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Van de Velde finally on way back from injury

Jean Van de Velde will always be remembered as the guy who took his shoes off on the 72nd hole at the 1999 British Open, blew a three-stroke lead and lost the subsequent three-man playoff at Carnoustie to Paul Lawrie.

But since that disasterous battle, the 37-year-old Frenchman, playing in the Australian PGA tournament this week, has been engaged in an even tougher fight.

Van der Velde has hardly been near a golf course for the past 18 months while he tries to overcome a debilitating knee ailment that threatens to end his career.

For seven years before he had surgery in September 2002, Van de Velde played with recurring right knee trouble because of a 1995 ski injury. But 10 months after the operation, he was still in pain and he knew that ``something was not normal.''

Van de Velde was diagnosed with Cyclops Syndrome, a complication that prevented the knee reconstruction from healing properly. Surgeons operated again in October and his first tournament back was at last week's Hong Kong Open, where he shot 73-74 and missed the cut.

This week, he opened with rounds of 69-69 and was in no danger of missing weekend play at the Australian PGA.

He is playing by invitation here and on a medical exemption for the opening six European Tour events of 2004, including the Heineken Classic at Royal Melbourne in February.

It's been a tough road back.

``Not to be too dramatic, when time goes on, you get six months, eight months, 12 months, 15 months, you wonder if you are ever going to be able to compete again,'' Van de Velde said Friday. ``So I'm just happy to be here.''

``I would try to walk 18 holes, but after nine I could have cried with the pain. But I still have plenty of golf inside me. I want the taste of tournament golf and want to compete again.''

His ambitions for a major win unraveled spectacularly on the 18th hole at Carnoustie four years ago. Hitting into the Barry Burn, he famously removed his shoes and socks to hit his ball out of ankle-height water.

He needed a six-foot put for triple bogey that put him into the playoff with Justin Leonard and eventual winner Lawrie.

``The Open left me scarred inside because how many times in a lifetime will you have an opportunity like that?'' Van de Velde said. ``I really believe I tried the best I could and I don't owe any excuses. My job is to hit a ball with a piece of metal -- you have to keep it in perspective.''

The injury and long layoff hasn't dulled Van de Velde's self-deprecating nature. On arrival at the water-laced Hyatt Regency resort course earlier this week, Van de Velde told tournament officials he was ``freaked out.''

``Why didn't you tell me about all this water on the golf course,'' said Van de Velde. ``Didn't you know I'm aquaphobic?''

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