I PLAYED in my first Open Cham­pi­onship at Carnoustie in 1999. I was pretty ex­cited. I had failed to qual­ify a cou­ple of times while I was still an am­a­teur, so it was spe­cial for me to make my Open de­but dur­ing my first year as a pro­fes­sional. I had per­formed re­ally well in the qual­i­fy­ing and was re­ally look­ing for­ward to play­ing a course I had been to and re­ally en­joyed a cou­ple of times be­fore.

Sadly, that feel­ing didn’t last. It ended up be­ing – still – one of the most dis­ap­point­ing weeks I’ve had in my ca­reer. And it re­mains, by a dis­tance, my least favourite Open. Only a cou­ple of holes into my first prac­tice round, I sensed some­thing was wrong. I’d seen enough Opens on tele­vi­sion over the years to know the course set-up was far from nor­mal. There was rough ev­ery­where.

When I got to the fa­mous par-5 6th – known as Hogan’s Al­ley – I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. (In pass­ing, I find it hard to be­lieve Ben Hogan ever drove be­tween the out-of-bounds fence and the bunker. Too much risk). The area we were be­ing asked to lay-up into wasn’t much more than an arm-span in width. Maybe ten yards. And on both sides of those ten yards it was a lost ball, the grass was so long and thick.

The whole thing was so dis­cour­ag­ing. I shot 81-78 and only missed the cut by five shots. I was far from alone in strug­gling. Ser­gio Gar­cia left the course in tears. He had just won the Ir­ish Open and he shot 89-83. Seve Balles­teros also didn’t break 80 in ei­ther round. Nei­ther did Sandy Lyle. Nick Faldo (78-79) wasn’t much bet­ter. Nor was Tom Wat­son (82-73). My fel­low Aussie, Rod Pam­pling, got round in 71 on the open­ing day and led the field. Then he shot 86 and failed to qual­ify for the week­end. Amaz­ing stuff.

Thank­fully, I can’t re­mem­ber too many spe­cific shots from that week. But I do re­call be­ing in the rough and not even think­ing about where the green was. My only con­cern was find­ing the short­est route be­tween my ball and the fair­way. Two yards was prob­a­bly doable. Ten yards was no cer­tainty. Some­times I was just try­ing to move my ball into the least amount of rough so that I might have a chance with the next shot. It was car­nage and, it al­most doesn’t need to be said, hardly the best way to iden­tify the best play­ers.

All in all, I quickly re­alised that scor­ing well wasn’t go­ing to have much to do with how I played. I would have to get lucky and change my mind-set com­pletely. But it isn’t easy to ad­just from try­ing to shoot un­der-par to think­ing 78 is a good score.

The most an­noy­ing as­pect of the whole week was that Carnoustie is a fan­tas­tic course. But it was too nar­row. And the rough – although not that long by links stan­dards – was thick and dark green. It was US Open rough but 12-inches high, or six inches longer

than even the USGA likes to see for its cham­pi­onship. It was ba­si­cally im­pos­si­ble.

The last­ing mem­ory of the event for ev­ery golf fan is, of course, what hap­pened to Jean Van de Velde on the fi­nal hole. Need­ing only a dou­ble-bo­gey to win, he made a triple and lost the play-off to Paul Lawrie. But what went on was so ap­pro­pri­ate. It was al­ways go­ing to end up with some­thing stupid. If you want to sum up the whole week, all you have to do is watch Jean play that hole.

Any­way, eight years later I was back and in a whole dif­fer­ent frame of mind. I had won the US Open the year be­fore and think­ing I could win more ma­jors. I didn’t play well though. I was spray­ing the ball too much off the tee to do that. But that fact was all my fault. It had noth­ing to do with the course. The Carnoustie I played that week is ba­si­cally how Carnoustie should be. The rough was cer­tainly a lot more playable.

The great thing about Carnoustie is that you change di­rec­tion con­stantly. That is al­ways chal­leng­ing on a links. I love the Old Course at St. An­drews, but it can get a bit te­dious play­ing out in a con­stant left-to-right wind for two hours, then turn­ing and play­ing for an­other two hours in a right-to-left breeze. You wouldn’t build the Old Course that way if you didn’t have to.

Carnoustie isn’t like that though. It is – along with Muir­field – the best ball-strik­ing test on the Open rota. You can see the trou­ble. You know the shot you have to hit. You just have to sum­mon up the guts to hit it. You just have to do it, which is, I think, why the ul­ti­mate shot-maker, Hogan, did so well there dur­ing his only Open in 1953.

No one ever de­scribes Carnoustie as “pretty.” But it ticks all the boxes. And it asks all the ques­tions. It has the rail­way line run­ning be­hind the 9th green and along­side the 10th fair­way. (A links isn’t a real links with­out a train). It has some blind shots, most mem­o­rably over the “Spec­ta­cle” bunkers at the par-5 14th. And it builds right from the 1st hole, which is pretty straight­for­ward, to an amaz­ing fin­ish.

The last six holes are uni­ver­sally bril­liant. The par-3 13th is a lit­tle beauty. And the Spec­ta­cles is a gen­uinely great hole. No one likes blind shots but that one is thrilling and so much fun to hit. The 15th is one of the best par-4s on the course. The 16th might be the best long par-3 in the world. The 17th is weird but good. The ap­proach to that green is won­der­ful.

Then there is the 18th. In truth, it is way too hard. But, like the Road Hole on the Old Course, if you play it as a three-shot hole it is an easy five. It should be easy for ev­ery pro­fes­sional in the field this year to have a putt from less than 15-feet for par. Ev­ery time. If that is your men­tal­ity. Where it gets “in­ter­est­ing” is when you try to have a birdie putt. That’s when all kinds of num­bers come into play. If any­one needs a four to win the Open and makes it, he will have earned his vic­tory. There is no fak­ing it there.

In­deed, if the qual­ity of a course can be mea­sured by the qual­ity of the play­ers who have won there, then Carnoustie has noth­ing to prove. Tommy Ar­mour and Henry Cot­ton were gen­uinely great golfers. So was Hogan, maybe the best ever. Gary Player. Tom Wat­son. Paul Lawrie – one of the best links play­ers on the Euro­pean Tour dur­ing the past 25 years. Padraig Har­ring­ton, in the year Rory McIl­roy won the sil­ver medal as the lead­ing am­a­teur. It’s an im­pres­sive list. You clearly can’t win there un­less you are great.


The rough for the 1999 Open was sim­ply di­abol­i­cal ... and wrong.

Not quite singing in the rain in 2007 but at least my scor­ing was my fault, and not the course.

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