still would have won the tournament. Tell me about your state of mind climbing into that bunker and what you were trying to accomplish with that bunker shot.

VAN DE VELDE: Well, I knew that I needed to hole it to win the tournament. So you know, you need to make up and down, basically, to make the playoff. The partner that I was playing with was just about three feet ahead of me. And I was getting ready, and I just had put my socks back on and my shoes back on, he said, “I’m going to get out of your way. You’re going to have a little more time.” Then I got in and I hit the shot that I need to win the tournament, and the percentage of chance that both of us end up in that position is very slim, I just couldn’t believe it. I mean, he hit it from where I need to hit it, exactly the shot I need to hit. I mean I was, “Anything else you want to tell me?”

DUBNER: So your chip out of the sand was a very good shot, almost went in, landed about six feet long. You sank the putt, which was not an easy putt, and then you looked — you gave a big fist pump and what looks to be a shout. What was your mental experience at that moment?

VAN DE VELDE: Well, I made it from 17, went to the hole, and the hole lasted almost 45 minutes. And it was a long time, a long delay. So the voice in your head, I don’t think that many people would have said that I was going to make that putt. You know, I probably thought that chances were not on my side. And I made it — and at that time — understand that whether I made mistakes, you can always debate, should I have played the tee shot, should I have played the second, forget about this. At the moment I made the putt, you gotta be thinking, “Well, you stand a big chance of winning the tournament,” because basically one of the three makes the best for the four days. And it was an important moment. I was on a big chance of winning, like the other two.

DUBNER: You ended up losing three way playoff. Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie. You became famous for not having won the Open, your 72nd hole has been called the worst choke in golfing history. Do you think that’s true or fair?

VAN DE VELDE: I think we need to ask the definition of choke. If you’re hitting a shot down the right side, and hitting the grandstand was, as I said, about three acres of land there. I exaggerate, but there was plenty of room. Any other given day, oh that’s just crazy, did I hit it straight left out of bounds? Did I have time to choke, when I arrived on the 72nd hole? Well, I think I had two days to choke. So, I think as I said, there’s one shot that I would play again, and that would be my third one, not the second, but the third one. Can you say that’s choking? No, I would say that’s — when I was facing that challenge, because it crossed my mind to hit it sideways instead of trying to get over the Burn. That could be a choke there. You know, I would say, yeah, I did what I could. Without any doubt. So a choke? You know, I wouldn’t call that a choke, without a doubt. I would probably use a different word, but certainly not that one.

DUBNER: So, you’ve said in the past that you played that hole the way you wanted to play that hole, and that you made the right decisions with the right clubs, and the right shots, and that basically the outcome was poor. And yet you’ve gone down in golfing history as, like I said, being responsible for this big choke, which you dispute, and I totally understand that. I’m just curious — it may be very, very hard to summarize in just a few moments — but, how did that one hole change your future?

VAN DE VELDE: It gave me really — how should I say — it gave the confirmation, a belief, a validation of my belief, that I could compete and win a biggest tournament around the world. But — I mean, coming back from what you said, I think people reacted to me the way they did not because it’s the biggest choke or the biggest whatever you want to call it, but because of the way that I reacted, after that. I always say, to some people, it’s very easy to win with grace, it’s a lot harder to lose with it. And without patronizing anybody or blowing my own trumpet, I would say that the way that I see life, and the way that I’ve accepted what happened, and the way that I explained it, vocalized it, and lived with it, I believe that that’s what people like, the way I reacted through the public. What I do, it’s in my nature to see it the way that I see it and that’s the end of that. I do believe that a lot of people playing golf are working hard to explain circumstances as well, and they can all commiserate to what has happened to me on the golf course.

DUBNER: I understand you have four children? Are any of them competitive athletes?

VAN DE VELDE: Well, the two oldest ones are both amazing, and they love sports. My second girl is a four handicap in golf. And my boy is, the little one, soon to be 10, he’s very competitive. He loves sports, he likes tennis. That’s very happy. So yeah, competitive, they certainly are.

DUBNER: And I’m curious if when they come to you or have come to you in the past to talk about your career, how do you talk about that Open with them? What do you talk about having learned from that experience?

VAN DE VELDE: Well, I talk about a lot of things, and with the Open aside, I always try to encourage them in trying to find their way, trying to find something that they will love to do with passion, and do it with them, and invest everything that you have into doing that. I don’t care what it is at the end of the day, because if you somehow are very privileged, and I count myself, we are very privileged, to make a living out of my passion. You know, if anybody can achieve that, I definitely did, that’s what they should do. Anytime good fortune, bad fortune, and reward or no reward, I do believe that the best thing you can do is with 100 percent of what you have. And you have to take the reward and the trophies, and sometimes the tears. That’s part of it.

DUBNER: One last question, and this is an important one. What’s your prediction for the 2018 Ryder Cup, in France? Europe or America? And give me one European player that you think will not necessarily outshine the rest, but maybe surprise us all. Will it be Victor Dubuisson, perhaps, or Alexander Levy? Will it be one of the Frenchmen?

VAN DE VELDE: Well, I have bad news for you, I broke my crystal ball this morning, when I was polishing it, of who’s going to win the Ryder Cup. And my heart’s going to tell you that Europe is going to win. Very easily, it’s going to be a very, very good contest. Very difficult contest. But on the European side, of course I’d be happy if it were a Frenchman, or two Frenchmen, or three Frenchmen. Of course the likes of Dubuisson and Levy definitely have a great potential, as we’ve seen, and great experience as well. But you can count in mind any of the young guys could eventually win a tournament or two tournaments, and all of a sudden win the Ryder Cup. The ones who are really going to inspire the team, I think there’s going to be a lot of — pairings are going to be important. And individuality, you can’t take away the fact that a person like Jon Rahm could be a big part, a big factor in that team. As McIlroy, and Sergio Garcia, to that effect. Sergio has a lot of experience now. Eight Ryder Cups, or nine? Which means that he’s still very young, but he’s a natural leader, to that effect. So I certainly hope players like him are going to have the role and responsibility of playing, but as well as leading the team through the locker room and through the process.

DUBNER: I can’t wait. So let me just say, bon chance in the Ryder Cup and merci beaucoup for today. Thank you very much.

VAN DE VELDE: Merci a vous. Merci beaucoup. A bientot.

DUBNER: A bientot.