Just because someone might not win a Major doesn’t make them a loser.
Little known fact: France is a bigger golf-playing country than South Africa, despite the latter being twice as big geographically. In terms of numbers, France (pop: 67m) has 400 000 registered golfers, compared to 140 000 in South Africa (pop: 56m). France also has more golf courses, around 500 to South Africa’s 450.
So why has it been 112 years since France produced its one and only men’s Major golf champion? Golf is hardly a minority sport in that sports-mad nation, one that hosted last year’s Ryder Cup outside Paris, with a sporting pedigree that sees them being the reigning football World Cup champions, hosts of the most famous cycling event in the world and annual hosts of tennis’ French Open, a code in which they were Davis Cup champions as recently as 2017.
South Africa punches well above its weight when it comes to golf, with 22 Major titles over the years placing them fourth behind only the US, Scotland and England, and 21 ahead of France.
Why am I talking about France? The thought was triggered while watching the Netflix documentary series called Losers, which tackles the myth that ‘winning is everything’ and ‘second place is first loser’. Of the eight 30-minute documentaries, one is dedicated to Jean van de Velde and retraces that Sunday 20 years ago when the Frenchman arrived on the final tee at Carnoustie with a three-shot lead at The Open Championship.
We all know Van de Velde went into meltdown, needing only a double-bogey six to lift the Claret Jug. He pulled driver from his bag – as he’d done all tournament – and hit it long, but wayward. A 2-iron from there cannoned off the grandstand railing, hit the stone wall of the Barry Burn and landed in thick rough. His third shot flopped into the Burn. After rolling up his trousers and thinking about playing the submerged ball, he took a drop. His fifth found the bunker and he splashed out to within six feet of the hole and made the putt, for a seven, which put him into a playoff.
But the 152nd-ranked Frenchman’s goose was cooked and he went into history as the man who blew The Open.
Ironically, such was the interest in France – and the sheer heartbreak and drama of events at the 72nd hole – that Van de Velde’s misery sparked a huge spike in people wanting to take up the game. Now 52, he retired in 2008 as a two-time European Tour winner. And he has made peace with blowing his opportunity back in 1999.
They say that in life you have to learn how to lose before you learn how to win, and these days the Frenchman is a contented happy man. His claim to fame is not that he won The Open, but that he lost it and it made him stronger.
Given that France has more golfers and more golf courses than South Africa, it’s surprising that Arnaud Massy remains the only Frenchman to win a Major, the 1907 Open at Royal Liverpool. They only have one player in the men’s top 100 – Alexander Levy, who was hovering at No 96 in mid-March.
Or maybe it’s surprising that South Africa has produced so many Major champions: Bobby Locke, Gary Player, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Trevor Immelman, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel. It could be said this country ‘punches well above its weight’ when it comes to golf – but that success is down not only to the golfer, but also a thriving amateur conveyor belt, top courses, climate, good coaches and caddies, and a public that understands how tough it is to win a Major and one that always gets behind its golfing heroes, win or ‘lose’.
South Africa will probably produce another Major champion before France does, but just because someone might not win a Major doesn’t make them a loser. Just ask Jean van de Velde, who helped grow the game in his country more than a victory 20 years ago would have. It just goes to show how good South Africa’s golfers have been over
the years, and still are.
– Lemke writes a monthly column for Compleat Golfer