Carnoustie looms as mixture of great and ghoulish
The Carnoustie Golf Links is a curmudgeonly course skirting the links land between the North Sea and a small, dour town. But, says Dave Shedloski, it is also magical, a place cloaked in mystique and reeking of spiritual turbulence.
By Dave Shedloski, PGATOUR.com Senior Correspondent
Welcome to the land of the ghosts and the ghoulish golf over which they preside. Welcome to Carnoustie Golf Links, in Carnoustie, Scotland, across the Firth of Tay, where they will contest the upcoming 136th Open Championship. Carnoustie is a curmudgeonly course skirting the links land between the North Sea and a small, dour town, but it is also magical, a place cloaked in mystique and reeking of spiritual turbulence.
Poltergeists aren't to be feared as much as par. It's been said that Carnoustie puts more pressure on every single shot than any course in the world. Jack Nicklaus considers the relatively flat but fearsome layout the hardest he has ever traversed. It will be a great show, this coming Open Championship, though it would be hard-pressed to surpass the shocking results of the 1999 edition when a cavalier Frenchman, Jean Van de Velde, had his hands nearly wrapped around the Claret Jug until a monumental triple bogey at the home hole opened the door to a playoff win by home-grown Paul Lawrie.
A plethora of legendary figures helped create Carnoustie. Allan Robertson first and then Old Tom Morris, Willie Park Jr., and James Braid applied their hands to a menacing examination that for the Open will measure more than 7,400 yards, play to a par of 71 and offer countless tangible dangers: gorse, mounds, greenside bunkers that pressure every approach, and, on the closing holes, the infamous Barry Burn where Van de Velde flamed out.
The A-list of past champions is also impressive, with the exception of Lawrie, who has not embellished his record after his astonishing 10-stroke comeback that final day. But never mind because the remainder of the roll, starting in 1931, includes Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Tom Watson.
It almost seems fitting that Tiger Woods will bid for his third straight Open Championship on such regal and relentless terrain. But what everyone wonders as the championship nears is whether or not Woods and his peers will more actively impact the outcome or if John Philp will have the final say.
Philp is the links superintendent responsible for what was considered a reprehensible set-up for the '99 Open. Thick rough and heather bordered fairways averaging 24 yards in width, though some were mockingly narrower, including the landing area at the par-5 sixth, which measured nine paces.
Phil Mickelson was far from alone when he said, "I came here to play one of the great links courses in the world, and the set-up of the course simply didn't allow any of us to see it in its true character."
"The Open got the champion it deserved," Davis Love III said at the end.
The course was nicknamed "Carnasty," and the '99 Open became probably the most infamous major championship in the modern era after the scores piled up. Mark O'Meara, the defending champion, had an 83 in his first round. Tom Watson, who won the first of his five Open titles at Carnoustie, beat him by a stroke. Sergio Garcia, playing his major as a professional, shot 89; Severiano Ballesteros, his countryman, an 80.
Lawrie, the eventual winner, Justin Leonard and Van de Velde tied at 6 over par after 72 holes, but only after Van de Velde stood on the 18th tee with a three-stroke lead and hacked his way into golfing infamy. After driving way right of the fairway, Van de Velde's second shot ricocheted from a greenside grandstand, and his third plopped into the Barry Burn, from which he dropped out under penalty. His fifth found a bunker and he had to hole a 7-foot putt for a seven to reach the playoff that Lawrie won to complete an astounding 10-shot rally the final day, quite the accomplishment for a man ranked 159th in the world at the time.
The set-up for this year's championship is expected to be of a more traditional vein. Officials shut off the sprinklers weeks ago in hopes of getting a layout that should play firm and fast and turbulent. There have been changes to the layout, most prominently at the par-4 third hole, which was a genuine birdie chance before, but now has been further bunkered in the fairway and is among the trickiest holes on a course laden with trouble.
Of course, the biggest challenges arrive at the end. The last three holes are renowned for their difficulty, but the last five, starting with the par-5 14th, called ?The Spectacles? because of the huge pair of bunkers that block the path to the green, turn the course from hard to inhospitable.
The 15th, Lucky Slap, is a 472-yard, dogleg-left par 4 that usually plays into the prevailing wind. Then comes the 16th, Barry Burn, which at 245 yards can require anywhere from a 6-iron to a metal wood. The 17th, Island, presents an exceedingly hard two-shot challenge to reach the green as the Barry Burn snakes across the fairway twice, turning the landing area into an island of sorts. The 18th is another hole renovated since '99, and at 499 yards will be even tougher than what Van de Velde faced. With the burn on the right and out-of-bounds left, there is no margin for error. And laying up on the second shot will often be an option well worth taking.
But that is what links courses are all about -- options. A return to the traditional links set-up will give players plenty of options, even if Carnoustie itself tends to limit them at every turn.
"We genuinely feel we are going to have a great Open," Graeme Duncan, the general manager at Carnoustie, said recently. "We want it to be a festival of sport. Whether Tiger [Woods] gets a hat trick of victories or someone else wins, I think it will be the best-ever Open. And I hope that it will put 1999 to bed once and for all."