Almost universally acknowledged as the hardest course in the British Isles, if not the world, Carnoustie’s return to the Open rota in 1999 proved something of a mixed blessing. After nearly a quarter of a century in the wilderness following Tom Watson’s victory in 1975, the course and the town were returned to golfing prominence. A brand new hotel and improved infrastructure awaited the game’s oldest championship.
But it was not all good news. A brutally tough course at the best of times, the R&A decided to pinch the fairways in to a width of no more than 11 yards in places. That combined with a fresh, cold wind, and some of the lushest rough ever seen at an Open led to some American journalists renaming the course ‘Carnasty’.
Ever since, the mere mention of the place has brought a shudder to many golfers all over the world. Carnoustie has acquired an unfair reputation as a course that is so difficult it is impossible to tame. The ill-feeling even extended to some of the players, many of whom struggled to break 80 and did not take kindly to hacking their way up hole after hole.
After the tournament Davis Love III said that “Carnoustie had got the champion it deserved”, a cruel reference both to the course and the relatively unheralded winner, Paul Lawrie. He later apologised but the feeling persisted that the 1999 Open was not one of the finest.
Certainly the scores were higher than any in recent memory. Lawrie started the final day 10 shots behind Jean van de Velde but his round of 67, coupled with the Frenchman’s unforgettable visit to the Barry Burn on the final hole, meant his four-round total of six over par was good enough for a place in the play-off.
His eventual victory – the first Open win by a Scottish player in Scotland for 106 years – was greeted with wild enthusiasm by the home fans but not by the wider golfing public, who are generally more impressed if the likes of Tiger Woods or Ernie Els triumph.
The reason Carnoustie had disappeared from the rota was absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the course. At the time the event had simply outgrown what remains a modest town. Now the four-star hotel provides an administrative centre while the fans arrive by a combination of boats, trains and cars from all around.
Tiger Woods meanwhile, when The Open was here in 2007, travelled in by helicopter from St Andrews each day. More recently Jhonnatan Vegas arrived to The Open by helicopter in 2018, although his reasons for doing so were far less out of practicality and more out of necessity.
Although only 12 miles from Dundee and an hour (by road, not air) away from St Andrews, Carnoustie retains a remote, timeless feel that is such an engaging feature of Scottish links golf.
The east coast railway line separates Carnoustie’s three golf courses from the rest of the town. To walk under one of the many bridges and emerge on the seaward side is to arrive in a golfing paradise, with flags fluttering in the distance and an expanse of gorse, turf and trees in front of you.
The second and third courses here are well worth a mention. The Burnside is good enough to have been used for Open qualifying in the past while the Buddon, although much shorter, is an excellent place to learn how to play links golf.
Do not let Carnoustie’s reputation put you off a visit to what is one of the finest links in the world. Golf was never supposed to be easy.
Most visitors, of course, are here to play the championship layout and first impressions can be quite intimidating. The first sight of a famous hole only previously seen surrounded by stands and lined with spectators is often disorientating and Carnoustie is no exception.
Prominent is the serpentine Barry Burn, which winds its way freely across the course as far the eye can see. It makes the 17th and 18th holes, which run parallel to one another, appear to merge. In the distance the 1st fairway, generously wide to start with, narrows into almost nothing and the green is hidden behind a huge mound.
Apart from the green at the 16th – arguably the toughest par three in championship golf – the rest of Carnoustie is out of view behind patches of gorse, giving a real feeling of a trip into the unknown.
While promoting itself as ‘the most challenging golf course in the world’, Carnoustie is also trying to rebuild its reputation as an exceptionally fair test of golf. Nevertheless, it remains the case that very few players are capable of playing to their handicaps around the championship course.
Off the yellow tees, the course measures almost 6,700 yards and has a par of 70. The SSS is four over par. The only par five is the 6th, Hogan’s Alley, which plays straight into the teeth of the prevailing westerly wind and features out of bounds tight down its entire left side.
Once shots are dropped, there are few opportunities to pick them up again. The closing five holes measure 468, 442, 235, 421 and 428 yards respectively. Even from these forward tees fairway bunkers are invariably in play from the tee.
With this in mind, it sometimes feels as though Carnoustie must have been designed within the last 20 years. In fact golf has been been played here since before Christopher Columbus discovered America while the championship course was designed by the legendary architect James Braid.
The choice from the tee is generally either to play into the neck of a fairway and risk finding a hazard from which merely escaping is an achievement, or else lay up, often leaving an approach of around 200 yards. Furthermore, out of bounds is a feature at no fewer than seven holes and the two famous water hazards, Jockie’s Burn and Barry Burn, are in play at another seven.
Each and every hole at Carnoustie has the capability to ruin a scorecard – there is simply not a straightforward hole on the course. Even the short 13th, just 141 yards long, features an hourglass-shaped green surrounded by four treacherous bunkers.
If all this sounds a tad depressing, consolation can and must be taken in the knowledge that Carnoustie is a truly exceptional championship course. Playing a hole well and recording a par is an immensely satisfying experience.
Typically, there is no gentle introduction. Five of the first seven holes play into and across the prevailing wind. Only the strongest players can reach them in regulation. For most, the best tactic is to play most of the par fours as three-shotters. That way the bunkers are often taken out of play and the card-wrecking sevens and eights that are so easy to accumulate can be avoided.
The pick of the opening holes must be the 2nd. Totally separated from the rest of the course by a bank of dunes, the fairway appears all the more narrow because it is an island in a sea of thick rough. The drive is played over Braid’s Bunker, planted squarely in the middle of the fairway, some 160 yards from the tee. The real hazards lie behind it, three more bunkers on the angle of the dog-leg.
The prevailing wind pushes shots away from this angle, making for a long approach into a green some 50 yards long and protected by another five bunkers. The 6th hole is one of Carnoustie’s most famous. In 1953, when Ben Hogan won the Open here at his first and only attempt, he drove between the out of bounds fence and the two bunkers in the middle of the fairway in each of his four rounds.
Played into the teeth of the wind, this hole plays every inch of its 500 yards. The safe line is to the right of these bunkers and from there to advance the ball steadily towards the green, keeping well away from the dangerous left side. Even then, your problems are not over – the green is surrounded by bunkers and slopes viciously.
At the far end of the course, the 9th hole is usually the toughest hole when The Open comes to town. It is one of the few holes however that confers a real advantage to those playing from the front tees. With tall trees running down the left and behind the green it is markedly different in appearance to any other hole on the course.
It is also arrow straight, again unusual for Carnoustie. All the trouble can be seen from the tee, meaning the player’s task, while daunting, is apparent. Four bunkers reduce the fairway to little more than a sliver at driving distance but it is usually possible to fly them from the yellows.
If the front nine is hard, the inward half is even longer, although at least the majority of the holes run downwind. After the devilish ‘respite’ of the short 13th, where the challenge is to carry the bunker that lies in front of the green and then stop the ball as quickly as possible, what remains is truly awesome.
The 14th, a par five off the back tees, is the toughest of two-shotters. The drive is semi-blind over gorse and bunkers and the second is played over a pair of bunkers on the crest of a hill some 60 yards short of a green that gives the hole its name – Spectacles.
An element of luck is then required to avoid the two deep bunkers that front the only double green on the course. The 15th marks the official beginning of Carnoustie’s fearsome finish. Called Lucky Slap, most will need much more than good fortune to make a par on what is another fearsome par four. The drive should be played as far left as possible to shorten the approach but not so far left as to find what must rank as some of the deepest rough in Scotland.
The second shot will, thankfully, kick on from short of the putting surface but the green is wickedly contoured. The 16th is as long and as difficult as a par three can be. The bunkers catch anything short or mis-struck while the narrow green rejects all but the truest blows. Even downwind, most will require a long iron to cover the 235 yards.
From there the 17th is played in the opposite direction back away from the clubhouse. Now the Barry Burn comes into its own, wandering across the fairway and back in an s-shape. Only the bravest attempt to carry it twice from the tee. Most play short of its second crossing, which leaves a second shot at least 30 yards longer than would be comfortable.
From there a shot of real quality is required to find the green, which slopes left to right towards three cruel bunkers. The last hole is much more manageable from the front tees than the back but still requires a tee shot to be threaded between a large bunker on the right and out of bounds on the left.
Still the burn – which is almost 10 yards wide – must be carried once more to find the safety of the putting surface. Adding up your score is probably best done within the comfort of Calder’s Bar, located just behind the green, once anaesthetised by a stiff drink.
If you find you have played within five shots of your handicap, you are probably a bandit. But do not let Carnoustie’s reputation put you off a visit to what is one of the finest links in the world. Golf was never supposed to be easy.