I live just 15 miles from Carnoustie Golf Links, home to this year’s Open championship, but rarely play there. I am not a masochist.
From your opening drive – slightly uphill, to a fairway sloping left-to-right, designed, it seems, to guide your ball inexorably into a nasty pot bunker, you have no doubt that this is a stern test. As for ‘stern’, read ‘damned nigh impossible’. Furthermore you can’t bail out left because of a burn (stream) running up that side of the hole. You then have a blind second shot to a green that sits in a deep dell. On top of that, this is one of the easiest holes on the course.
With Carnoustie, however, ‘easy’ is always a relative term. By general consent the fourth hole, a straightforward par four that curves gently left-to-right, is the only one where you can take a mental breather. The challenge is such that Nick Faldo once said that whenever he plays there he has a headache by the time he reaches the 15th because he has been concentrating so hard.
However, unlike many Open venues (especially St Andrews); with the exception of that pot bunker on the first, there are no hidden dangers. When you stand on any of the tees the challenge is set out clearly in front of you, the question is, are you good enough to meet it and in my case the answer is invariably ‘No’.
This is why Carnoustie is the toughest challenge in championship golf. And although the layout in its entirety offers a stern examination paper, the hardest questions come at the end. The last three holes are renowned but a few weeks ago The ClubHouse asked Padraig Harrington, who won here in 2007, if that brutal finish should also include the 15th.
‘Absolutely it should,’ he said. ‘You have just got through 14, your last birdie chance, which gives added pressure to the closing holes. If you lay back from the bunkers you put big pressure on yourself for your second shot [a feature of many Carnoustie holes] because you are hitting your next with a long club. Furthermore, you have that nasty right-hand bunker that actually eats away into the front of the green and which have to be flown.’
Padraig went on to add that he believes the 18th – scene of Jean van de Velde’s meltdown in 1999 – to be the most challenging closing hole in all of golf, and he should know. En route to that 2007 victory he twice hit into a burn; once from his drive and again on his approach, before making a heck of a putt to score the six that put him into a playoff with Sergio Garcia.
Garcia has particular cause to have the word ‘Carnoustie’ burned onto his heart with a branding iron because, in addition to that devastating playoff loss, he is well-remembered for his first Open as a professional, the 1999 championship. Aged 19, he finished dead last of those who completed two rounds, having shot 89 and 83, and immediately fell, crying, into the arms of his mother. I know how he felt.
That championship was renowned for the near-impossibility of escaping from its thick, deep rough, created by unusual weather conditions of warm early season sunshine followed by heavy rain. This was exacerbated by the rough’s proximity to narrow fairways, with virtually no semi in which the ball might settle before reaching the long stuff. And while I don’t wasn’t to alarm this year’s competitors, in Scotland so far we have had unusually warm early season sunshine. Heavy rain in this part of the world is not entirely unexpected.
Several records were set in 1999 that we hope won’t be bettered. For example, Australian Rod Pampling grabbed his own share of Open history be being the only man to lead after the first round (71) and miss the cut after a second day 86. And the winning score of six-over par was the highest in 52 years.
What can also be overlooked is that Van de Velde was extremely unlucky on the 72nd hole, when his approach shot hit a tiny projection on a spectator stand and rebounded back into thick rough. However, by making up 10 strokes on the last day, and playing a superlative four-hole play-off in which he birdied the last two holes, Paul Lawrie became a worthy champion.
He was preceded by some of the greatest names in golf. Tommy Armour started it in 1931 and he was followed by Ben Hogan (1953), Gary Player (1968), Tom Watson (1975) and most recently, Padraig Harrington in 2007. It’s not a bad roll call of winners.
However, the name that rightly stands out is that of Hogan. In 1953 he came to Britain for the only time, rightly believing that he could not be regarded as one of the game’s legends without a claret jug to his name. His reputation as the purest ball-striker ever seen was sealed by the way he played the 6th, now named in his honour as Hogan’s Alley.
From the tee a trio of bunkers in a diagonal line left-to-right are the obvious problem. Due to the strip of fairway to their left is so narrow, and bounded by out-of-of-bounds, conventional thinking has it that, in a favourable wind the pros try and fly the left-hand bunker, otherwise they lay up, as it’s a par five. Hogan demonstrated his nerve and ball control by aiming for the narrow strip of fairway, flirting with disaster, and found it in all four rounds.
To give an understanding of this, in 2007 on one of the practice days I asked a marshal on the hole if anyone had tried flying the bunkers. ‘Only one, Phil Mickelson’, he replied. ‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘He was in the sand three times before he gave up.’
Let us hope that he, and the rest of this year’s field, has better luck. They’re going to need it. ⦿
Martin Vousden is an experienced golf writer and editor based in Scotland, near Carnoustie. A respected member of the Association of Golf Writers, he has served as The ClubHouse’s UK correspondent and columnist since 2012.