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The legendary Tommy Armour was the first Open champion at Carnoustie. (Getty Images)
The legendary Tommy Armour was the first Open champion at Carnoustie. (Getty Images)

Carnoustie started small, grew into one of golf's giants

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At the time the Open Championship was born, Carnoustie was in its formative years as a 10-hole layout. By the 1930s, though, it had been improved to the point where it could host an Open, and now ranks among the finest in Scotland.

By Brett Avery, Contributor

Given its pedigree and stature among links in the United Kingdom, there are few courses in the same category as Carnoustie, rolling along Scotland's North Sea coastline in the town of the same name.

St. Andrews, about an hour to the south, is known far better around the world as the home of the game and one of its leading governing bodies, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club.

Prestwick, on the western coast not far from Glasgow, hosted what became known as the Open Championship beginning in 1860 and did not surrender the event until 1873, when it began alternating with St. Andrews and Musselburgh, outside Edinburgh.

Through it all Carnoustie was in its formative years, born as a 10-hole course laid out by the St. Andrews professional Allan Robertson in 1842, and then stretched to 18 holes by Old Tom Morris in 1867, the year he won his fourth and final Open title.

Not that golf was new to the Angus countryside. A Carnoustie history published in the late 1930s cited a Registrum de Panmure in stating that a form of the game was played over the same land by Sir Robert Maule (1497-1560).

"He was ane man of comlie behaviour, of hie stature, sanguine in collure both of hyd and haire, colarique of nature and subject to suddane anger," it said. "He had gryt delight in haukine and hountine & Lykewakes he exercisit the gowf, and ofttimes past to Barry Lynks, quhan the wadsie was for drink & This was the zeir of God 1527 or thear abouts."

If there is a theme to what is now known as the Championship Course at Carnoustie, it is that through the years it has gradually gathered its brawn. Every time even the smallest detail has been addressed, the result is a layout slowly became fiercer, sturdier.

One of the crucial chapters in history occurred in 1892, when the town council obtained the course's acreage "for golf in perpetuity." The land back then "belonged to the Earls of Dalhousie, but golfers were granted the use of it freely," the club history noted. "Subsequently a large stretch of ground was acquired for the modest sum of ?1,350 (about $2,500) on condition that it should be maintained as a golf course for all time. Later another 40 acres were acquired from the Carnoustie House estate."

The same season on 1892 the course, still under the guise of the members of the Dalhousie Golf Club, hosted its first significant tournament, the Evening Telegraph Cup. It would continue to gather momentum as a tournament site, seeing the first Evening Times foursomes in 1912.

James Braid was brought in during 1926 to give the course another reworking and after that it gathered even more steam as a respected site. It had the inaugural Craw's Nest Tassie in 1927, another Evening Times foursomes in 1928 and, finally, the Scottish Amateur in 1930.

R&A officials were in attendance that week and after seeing how Carnoustie held up, they named it the Open host for the next year, 1931. Carnoustie officials were concerned that the last four holes, none of which stretched longer than 365 yards, offered a weak finish. They made big revisions, adding the present par-3 13th between a pair of par 4s and eliminated the short 17th, then took what would become the 16th, 17th and 18th and stretched them like a strand of Silly Putty.

Tommy Armour was one of seven players matching the course record of 71 during the '31 Open -- Macdonald Smith did it twice! -- as the holes weaving their way to and fro at the Barry Burn became known for their fierceness. "The Greatest Finish in Golf: Has Carnoustie Got It?" the club history asked with a bit of self-importance in the 1930s.

Carnoustie's stature continued to grow during Henry Cotton's Open victory in 1937 and through Ben Hogan's historic triumph in 1953, his only Open start and the week that completed his career Grand Slam.

It is now joined by two other layouts -- the Burnside, which wends its way in the middle of the Championship's horseshoe, and the Buddon, designed by Peter Alliss and Dave Thomas in 1974.

The Championship's management transferred to the Angus District Council in 1975, the same year Tom Watson won the first Open of his historic career. Although it fell into decline in the next few decades, it was revived for the 1999 Open, won by Paul Lawrie of Scotland, the last major championship won by a European.

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