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Fly the Flag For France

After the French Open, can Levet win the Open

Posted Jul 05, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

levet 2

Here’s an interesting offering for your pub quiz.  When the Open Championship had its last staging at Muirfield in 2002, three other contestants battled with the eventual winner, Ernie Els, in a play-off for the title.  Name them.  Clue: One of them won the French Open last Sunday.

The three players who were eventually tied second behind Els on that occasion were Thomas Levet, Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby.  But it was the Frenchman who came closest to beating the South African for the title, given that he and Els were still tied when scores were totted in the regulation, four-hole play-off.

Off they went once more down the 449-yard 18th which is widely regarded as one of golf’s great finishing holes.  As the fairway reaches its narrowest point, two bunkers cut into it on the left.  But sand also beckons down the right.  Then there is the prevailing wind from the right to enhance the difficulty after which an accurate approach has to be hit to the long, rising green, deeply bunkered on both sides.

As it happened, Levet’s over-ambitious driver off the tee duly found sand, while Els kept his ball safely in play with a long-iron.  With the Frenchman virtually guaranteed a bogey from fairway sand, Els managed to avoid the same penalty after his approach found one of the greenside traps.  Delightful precision saw him knock his recovery out to three feet and he went on to sink the putt for what proved to be a winning par.

So it was that for a second time in four years, A Frenchman had, most improbably, made the ultimate shake-up for possession of the old claret jug.  Indeed while Levet was making a more orthodox challenge, memories remained fresh of the theatrics of compatriot Jean Van de Velde at Carnoustie in 1999, when his brain became so addled by the heat of combat, that he imagined himself playing a recovery shot from the waters of the Barry Burn, sans socks and golf shoes.

For the most part, however, Frenchmen seem to have a habit of challenging quietly for golf’s big prizes.  For instance, Gregory Havret remained very much under the radar at Pebble Beach last year when a splendid 36 holes in 141 strokes at the weekend, got him within a stroke of the winning total for the US Open, eventually posted by Graeme McDowell.

When Van de Velde was doing his thing, commentators found themselves mouthing the name of Arnaud Massy for the first time.  As a splendid trailblazer for his country’s current crop of professionals, he won the French Open on four occasions between 1906 and 1925, and was also runner-up three times.  But his greatest achievement was in becoming the first non-Briton to win the Open Championship, which he did at Hoylake in 1907.

In fact Massy stood supreme as the only Continental European winner of the coveted Claret Jug until 1979 AT Royal Lytham, where Seve Ballesteros registered the first of his three Open victorious. And those who might be tempted to dismiss Massy’s effort as a flash in j’pan, would do well to note that he had finished fifth in 1905 at St Andrews and was sixth at Muirfield in 1906.  Later, in 1911, he tied with no less a rival than Harry Vardon at Royal St George’s, where the Open returns next week.

The play-off, comprising strokes over 36 holes, proved to quite unusual for the fact that the Frenchman conceded the title to Vardon after 35 holes, by which stage he had taken 148 strokes to his opponent’s 143.  And a further measure of Massy’s competitive qualities is that shortly after his return home, he won the French Open for a third time, finishing seven strokes ahead of Ted Ray and no fewer than nine ahead of Vardon.  His status as a national hero was further enhanced by being wounded in action at Verdun during World War I.

Perhaps Levet will fly the tricolor once more during next week’s Open over the dunes of Sandwich.  Or Havret might claim the limelight by recapturing his form of Pebble Beach.   In either case, we can assume that a reference to Arnaud Massy will promptly leap from the commentator’s notes.       

- Dermot Gilleece

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