Carnoustie (Championship) Golf Links

Carnoustie (Championship) Golf Links | NCG Top 100s: GB&I Golf Courses

Although only 12 miles from Dundee and an hour by road 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 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.

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.

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.

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A Brief History of Carnoustie Golf Links

Golf has been played in the Carnoustie area since the 16th century. However, the formation of the Carnoustie Golf Club in 1842 marked a significant step in establishing a formal golfing presence in the town.

The original golf course in Carnoustie, known as the "Old Course," was established in the mid-19th century. It was a 10-hole layout until it was expanded to 18 holes in 1867. Carnoustie's reputation as a championship course started to grow when it hosted the Open Championship for the first time in 1931. 

The course underwent several modifications after World War II, including changes to bunkers and greens. These changes contributed to the course's growing reputation for difficulty.

Carnoustie's history is deeply intertwined with the history of golf itself. Its challenging layout, unpredictable weather, and storied championship history have cemented its reputation as one of the toughest and most respected golf courses in the world.

Carnoustie (Championship) Golf Links Review | NCG Top 100s: GB&I Golf Courses

Carnoustie Golf Course presents a formidable challenge to even the most skilled golfers. Nearly 6,700 yards and a par of 70, this championship course demands precision and strategy. 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. 

The choice from the tee is generally to either risk finding a hazard playing into the neck of a fairway or, 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. Even the short 13th, just 141 yards long, features an hourglass-shaped green surrounded by four treacherous bunkers.
Typically, there is no gentle introduction. Five of the first seven holes play into and across the prevailing wind. The pick of the opening holes must be the 2nd. Fully 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 which is around 50 yards long and protected by another five bunkers. Played into the teeth of the wind, the 6th hole is one of Carnoustie’s most famous and plays every inch of its 500 yards. The safe line is to the right of these bunkers, and the green is surrounded by bunkers and slopes viciously.
The 9th hole is one of the few, 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 and 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.
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 and 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 and now the Barry Burn comes into its own, wandering across the fairway and back in an s-shape. 

Most golfers play short of its second crossing, which leaves a second shot at least 30 yards longer than is 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. 

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. 

The Open Championship

Almost universally acknowledged as the hardest course in the British Isles, if not the world, Carnoustie’s return to the Open Championship 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.
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.

Paul 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.
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.

Can anyone play at Carnoustie?

Carnoustie is open for the public to play on any of its three fantastic courses, catering for every golfer. The courses are open every day and welcoming to visiting golfers from around the world.

Players should bring their current handicap certificate with them as they may necessary prior to play. Men must play off a handicap of 28 or less, with women playing off 36 or less.

How much does it cost to play the Championship Course?

For the summer of 2024, a round on the Championship Course at Carnoustie Golf Links will cost £300. If you play in April, it will set you back £210.

Do you need a caddie at Carnoustie?

Carnoustie's caddie service is revered and almost all are local, with many low handicappers within the group.

It is recommended to hire a caddie because, along with basic bag-carrying and general caddie services, they can provide fascinating trivia and history about the club and area that you would not otherwise get.

What makes the Championship Course at Carnoustie so difficult?

The narrow fairways and strategically placed bunkers make Carnoustie a particularly challenging course. The burns, thick rough, fast greens and overall design make it a more demanding course to challenge golfers' skills.

Does Carnoustie have other courses?

Carnoustie Golf Links also features two other 18-hole course. The Burnside Course oozes character and many of the short holes could grace the top links courses around. It was on this course in 1953 where the great Ben Hogan shot 70 to help him qualify for the Open Championship which he subsequently won.

The Buddon Course, originally designed by Peter Alliss and Dave Thomas, resides on land that was formerly part of the ladies’ course and Ministry of Defence land. The course was opened for play in 1981 and revamped through investment in 2016. Offering a mixture of links and parkland golf, The Buddon Course is a unique test of golf to be enjoyed.

Visit Carnoustie's website here.
Go back to the NCG Top 100s Homepage.