THE BEAST OF THE EAST
Big. Bold. Brutal. Carnoustie will never win a beauty contest, but its reputation as The Open’s toughest course is well earned and the winner here will be fully deserving, writes John Huggan.
How to survive the toughest test on The Open rota: Carnoustie’s challenge laid bare.
NNo one has ever described either the unpretentious Angus town or the adjacent links land as aesthetically pleasing. “Bleak” or “barren” maybe. “Stark” works too. “Desolate” on a grey day in the place where the Tay Estuary merges into the North Sea. But never “beautiful” or “picturesque”. Distracting vistas involving lighthouses, clifftops and distant islands are not what the venue for the 147th Open Championship is all about. It is substance over sightseeing.
Which is why only the very best practitioners of the ground game that is seaside golf prosper there. Artists not scientists. Visionaries able to “see” shots involving not just flight, but bounce and roll. Proper golfers. Seven men, owning 36 major titles between them – Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Paul Lawrie and Padraig Harrington – have departed the premises clutching the Claret Jug. Of those, only Lawrie has claimed fewer than three of golf ’s four most important events. So class also tends to tell. Perhaps just one thing is unanimous. This is, no question, the most challenging collection of holes on the Open Championship rota. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Carnoustie.
“It is such a demanding course, a big course,” says Frenchman Jean Van de Velde, who needed only a double-bogey on the final hole to win the 1999 Open and somehow found the task too much. “The appearance of the place makes it harder. It feels ‘raw’ out there. You are rarely comfortable. Nothing feels easy. There are no resting places.
“All of which adds to the intimidation factor. Especially over the closing stretch – the last seven holes – there is just no let-up. Every hole needs 100 per cent execution and concentration. The last four especially are beasts. Everyone says it is the toughest finish in the game and I’m not going to disagree. Which is not to say there aren’t strong holes all over the course. There is so much punishment out there. So much potential
trouble that can lead to a double-bogey or worse. It never ends. Nothing is easy at Carnoustie.”
Indeed, located only yards from the beach and water, the course is forever exposed to the capricious elements that are such a basic part of Scottish golf. What isn’t so typical is the layout. Unlike, say, the Old Course at St Andrews or Royal Troon, Carnoustie does not march straight out to the turn before repeating that feat in reverse coming home. Instead, the holes change direction almost constantly. No more than two in succession pose the same questions with regard to wind direction. The bunkers too, are a massive part of the test. “Braid bunkers” the locals call them, after their author, architect and former Open champion, James Braid.
It is Braid, in fact, who is given most credit for what, as Van de Velde stressed, is deemed the toughest finishing stretch in all of championship golf. But is that entirely fair? Probably not. While the fivetime Open champion did indeed remodel Carnoustie in 1926, putting in new tees, reshaping greens and adding as many as 60 bunkers, the iconic last three holes were actually the work of one James Wright.
A local accountant, Wright served as chairman of the Carnoustie Links committee from 1926-1937. He hired Braid and had much to do with persuading the members of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews to award the 1931 Open to their near neighbours. First though, changes had to be made.
Up to 1930, the last four holes at Carnoustie looked very different from what is present today. The 15th was a short par 4 measuring only 339 yards. The 16th was four-yards shorter. The 17th was a par 3 of 150 yards. And the last was another short par 4, 365 yards in length. Hardly awe-inspiring stuff.
In stepped Wright, clearly both a man with a vision and the sway to get things done. So it was that the old 15th became what is now the fearsome par-3 16th. The old 16th became the 17th, complete with a new tee, a fairway defined by the serpentine Barry Burn and a green appropriated from what is now the Burnside course. Thus, the 18th was extended into a par 5 involving two trips over the same Barry Burn. Suddenly, Carnoustie was bolder, tougher and ready to test the best players in the game.
Perversely, it was the old and soon-to-be derided layout that contributed so much to Carnoustie’s influence on the game Scotland gave to the world, one that extends far beyond ownership of a world-class course. It can easily be argued that what was then just a wee hamlet on the east coast of bonnie Caledonia has meant more to the well-being of the sport than anywhere else on the planet.
As the 19th century morphed into the 20th, as many as 270 Carnoustie natives left their old homes in search of better lives in the New World across the Atlantic Ocean. And many of those, so well schooled in the endless subtleties and nuances of the game on their local links, not surprisingly distinguished themselves as both players and teachers. At one time or another, Carnoustie natives have won the Open Championships of “Britain”, America, Canada, South Africa and Australia.
By way of prominent example, take the three Smith brothers – Willie, Alex and Macdonald. Two were accomplished
‘THE ICONIC LAST THREE HOLES WERE ACTUALLY THE WORK OF ONE JAMES WRIGHT.’
enough to win three US Opens between them, while the third, Macdonald, came close on multiple occasions. The least successful Smith brother was, it can easily be argued, the best player of the three. His record, in the Open and the US Open, while lacking a victory was remarkable.
Between 1910 and 1936, when he was fourth in the US Open at Baltusrol, “Mac” finished within three shots of the winner in five US Opens (1910, 1913, 1930, 1934 and 1936) and six Opens (1923, 1924, 1925, 1930, 1931 and 1932). Not surprisingly, he is still viewed as a strong contender for the title of “best player never to win a major”, his loss in the 1925 Open at Prestwick surely the most painful. Needing only a 78 in the last round to win, he shot a calamitous 82. Then there were the Maidens – James and Stewart. Succeeding his elder brother as the head professional at the East Lake Club in Atlanta, Stewart earned lasting fame – some might say immortality – as swing coach to a young Georgian lad by the name of Bobby Jones. He turned out to be a pretty good knocker.
Although it would be an exaggeration to say that Jones’ swing mimicked that of his mentor exactly, the similarity was apparently marked. So it made sense for the man who would become the greatestever amateur in the history of the game to employ a coach – nicknamed Kiltie – who could relate most closely to the occasional faults to which even the prodigiously gifted Jones was prone.
As for the seven Opens so far contended at Carnoustie, two stand out, albeit for very different reasons. The first, in 1953, is iconic because it marked the first and only time the great Ben Hogan ventured across the Atlantic to compete in the game’s oldest and most important event (see Hogan’s Last Stand on page 60). The “wee ice man” left his mark in many ways, the tales of his accuracy and shot-making the stuff of legend as he shot four improving scores – 73-71-70-68 – to win by four strokes from a quartet of despairing runners-up. The par-5 6th hole is where Hogan’s imprint is most obviously located. The narrow strip of grass between the bunkers in the middle of the fairway and the out-of-bounds fence to the left is now named ‘Hogan’s Alley’. Each day, so the story goes, the nerveless Texan struck his drive between sand and disaster. But did he? Call this writer cynical, but this is one tale that is hard to believe. Consider the following. Hogan habitually played a fade. Almost every shot he hit was tinged with left-to-right spin. So why, on a par 5 that plays into the prevailing wind and is therefore nearly always out of range in two, would he aim where a straight shot was going to finish outside the boundary of the course? Even if Hogan’s trusty fade kicked in and his drive did land in play, the ball would then be running towards more trouble in the shape of the bunkers. Why would a man whose game was built around safety ever countenance such a scenario? It makes no sense.
‘THIS IS ONE TALE THAT IS HARD TO BELIEVE.’
Sadly, the second high-profile Open at Carnoustie is remembered for all the wrong reasons, apart from the ultimate victory of near-local Paul Lawrie, a man born and raised no more than 60 miles north in Aberdeen. Sadly for the Scot, however, it is not the sumptuous 4-iron he struck to the 18th green en route to clinching the title that lingers in most memories. That honour must go to the aforementioned Van de Velde. The French farce that was the 72nd hole added up to a triple-bogey seven and ultimate defeat in the subsequent play-off.
ABOVE The infamous Barry Burn snakes its way through the 18th as the grandstands take shape.