Review: Carnoustie Golf Links
Location: Carnoustie, Scotland
Designer: Alan Robertson (later alterations James Braid)
The Scotsman had an interesting story this past week on Carnoustie, site of this year’s British Open.
In Scotland, it is all about Carnoustie this year, specifically whether the course, which hosts the British Open in July, will be set up as difficult as it was in 1999. That’s when an overzealous superintendent (who is still there, interestingly), grew the rough to extreme lengths and narrowed the fairways to as little as 20 yards wide.
Interestingly, Jack Nicklaus, in an interview this week, indicated little has to be done to make “Carnasty” test the best in the game: “Carnoustie is one of the golf courses where you don’t have to restrict very much of anything. It was always tough enough to start with.”
I’ve had the good fortune to play Carnoustie twice, once well, once badly. Without the rough, the course is not nearly as penal as it is for tournament play. But contrary to the perception that it is ugly, I find the course quite remarkable, terrifically strategic and a genuine test of one’s abilities as a golfer. It is an odd links, considering the north-west corner of the property has trees on it for one hole. But the overall theme is clearly a links, and a difficult and nasty one.
It opens with a straight forward hole to an intriguing green site, set near the crest of a ditch that runs alongside the left of the hole. To the right you see the great Carnoustie finish — its monstrous one shot 16th, its devilish par four 17th with its burns, and the infamous closer. But there’s tons of golf in front of you before you’ll get to test what might be one of the toughest closing stretches in all of golf. I’ve always found this sort of design approach — whether intentional or not — to be very effective. If players know and can see the tough stretch ahead of them, it may put them off their game right out of the gate. At the very least it will have them thinking about the final few holes, never a positive at the start of a game.
Truthfully, Carnoustie is exhausting to play. Everything about the course forces one to carefully consider the implications of each shot; it isn’t the kind of course where you can simply play away from trouble because trouble lurks everywhere. Throw in a touch of wind, and you’ve got one of the hardest courses anywhere.
“I’ve always regarded Carnoustie as the hardest of all the championship venues,” Nicklaus told the Scotsman. “First, it’s got the elements. Visually, I think, it’s a good looking course. It’s got all the stand features you would want and a variety of things including a few blind shots. Really, it’s what you would expect from Scottish golf. It has a great reputation and, of course, the history of the Open there doesn’t hurt a bit.”
All the elements indeed. Though some find Carnoustie plain and dull, I think it is actually quite a visual golf course. Clearly the intimidation is set by the placement of its bunkers — many of which determine options and routes of play, even in the fairway. Whether Ben Hogan took the toughest route for the easiest approach on the par five 6th or not (some legends suggest he played short of the bunkers), the hole demonstrates the challenges of Carnoustie, with its centerline bunkers splitting the fairway, leaving players to determine whether to challenge them and the out-of-bounds that plays down the left side, or to lay up short and play the hole as a three shot five.
While the theme is clearly links, Carnoustie has its quirks, including the move into trees on the 9th, a long par four, and the fact the first par three doesn’t show up until the 8th hole.
In truth a lot of courses look more difficult than they really are. That’s not the case with Carnoustie, which looks difficult, and actually plays that way as well. Given the level of difficulty it is easy to understand why some people don’t care for Carnoustie, but it is hard not to give the course its due and respect.
I’ve also seen some strange things at Carnoustie during my two times around it. After the caddie told me I couldn’t hit it into the burn (some 345 yards off the tee on the 10th), I did just that, with the ball plowing forward after a good drive on firm ground. Another time my brother played the final three holes 3-6-3 to shoot 79, including holing out from the bunker on the 18th in front of a group of watching tourists who applauded at his conclusion. They were right to — it was a pretty good stretch of golf save for the tee ball he plunked into the burn on 17.
Interestingly, I also had one of my worst experiences on a Scottish golf course while playing the Burnside Links, one of the two “relief” courses that rest next to Carnoustie (and site of much of the Big Break when it was played in Scotland). Our second round of the day, it turned out that the starter had let our foursome out in front of a club match. We let the first twosome play through before being warned to pick up the pace by a ranger. We did, only to be warned again — on the 10th hole, again by the ranger. The only problem was we had played the front nine in less than 1.5 hours — as a foursome! I told the ranger that her expectations were ridiculous, and that I hadn’t intended to jog with my clubs on my back. That was the last time we saw her and for the record, we finished the round in less than 3 hours.
Still, I’ve really enjoyed Carnoustie both times I’ve played it — I even had fun in the town, which many declare to be grey and devoid of charm. To the contrary, I found the town interesting and a good spot to base yourself. It provides easy access to St. Andrews, for a lot less than one pays at the home of golf, as well as being within reach of dozens of other courses, including Montrose, Murcar, Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay and others.
On my first trip to Scotland in 2003, we stayed at the Links Hotel in Carnoustie. In fact, my brother stayed in the room Mike Weir had for the week after qualifying into the Open Championship. I don’t know whether Joe, the establishment’s proprietor, is still there, but if he is, have a scotch and let him regale you with his stories of the famed golfers that have stayed onsite.
For a really good look at the course, try the interactive course guide found here.