Tag Archives: Carnoustie

Carnoustie Follies

As I’ve grown older, the Open Championship has become my favorite tournament of the professional golf season, in part because of my familiarity with the Scottish venues (I’ve managed to play all of them) but also for the unpredictability of the outcome. I think no course better exemplifies that latter than Carnoustie. Tom Doak, the noted course designer and architectural critic, says, “It’s not that Carnoustie is unfair; it’s just that it’s depressingly efficient at pointing out the flaws in one’s game.”

 

There’s little charm to the town itself (which is not the easiest to access), and the course lacks the scenic beauty of Turnberry or the anticipation of the return back to town that St Andrews features. On the other hand, there’s enough variation to the routing to present the golfer with different challenges in dealing with the wind, and the finishing holes are without question the hardest of any major championship track.

 

My experience and thoughts about Carnoustie are decidedly mixed. The round I played there was a combination of heroic shots and slapstick error – I shot 94 while making 11 on the famed par 5 6th (known as “Hogan’s Alley”), a 9 on the 10th hole, and split a freshly-bought pair of Scottish pants up the seam of my thigh, inspiring one of my playing partners to call me “Breezy.”

 

On the other hand, thanks to the hard surface and a stiff helping wind, I managed a 300 yard drive on 7 and made par on all of the three shot holes, including a near miss for birdie on the brutish 16th, a hole that played that day at 225 yards into the same wind that produced my prodigious drive on 7. I said to my caddie, “This is driver, right?” He responded, “Hopefully.” As it turned out, I made such solid contact that I thought the ball might fly over the green. The wind knocked it down, and the shot landed as softly as a well-struck pitching wedge might have about 15 feet away from the hole.

 

I should also add that I did manage to avoid Jean Van de Velde’s disaster of 1999 by heeding my caddie’s advice and carding a safe bogey 5.

 

And the course staff was genuinely welcoming and accommodating.

 

I left Carnoustie grateful both of having had the fortune to play it and for not having to tee it up there again. On further reflection, I think the latter thought was a bit harsh. I’ve spoken with several friends of varying degrees of skill who absolutely loved playing there. Maybe a warmer day and an intact pair of trousers would influence my own thoughts about the place.

 

All that not withstanding . . . I rank Carnoustie as my second favorite Open venue, behind St Andrews and just a smidge ahead of Muirfield. Aside from the 1999 setup, (in which the then-greenskeeper ran amok, allowing the heather to grow almost waist high and narrowing some fairways to a ludicrous width of 15 yards), it doesn’t require any tricking up to present a tough, fair challenge to the world’s best golfers.

Winning scores there have ranged from +8 to -7.

 

Unlike the USGA, the R&A doesn’t insist on certain course conditions to conduct its championship (a quick aside – what the USGA has done to Shinnecock Hills the last two time the US Open was conducted there should be grounds for criminal charges). Most of the courses in in the rota will only irrigate tee boxes and greens, giving the rest of the land a baked brown look that doesn’t come across particularly well on television and leaves many US viewers who are used to green, tree-lined courses with pristine conditions shaking their heads.

 

Links golf is a different game. One must contend with gusty winds and penal bunkers (not to mention the occasional monsoon-like shower), and be willing to use the ground to bounce shots on to the green instead of flying the ball to the hole. Some golfers simply can’t adjust their games to this kind of environment. Those who are will to do so wind up embracing it – the most famous example being Tom Watson, who arrived at Carnoustie in 1975 not knowing what to expect and would wind up winning the Open that year and four more times afterwards. He damned near won it at the age of 59 in 2009.

 

I’ve made the trip to Scotland four times and, who knows, there could be a fifth visit in the future. And if there is, I think I’ll give Carnoustie another go. Hogan’s Alley owes me one.

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You Always Hurt the One You Love

I recently had a chat with an old golfing buddy of mine, a retired three-star general who has seen service in Vietnam and later was on NATO’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (his nickname, not surprisingly, is “The General” – sometimes it’s just best to go with the obvious). The General is a very good golfer; his handicap is typically in the single digits and though well into his 60’s, still has plenty of length off the tee. We were commiserating over my recent putting escapade; he commented, “Some game we love, isn’t it? Glad I made a living doing something else.”

I made a joking response – “Yeah – combat had to be easier.”

He responded, “More predictable.”

While to the undying gratitude of a nation, I’ve never seen combat duty (or wore a military uniform), but I have to think he’s right. How else can one explain the great drive that precedes the chunked approach shot; the nifty birdie followed by a double bogey (fondly referred to by golfers as PBFU – “Post Birdie F*ck Up”); the solid front 9 backed up by a horrendous backside; the 75 on Saturday that becomes a 90 on Sunday? Hell, even at his most dominant, Tiger Woods won slightly more than 20% of the tournaments he entered, which in any other sporting endeavor would have him seeking other employment.

Yes, General, this is indeed some game we love. I think about the 1999 Open Championship, when after playing 71 holes in brilliant fashion at Carnoustie (an already difficult track rendered nearly unplayable thanks to a sadistic course superintendent who had narrowed some fairways to a ridiculous 12 yards in width), Jean Van de Velde came to the final hole needing only a double bogey 6 to capture the Claret Jug. Instead, he butchered the hole so badly that he actually waded into the Barry Burn (a narrow creek that is brilliantly leveraged throughout the course to wreak havoc) to contemplate hitting a shot, at which point Curtis Strange, commentating for ABC, proclaimed, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen on a golf course.” Ultimately, Van de Velde took his drop from the creek, pitched on, and made an 8 foot putt for a triple bogey 7 to put him in a three-way playoff, ultimately losing to Paul Lawrie. If I were Van de Velde, I certainly would have been considering a change of occupation at that point.

I had my own adventure at Carnoustie a few years back. It’s certainly not my favorite place in Scotland. The town, which is not particularly charming, is hard to reach, and the course itself is  perhaps the least scenic of all of the noteworthy Scottish links. Noted course designer Tom Doak describes it thusly: “It’s not that Carnoustie is unfair; it is just depressingly efficient at exposing the flaws in one’s game.”

To be fair, several of my golf acquaintances have told me they love the course, usually because either they shot an exceptional score when they played it, or because they bested Van de Velde’s final hole 7 on the 18th. I can proudly raise my hand to the latter, having lipped out a 6-footer for par to cap off an infuriating round of golf.

I made 8 pars during my round at Carnoustie, which under normal circumstances would have had me tracking towards a score in the mid-80’s, which on a course of that caliber would have been a quite satisfying score. That was not to be the case for yours truly.

After a start of three bogeys and two pars, our group came to the par 5 6th hole. There are three fairway pot bunkers strategically placed in the fairway. The golfer can either play to the right of the bunkers, which lengthens the hole considerably, or shoot through a narrow gap between the bunkers and the out of bounds markers that constitute the left boundary of the fairway. In 1953, Ben Hogan took the latter path successfully in all four rounds en route to his only Open Championship win; this hole was henceforth referred to as “Hogan’s Alley.”

Naturally, we all wanted to take the aggressive route through Hogan’s Alley. It was my misfortune to find one of the fairway bunkers, and was forced to play out sideways. I extricated myself successfully – but to my horror, the ball rolled merrily through the “alley” and out of bounds – which meant replaying the shot, with penalty, from the same bunker. I again got the ball out; this time keeping it in play – but now lying 4 with a good 250 yards remaining to the green. Three shots later, I arrived there, but I somehow managed to putt off the green and into a bunker.  Another three shots later, I was in the hole, carding a rather impressive 11 shots for the hole.

Amazingly, this was not the most embarrassing moment of the round for me.

Earlier in the day, a few of us were walking through St Andrews. I spotted a really cool pair of plaid pants in a shop there (my friend Ben had previously bought a pair during the trip, and I felt the need to do some styling of my own) and decided they would be the perfect sartorial statement for Carnoustie.

So . . . returning now to our hero’s travails . . . after the disaster at Hogan’s Alley, I recovered nicely with a par on the 7th (a combination of a helping wind, a sweeping right to left hook, and a severe case of red-ass produced my longest drive of the day, and indeed the entire trip) and a respectable bogey on the difficult 8th hole.

Unfortunately, the 9th was not so kind to me, and I wound up making double-bogey. While reaching into the hole to retrieve my ball after holing out, I heard a tearing sound. My new pants neatly split along the inseam of my right leg, encompassing the entire length of my thigh. This, of course, was the source of much merriment among my friends, although I was not particularly amused.

Fuming, I hacked my way to make a 9 on the next hole, and declared my disgust for Carnoustie, the game of golf, and mankind in general.

And then proceeded to par 4 of the next 6 holes. Yes, General, this is some game we love.