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Carnoustie, seven time British Open host and the ultimate links test

PGA Tour website article The following article was written for PGATour.com by David Brice, President of Golf International. The articles represent trips available to Golf International customers.

When Carnoustie was returned to the elite list of courses privileged to host the British Open in 1999, it brought to an end the 22 years this unique links had spent in purgatory. Its last Open had been hosted in 1975 when a young American, Tom Watson, had taken the first of five Open Championships that would eventually be his. In typical Carnoustie style it was a nail-biting, 18-hole play-off against Australian, Jack Newton, not decided until the very last hole.

Local politics, misunderstandings and a fast deterioration in the condition of the course after the 1975 Open would cause Carnoustie to be taken off of The Open rota for almost a generation. But when it came back in 1999, it did so with the same flair that has always been a part of this course’s character. Not even its harshest critics have ever called Carnoustie boring and the 1999 Open produced perhaps the most thrilling Open finale of all.

Who can ever forget the unbelievable images of Frenchman, Jean Van de Velde, holding a 3 shot lead on the final hole, the claret jug all but in his pocket, standing knee deep in the infamous Barry Burn, considering his dismal options. The little white ball, once floating, was televised around the globe as it gracefully sank to the bottom of the dreaded burn. The three shot lead was squandered, there was a play-off between a Frenchman, an American and a Scot and the Frenchman did not win. Jean Van de Velde, may have been a total unknown when he had arrived in Carnoustie a week earlier, but he returned to France world-famous, or perhaps more appropriately, world-infamous.

There’s an undeniable touch of showmanship attached to Carnoustie and somehow or other it always manages to deliver a showstopper, filled with thrills, spills and drama. It didn’t disappoint at the 2007 Open.

Tiger Woods was the odds on favorite to win his third consecutive Open, but it wasn’t in the stars. Sergio Garcia took the lead after the first round and to the crowds delight, held onto it through the second and third rounds. Then with a three stroke lead heading into the final round, Sergio began to fall apart giving Padraig Harrington the opportunity to force a playoff. This was not to be Sergio’s day and the Guinness flowed.

If Carnoustie has the innate ability to frustrate, upset and ruin the scorecards of the world’s very best players, think what it can do for those of us with far more modest abilities. There’s good reason why this brute is often referred to as Carnasty.

This is not a layout for everyone and any eager beaver challenger, big on courage, but shy on skills, who even dreams of tackling this rugged monster, should either be prepared for miserable defeat, or give up on their dream. Carnoustie is a relentless challenge of epic proportions, with no apologies ever made. And it’s this no nonsense, what you see is what you get approach, that endears the course to links aficionados the world over. Carnoustie is links golf at its very best.

What makes the course tough is its proportions – everything here is on a massive scale with titanic dimensions. The length stretches to almost 7,400 yards from the tips; the abundance of bunkers are deep, huge, hungry and unforgiving – they are not here to gather bad shots, so much as they are to eat up those that fall even slightly short of perfection. Water is another hazard to be reckoned with. There are two burns that meander back and forth across the track, sometimes more than once on a single hole. These streams are not here for window dressing, but a very relevant hazard to be judiciously negotiated, as Jean Van de Velde discovered at the 1999 British Open.

But it is the sheer vastness of Carnoustie’s championship layout that strikes the first time visitor, setting the tone for the challenge that lies ahead. Despite its 150 years of age, the track is not the traditional out and back layout, typical of the day. Rather it sets off in a huge circle, totally surrounding Carnoustie’s second 18-hole track, the very worthy, Burnside Course. Seemingly occupying twice the flat territory of other links, the wind that constantly gusts in from the Firth of Forth is more of a factor to be contended with.

Complicating matters further are the continuous changes in the direction of the holes as they take their circular journey. With never more than two holes consecutively running in the same direction, the already cantankerous wind becomes even more devilish, unpredictable and difficult to estimate. A non-stop battle with the elements gets underway on the first tee, with no let-up until the calm of the 19th hole is eventually reached.

There is no question that Carnoustie qualifies as perhaps the mightiest of all links, yet for all of its uncompromising demands and insistence on ability; it is never devious or unfair, demonstrating an almost fearful honesty from start to finish. And in a layout filled with excellent holes, it is the finish where Carnoustie’s challenge reaches its crescendo with a trio of holes considered the most fearsome in golf.

The par-3 16th could be the toughest short hole in existence, where par will be a miracle and bogey an accomplishment. Measuring a testing 250 yards, the narrow green slopes off frighteningly to all sides, with five voraciously hungry, deep bunkers guarding the entrance. The par-4 17th is no less forgiving with a test compounded by the burn that snakes back, forth and alongside the fairway, forming a virtual island landing area that cannot be misjudged.

The 18th is a grand finale par-4, demanding the ever-present burn is carried on both the tee and approach shots, critically placed fairway and greenside bunkers complicating matters in true Carnoustie style.

Walter Hagen considered this to be Britain’s best course and after hosting The Open on 7 occasions to date, the listing of golf’s greats who have taken the title here, tells the story – Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Padraig Harrington, each achieving victory with a score little better than Carnoustie’s nominal par. But perhaps because of its demanding reputation and unforgiving ways, this is track that calls out to every serious golfer. Just as a mountaineer’s dream is to climb Mt. Everest – because it’s the supreme challenge – so golfers eager to test their skills against golf’s best, will always be drawn to take on the monster they call Carnoustie.

©2014 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.