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.

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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.

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