Appeared in July/August 1999 LINKS
What is the antithesis of Cypress Point?
One is located on the west coast of America, the other on the eastern shores of Scotland. New World, Old World. One dazzles, one devours. Cypress Point has been described as the “Sistine Chapel of Golf.” Carnoustie has been called a “great big shaggy monster.”
Carnoustie may be golf’s ultimate championship examination. Certainly, Carnoustie is Scotland’s toughest links course, a test as epic as it is relentless. The links rewards good golf and punishes poor golf better than any other course on the British Open rota.
Walter Hagen was one of the first American golfers to sing Carnoustie’s praises. He rated it the “greatest course in the British Isles and one of the three greatest in the world.” While Hagen said it, it was Ben Hogan who largely proved it. In 1953 Hogan competed in his one and only British Open. He arrived at Carnoustie having already captured that year’s Masters and U.S. Open titles. For two full weeks he studied the links in minute detail, turned the locals’ respect into admiration (they dubbed him the “Wee Ice Mon”) and then compiled ever-decreasing rounds of 73-71-70-68 to win by four strokes. It was golf’s ultimate case of veni, vidi, vici.
Historians believe the game has been played at Carnoustie since the early 16th century; it was definitely being played on the adjoining Barry links at that time. The first official golf club at Carnoustie was founded in 1842, when golfers played a 10-hole course laid out by Allan Robertson. Old Tom Morris extended the links to 18 holes in 1867, and the last major revision was undertaken by James Braid in 1926. Carnoustie’s first Open was staged in 1931 when Tommy Armour triumphed, and it returned in 1937, when Henry Cotton claimed the second of his three titles.
Like St. Andrews, Carnoustie is a public links, and the small town near Dundee lives and breathes golf. It may lack the sophistication and scholarliness of St Andrews—only a die-hard golfer would choose to spend his vacation here—but the town is not quite as gray and dour as people imagine.
It has been said that Carnoustie “was a good place from which to emigrate,” a comment that has often been taken the wrong way. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many people left the east coast of Scotland and headed for the New World. Some of those who left from Carnoustie happened to be especially gifted at golf and disseminated their talents in North America. Stewart Maiden, the famous mentor of Bobby Jones, came from Carnoustie, for example.
What makes Carnoustie so difficult? Occupying fairly flat and open terrain, it is exposed to wind that often blows fiercely. Of course, so is every other great Scottish links, but since no more than two consecutive holes run in the same direction at Carnoustie, the golfer is teased—and sometimes tormented—from all angles. What especially distinguishes Carnoustie is its vastness. Everything about the links is big: the size of the teeing areas, the size of the greens and, most of all, the scale and severity of the hazards.
Carnoustie’s bunkers are legendary. There are plenty of them and the majority are very large and deep. Moreover, masochists and students of golf architecture agree that they are brilliantly positioned. As Pat Ward-Thomas once observed, “Most of the hazards are placed to threaten the stroke that is slightly less than perfect rather than one that is slightly better than awful.”
Water is the other major hazard at Carnoustie. Several famous links courses feature a winding burn or stream: St. Andrews has Swilcan Burn, Prestwick has the Pow Burn and Royal St George’s has “Suez,” but their effect on play is invariably minimal. The same can hardly be said of the Barry Burn and Jockie’s Burn at Carnoustie.
Those who concur with Walter Hagen’s assessment that Carnoustie is Britain’s greatest course will argue that this factor gives Carnoustie an extra dimension. In particular, the manner in which the Barry Burn weaves its way across the 17th and 18th fairways ensures that Carnoustie has the toughest, most interesting and most dramatic finish in links golf.
Certainly, the previous Open proved this argument. Eight years later, the lasting image of the 1999 Open at Carnoustie remains Jean Van de Velde, trousers rolled up to his knees, wading into Barry Burn en route to his triple bogey. Hands on hips, quixotic expression on his face, Van de Velde at that moment was the personification of Carnoustie’s myriad challenges.
The first six and the final six holes reveal the very best of Carnoustie. The course starts strongly. A fine 1st hole, where the green sits neatly in a natural bowl, is followed by an even better second. Here you must drive over Braid’s Bunker, which is located smack in the center of the fairway, then thread your second along an ever-narrowing dune-framed avenue, carefully avoiding a minefield of bunkers. The green is more than 50 yards deep and is two-tiered.
The combination of an out-of-bounds fence running all the way down the left side and yet more devilish fairway bunkering makes the drive at the par-five 6th quite formidable. The second shot is none too easy either, as the fairway tightens at the landing area just as Jockie’s Burn makes its final appearance .
The 14th is named “Spectacles” after the imposing twin bunkers that are set into the rise of a sandy ridge some 50 yards short of the green. Despite the hole’s name, it is a blind approach. The 15th heralds the start of Carnoustie’s gargantuan finish. The 15th doglegs to the left, and its difficulty is compounded by a sloping fairway and a sunken green.
Then comes the “world’s most difficult short hole.” For most of us, the 16th is a par three-and-a-half. The long, thin, shelf-like green has sharp fallaways on all sides and five deep bunkers guard its entrance. In the final round of the 1968 Open, Nicklaus was the only player to hit his tee shot beyond the flag—but he had to use a driver!
In the 1975 Open, which he won after a playoff with Jack Newton, Tom Watson played the 16th hole five times and never once achieved a three. However, he did successfully negotiate the Barry Burn at the 17th, where its extraordinary meandering creates a near island fairway, and at the 18th, where it must be carried with both the drive and, heroically, the approach.
Producing winners of the calibre of Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Tom Watson, Carnoustie delivers high drama and epic golf—which is exactly like it should be.