Winning a major championship is something that changes anybody’s life. It’s an accomplishment that will always precede a player being introduced wherever they compete – no matter the circumstances in which the victory was achieved.
For many years, that recognition was a source of frustration for Scotland’s Paul Lawrie. The 1999 British Open champion, who turned 50 on Jan. 1 and will make his U.S. Senior Open debut at the Warren Course at Notre Dame this week, shot a final-round 67 at Carnoustie Golf Links 20 years ago. But that is not what most people remember.
After finishing his round, Lawrie watched as France’s Jean Van de Velde made a triple-bogey 7 on the 72nd hole to cough up his lead and force a playoff between himself, Lawrie and Justin Leonard. Lawrie would go on to win the playoff and forever earn a place in history as a major champion, but to many, the win had more to do with Van de Velde’s blunder than the Scot’s sharp play down the stretch. It was something Lawrie heard often, and it took a good portion of his career to put it in the proper context.
“I was quite bitter about the way that people saw it. I didn’t like that I didn’t get much credit for it, and all I read about was how Jean threw it away, but I got my opportunity and I took it,” said Lawrie. “I played some fantastic golf when I got the opportunity. I did everything right in the playoff. And all I read about was how Van de Velde collapsed. It’s better headlines than it is to say how well I did. I get that now. I didn’t get that back then.”
An eight-time winner on the PGA European Tour, the negativity that Lawrie faced in some circles from his stunning turn at Carnoustie didn’t noticeably impact his play. He remained a consistent factor on tour, but went through a near nine-year victory drought before a resurgence in his early 40s put him in the winner’s circle three times in 2011 and 2012.
His hot stretch earned him a spot on the 2012 European Ryder Cup team, which, along with his major title in 1999, earned him a spot in the U.S. Senior Open this week, and he’s trying to make the most of it. Still exempt on the European Tour, Lawrie, who has for several years struggled with injuries that included a ruptured tendon and torn ligament in his left foot and a herniated disk in his back, is readying himself to compete more frequently in the United States.
In order to do that, though, he’ll need to earn status, of which he has none. Playing on sponsors’ exemptions, Lawrie has made three starts in the U.S. in 2019, his best finish being a T-21 in the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship last month. After the U.S. Senior Open, the only event on his schedule that counts on the PGA Tour Champions is the Senior British Open, at England’s Royal Lytham and St. Annes in late July, with the Open Championship at Royal Portrush and the Scottish Open in between.
His game isn’t exactly where it needs to be yet, but Lawrie is encouraged with his progress.
“I had two years where I didn’t play much at all, so it was a real struggle. Now I feel as though I can play a proper schedule and get going,” said Lawrie. “I can play at least. I’m not playing great, I’m nowhere near where I want to be, but I’m getting there, I’m getting better every week. If the opportunity arises, I’ll be ready [to try and win]. I would be surprised, but you don’t know.”
In addition to the three PGA Tour Champions events, Lawrie has also played in two events with his fellow 50-and-over competitors on the Staysure Tour, the senior circuit in Europe, including the Senior Open Hauts de France by Jean Van de Velde. Surprised by the name of the host? You shouldn’t be. The two players, who will forever be linked in golf history, were friends before that fateful day 20 years ago at Carnoustie, and grew even closer over the years.
“The good thing about the whole thing is that he and I have become pretty close from it, I think that’s pretty cool. He’s a good lad, I like him a lot. He’s got a lot of class, and I like spending time with him,” said Lawrie. “People build up this thing that he and I had a problem, which just came from nothing. It was just natural for people to think that, I suppose, with all that unfolded.”
Lawrie has a big event planned to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his memorable victory. A pro-am will be held at Carnoustie next month to benefit the Paul Lawrie Foundation, which works to provide opportunities for junior golfers, and the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre.
It’s one big indicator that Lawrie has come to embrace his place in golf history, regardless of what his detractors might say. His years in the game have certainly helped him find the proper perspective.
“I think when I got back onto the Ryder Cup team in 2012, a lot of people kind of cut me some slack. I think a lot of people said, alright, fair enough, you didn’t just get handed the Open, you obviously can play, which is amazing that it took people that long, but that’s just how some people are. I’m talking about a very small number of people,” said Lawrie. “I feel great about it. I know that my name’s on [the Claret Jug], I know my name’s not coming off. I feel as though I’m an Open champion, and that’s all that matters.”
Scott Lipsky is the senior manager of digital media for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.