What an Open, what with the emotional ups and downs of a near Tiger Woods major triumph and the sight of Francesco Molinari steadily playing his way to victory without a single bogey on the card all weekend.
At one point, a dozen players were within two shots of the lead during Sunday’s back nine.
But this wasn’t just good theatre. It was also a "teachable moment" for learning about the game and for enhancing everyday play. Here are seven takeaways from what we saw all week at Carnoustie .
1. Wind matters
The difference in yardage when the wind flips can easily be 100 yards. That’s especially the case when you figure in the ground roll downwind. Consider two examples from the weekend, when the wind flipped from 8-10 miles per hour out of the east on Saturday to 22-25 miles per hour out of the west on Sunday.
A day after Jordan Spieth drove the (downwind) 396-yard first hole to set up a 10-foot putt for eagle (which he sank), he found himself on Sunday with 156 yards left into a headwind following his opening drive. Or consider how far Tiger Woods hits a 5-iron from the fairway: on Saturday, downwind, on the par-5 sixth hole, he hit it 250 yards. On Sunday, into a headwind, he hit a 5-iron from 176 yards to the first green.
Without wind, golf is duller and more mechanical. With wind, golf is a more cerebral, creative endeavor.
2. Slow greens
All week the greens were rolling at 9.5-10 or so on the Stimpmeter. Greens at that pace show a marked differentiation in pace when playing uphill versus downhill, and that requires considerable skill to master. Greens mowed and rolled to that pace do not put the grasses under the strain of imminent failure. They also are perfectly playable in severe winds. And they are conducive to a brisk pace of play because your comeback putts are 2-4 feet, not runaway 8-10 footers. That helped the championship move along, at a rate of about 4:20 for threesomes the first two days and well under 4 hours for twosomes over the weekend.
3. Brown is golden
Those tawny, baked-out-looking fairways were perfectly healthy. They weren’t dead; they shut down into a condition of dormancy and were poised to bounce back as soon as some native moisture returned. The best part about it is that the Carnoustie’s grounds crew, led by head greenkeeper Craig Boath, could have watered the fairways at any time but saw no need to – and the R&A Championship Committee overseeing the course setup agreed. Those baked-out fairways were a crucial strategic element of play because they kept players uncertain about which bunkers would be in play from one day to the next.
4. Ground game
In links golf you continually have to read the terrain to figure out what’s going to happen when the ball hits the ground. That’s the very definition of strategic golf. Strong players like to power the ball aerially, vertically, and have it stop when it lands.
But in the firm, fast conditions of a properly prepared links course, what counts is the roll out and where the ball winds up. That’s why the players were constantly changing their ball flight and having to assess carries to landing points along with the ensuing rollouts – in many cases 75-100 yards of ground game. That kind of calculation makes for an entirely different game than the aerial attack-golf that prevails on heavily watered (American) parkland courses.
Video: Top 5 lucky shots during The 147th Open
5. Bunkers like vacuums
Because links courses sit on well-draining sand the bunkers drain naturally and don’t require elevation or an outlet pipe to get the water out. They can sit in low areas, or they can be stacked up facing the line of play and serve as catcher mitts. In either case, a ring of meticulously cultivated lush turfgrass does not protect them. The whole point of a bunker is to draw the ball from around it and to serve as a warning sign – approach to achieve the ideal line, but don’t get too close. Parkland courses with bunkers lined up down the sides of fairways and protected by rough only take in shots that are flown in. Bunkers on links courses take in golf balls that are rolled in. They are so much more effective and so much more dangerous as obstacles, depending upon ground conditions and wind.
6. Treading the fine line
Links golf is golf on the edge: Flying a fairway bunker to get the downside forward kick that could mean an extra 50 yards, though coming up a yard short in the sand will leave you with nothing but a sideways out; greenside recovery with a putter where you have to shave the edge of a bunker to get the ball close to the hole; or an approach to a back pin where the slightest overplay will lead the ball to roll up, over and dozens of yards away. Three times on Sunday, Xander Schauffele wound up with lies in greenside bunkers that required him to manufacture a stance from with one leg tucked under the other.
That’s links golf.
7. Scruffy is beautiful
Who cares about a little “fairy ring” in the greens – that nebulous discolored edge of darkened turf on putting surfaces we saw all week. It’s purely aesthetic, a harmless occurrence that doesn’t need to be cured. It’s all part of a scruffy, rough-hewn, crinkly sensibility. The oddity of links golf is that nearly all of the players this week at Carnoustie extolled it – and most Americans who go over to play it love it as well. The real test is their tolerance level once they come back to the States.
If they/we can develop an enhanced appreciation for diverse conditioning and setups, the lessons of links golf will have been well learned.