Carnoustie's Championship Course: A proving ground for some of golf's greatest players

By Art Stricklin, Contributor

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland - When the Open Championship finally returned to Carnoustie in 1999, oh did the professionals complain. Too hard, not fair, too challenging, not right, they cried.

Carnoustie - Championship Course - bunkers
James Braid bunkering is in full effect at Carnoustie, often steep and in clusters.
Carnoustie - Championship Course - bunkersCarnoustie - Championship Course - hole 9Carnoustie - Championship Course - Barry Burn
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Carnoustie Golf Links - Championship Course

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18 Holes | Public/Resort golf course | Par: 72 | 6948 yd. yards | ... details »

American pro David Duval even went so far as to say the Royal & Ancient had made a big mistake coming back to Carnoustie and he doubted if they would ever return again.

Oh, how they must have made James Braid smile, who along with early Scottish golf pioneers Alan Robertson and Old Tom Morris, had the biggest hand in laying out the stern Carnoustie Championship layout.

Golf in some form or another has been played in Carnoustie, the small town just across the Tay Estuary from St. Andrews, since the early 1500s, making it the second oldest golf course site in Scotland, only behind St. Andrews.

It was famed club maker and player Robertson who was given the charge to come over from St. Andrews and lay out 10 regulation-length holes at the public course in 1839-42. He did his job quite well, choosing a large parcel of land near the center of town criss-crossed by burns, hollows, swales and deep traps.

Morris, the head golf professional at St. Andrews, came over in 1867 to add eight additional holes to gave Carnoustie a complete 18-hole course, then Braid was called in to renovate the course in 1926.

Five years later, the first of six Open championships were held at Carnoustie with Scotland native Tommy Armour capturing the Claret Jug in 1931. Since then, some of golf's greatest players have captured the Open title at the Carnoustie, including England's Henry Cotton in 1937, Ben Hogan in 1953, Gary Player in 1968 and Tom Watson in 1975.

After Watson's win in '75, the course fell into a bit of disrepair and the site was dropped out of the regular Open rota due to lack of proper lodging facilities nearby and little support services to host a major championship.

But with the addition of a large luxury hotel just behind the 18th green, the course was awarded the '99 Open and it once again lived up to its traditional role of producing memorable champions, showcasing perhaps the most remarkable finish ever in more than 140 years of Open play.

Frenchman Jean Van de Velde took a three-shot lead to the 18th-hole, but found out that wasn't even safe on Braid's master design. He put his first shot into the deep rough near the burn and instead of pitching back safely to the fairway, tried a heroic shot to the green, only to strike the spectator bleacher and rebound back into the burn. By the time he was finished hacking, chipping and putting, he had a triple-bogey seven on his card and eventually lost a playoff to Scotsman Paul Lawrie, the first native winner since Armour.

Besides great Open winners, Carnoustie has produced great ambassadors for the game of golf. One of the finest Carnoustie lads was Stewart Maiden who immigrated to America and eventually would up in Georgia, teaching a young Bobby Jones the game.

While he won in his first and only appearance at Carnoustie, the tiny town still retains a strong love affair with Texan, Ben Hogan. To get himself ready for the Carnoustie challenge, Hogan arrived by boat a week early for the '53 Open and earned the nickname the, "Wee Ice Mon," from the locals here for his quiet and stern disposition.

Today, it's possible to stay in the Hogan House hotel across the street from the course and browse in the Hogan's Alley golf shop. Part of the course was named Hogan's Alley for his accurate driving en route to his victory, which earned him a New York ticket tape parade upon his return home.

What made Hogan such a great player and makes Carnoustie such a great test of golf is that long and straight shots are required off of almost every hole. There are simply no easy holes and no letups on this course.

While it plays to a par 72, the course measures 7,368 yards from the back tees and 6,809 yards from the men's regular tees. There are only three par 3s on the course measuring in length from 168 yards to 182 yards, to an eye-popping 250 yards on the Barry Burn 16th hole.

Once, when an eager American showed up at Carnoustie and proceeded to begin par-birdie, hitting his five-wood approach to six feet of the cup on the second hole and making the putt for a three, the veteran Carnoustie caddie only slowly shook his head and muttered, "my, rarely seen the likes of that."

The American proceeded to go double-bogey, double-bogey on the next two holes and Carnoustie had claimed another victim.

Unlike many of the surrounding links, the course does not go out and back, but rotates in many directions around the large acreage of land near the water. No consecutive holes run in the same direction together and the wind, along with rain, can be a constant factor because it can swirl in any direction and change from hole-to-hole.

In fact, of the first seven holes, only the par-4 third hole is less than 400 yards in length, and there is only two par 4s less than 400 yards on the Championship Course. There is also two large stands of trees on the front nine which can come into play with misplaced drives off the tee. After the opening two challenges, the par-4 third is the first place the burn comes into play, as players must either play their second or third shots over the water to a small and severely sloping green.

The par-5 sixth is simply titled 'long' on the scorecard and this hole certainly lives up to its name in this traditionally Scottish under-expression. At 570 yards from the back tees, it is the longest hole used in Open championship golf. There are two massive bunkers lying in the middle of the fairway to grab the noblest of drives or the weakest of second shots. A small stream runs all along the right side and the wide and shallow green is guarded on the right by a massive bunker with another behind the green. The hole became known as Hogan's Alley when the tough-minded Texan birdied it twice on the 36-hole final day to win the '53 Open.

The par-4 10th is known as 'South America' for the Scottish caddy who took off to find his fortune in the new world, only to be over-fortified with the local whisky and make it only as far as this hole before falling into a deep sleep. After this layout, there is an on-course refreshment hut, one of the few you will kind on any course in Scotland, and one that is known to have saved several rounds with a quick burst of energy, liquid or otherwise.

The par-5 14th has the deep and famous twin spectacles bunkers embedded deep in the fairway. The par-3 16th is known as 'Barry Burn' for the water, which lurks dangerously on the left.

The large green is long and narrow, guarded by six huge sand bunkers. One Carnoustie veteran once said the space between the traps to the green was so narrow that his group had to walk single file.

Twice the Barry Burn crosses the par-4 17th, and as the ill-fated Van de Velde can attest, players must deal with it three times on the finishing 18th.

As subtle as a brass knuckles punch to the chin, Carnoustie may be considered charmless by some, but it has earned the title as the ultimate test of demanding golf and the birthground of demanding champions, professional and amateur, over this 18-hole struggle.

Art Stricklin, Contributor

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