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.