Forget for the moment what you've heard about how “nasty” Carnoustie is. What no one will tell you is that the R&A is letting up this time around for The Open in 2018.
In an era when every other championship golf course is getting longer to accommodate the increased distance of play on the major tours, Carnoustie will actually play shorter in 2018 than it did for the 2007 Open. By 19 yards.
That’s it – 19 fewer steps from the back tee of the first hole to the green this time around. Not out of pity for the players, but solely to accommodate increased grandstand capacity on the opening tee shot.
Other than that, the place is, as advertised, brutal. It fits in well with the aesthetics of this town along the Angus Coast and the North Sea, 60 miles south of Aberdeen. A dull, gray village deserves a dull, gray golf course, and at 7,402 yards, par-71, Carnoustie is it.
Nobody comes here for the views. It’s got an entirely inland feel, with the water’s edge coming only as close as 1,000 feet at one point, behind the second green. Otherwise it’s a grimy landscape, with no more than 20 feet of elevation change across the site and out-of-bounds a recurring factor because of the way the Championship Course wraps around one of Carnoustie’s “other” layouts, Burnside.
Between two meandering burns and the OB stakes, there’s an irrevocable hazard in play on 13 holes. Or, to illustrate the edginess of what it feels like to play this course, 15 of the 35 full-swing strokes required on this course entail the risk of OB, a burn or both. On nine of 14 drives, players need to be mindful of what “not” to do. That’s a recipe for nervous play.
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Other than the minor shortening of the opening hole, the only substantive change since Padraig Harrington won the 2007 Open Championship here is the addition of some fairway to the right of what are now mid-fairway bunkers on the shortest par four on the course, the 350-yard third hole. This added option doesn’t make the hole any more likely to be reached off the tee since Jockie’s Burn cuts right across the front of the green and the hole plays into the prevailing westerly wind.
Yes, the wind, which makes avoiding Carnoustie’s 112 revetted bunkers all the more difficult. Remember this is links golf, were the ball rolls on and on and those sandy hazards function like vacuums. This isn’t a PGA Tour set up, where the bunkers are isolated from the ground game by lots of insulating rough.
And the fairways are narrow here, as tight as 11 yards on the second-shot landing areas of the two par fives and generally not much more than 26-30 yards in primary driving zones. At 8,000 square feet, the greens are generous, but they have to be to allow the ball to roll out. From afar those putting surfaces look relatively mild. But they are humpy-bumpy by design, a character that becomes exaggerated when the wind picks up above, say 10 miles per hour, which is often the case.
Carnoustie has been the scene of a glorious if demanding championship history, including seven previous Open Championships. It was always a stern test: when Henry Cotton won here in 1937, the course measured 7,200 yards. In 1953 Ben Hogan ground out the third of his three major titles that year (the only Open Championship he would ever play), in the process stamping his name onto the par-5 sixth hole, where each round he threaded his drive between the fairway bunkers and the OB left. This was also the scene of Tom Watson’s major championship breakthrough in 1975, when he defeated Jack Newton in a playoff. And as we will be reminded all week, it’s the scene of Jean Van de Velde’s epic collapse in 1999, when he squandered a three-shot lead on arguably the hardest finishing hole in all of championship golf.
If the wind blows as it usually does out here, there will be more glorious history to be witnessed this week at Carnoustie.