Two days ago I had intended to write a great blog post and course review featuring Carnoustie Golf Links in Carnoustie, Angus, Scotland. At that point in time writing a single word became as difficult as this legendary golf links is to play. Where would I start? How could I possibly convey how special of place it is? I felt like my limited blogging/writing skills could not do justice to this golf course which is known by many as the toughest test of golf in the world, a place which has hosted seven Open Championships, a senior Open Championship, the British Amateur Championship, and Women’s British Open.
I’ve decided to do two articles about Carnoustie. One will be a standard course review and one, this one, a recollection of what it was like for me to play the course and what my thoughts and impressions were.
Carnoustie is about an hour’s drive north of St. Andrews, but not as the crow flies. The North Sea is due north of St. Andrews, and you can actually see Carnoustie way off in the distance across the water. The drive to Carnoustie takes you northwest through the town of Dundee, Scotland, crossing the River Tay via the Tay Road Bridge.
From there the drive is somewhat down the coastline northeast, but not much of the coast can be seen. It is mostly residential and industrial areas.
When arriving at Carnoustie the first thing you notice is the large white hotel, the Carnoustie Golf Hotel, an Oxford property. The pro shop used to be in the hotel, but was moved when a new clubhouse was built.
The new clubhouse is a unique structure architecturally. Inside is a nice open center area with many windows. The pro shop is very well appointed with a ton of fantastic Carnoustie apparel, accessories, and golf gear. As you walk in, there’s a display of showing the Claret Jug and a tribute to the seven Open Championships played there.
There are actually three golf courses on the property, the famous one being the Championship Course. The other two courses are the Burnside and the Buddon. Those two are fun to play as I’m told by my golf playing partners who were lucky enough to play them the day before I arrived.
There is so much history at Carnoustie. Nearly every Open Championship contested there had an amazing moment or story behind it.
Perhaps the most famous Carnoustie Open win, and that point could be a great argument to have, was Ben Hogan’s win in 1953. This was the ONLY Open Championship Ben Hogan ever played in. And did you know at that time the British Golf ball Hogan had to play with was smaller? The victory at the Open was Hogan’s third major championship in the calendar year 1953. There’s a plaque on the 6th hole at Carnoustie, a 578 yard par-5, denoting the hole’s name, “Hogan’s Alley.”
Tommy Armour won the first Open at Carnoustie with a score of +8 for four rounds in 1931. In 1937 Henry Cotton won the Open there with a score of +6. Tom Watson won his first major championship at Carnoustie in 1975. Padraig Harrington won the Open there in 2007 after hitting two shots in the Barry Burn.
The most infamous Open at Carnoustie was in 1999 when French golfer Jean van de Velde only needed a double bogey on the final hole to win. He famously ended up in the Barry Burn and attempted to hit a shot out, to the astonishment of everyone on the planet except himself. He ended up carding a triple bogey and losing in a playoff to Paul Lawrie. Having stood near that spot, not IN the burn mind you, I cannot believe the thought even crossed his mind.
I’m not sure what I expected out of Carnoustie. I thought perhaps the course would have fangs, claws, and hurricane force winds. I thought a round in which I finished alive would be good. Two golf pals found out I was playing there. Both bet that as a two handicap, I could not break 100. That became my goal, break 100. One of the two gents bet me $100 and the other $200.
There were certainly winds, but after being in Scotland for several days, I hardly noticed them. I started out very well with a solid par on the first hole. Fairway in regulation, green in regulation, 2-putt and move on. One of my friends encountered trouble on the first hole. He was left of the dunes on the left side of the fairway. I don’t believe he ever found it.
On the 2nd hole I hit a fine drive and once again found the fairway. I then struck a pure 6-iron to about 12 feet short right of the pin. I made the putt. One under par after two on one of the world’s toughest courses. No complaints.
I made two more pars on the 3rd and 4th. The first five holes of the course are par-4’s. The 5th hole took a small bite out of my score. I made a bogey after missing the fairway and then missing the green in regulation. The green on #5 is amazing, very deep with three large tiers.
So here I am, coming into the 578 yard par-5 6th hole, better known as Hogan’s Alley. Left of the hole is a road and left of that one of the other two courses out of bounds. To the right are some massive bunkers which Hogan made a point to avoid in the 1953 Open Championship. The bunkers got me psyched out so naturally I hooked by drive OB left. Ball on road. Double bogey here I come.
For my 3rd shot I hit a nice drive left of the big bunkers and right of the OB fence. In the wind I hit a 6-iron layup to the fairway. My approach wedge was held up by the wind and ended up on some crazy undulations left of the green just a few feet. Somehow my caddie and I read the putt right, only about 20 feet of break in a 15 foot putt. I made it for a bogey. Made a birdie on the 2nd ball.
Through six holes and after going OB on Hogan’s alley, I was quite happy to be only one over par.
I made a double on the par-4 7th because of finding an impossible bunker way right of the fairway. Made bogey on the par-3 8th. Nine, a beautiful hole, was a par.
Four over on the front with an OB ball and a double. Not bad.
The back nine was a bit more of a blur. The winds were kicking up and I was finding it tougher and tougher to keep it going. I started out bogey-bogey-double. The double was the result of the one terrible shot I hit that day, a drive which went about 30 feet into gorse in front of the tee.
On the 459 yard par-4 15th my caddie told me to put the driver away and hit 4-iron. I listened and I’m glad I did. My iron kept the ball short of the bunkers on the right of this dogleg left. I was 256 out with a little wind at my back. The caddie handed me the 5-iron and told me to aim about 20 yards left of the flag. Once again I listened. Once again I’m glad I did. The ball hit hard and released to the right, finishing 10 feet past the pin. That was easily the best 5-iron I’ve ever hit. Unfortunately I didn’t make the birdie putt but had an easy tap-in par.
The next hole was the very tough par-3 16th, 245 yards. My caddie handed me the 4-iron. At this point I completely trusted his club selections. Glad I did. The solid iron shot ended up about five feet past the hole. My putter failed again, but once again had a tap-in par.
17 is a tough par-4 where the Barry Burn comes into play. I pulled my driver left, naturally on a line to the spot where the burn was closer. I lucked out and my ball ended up about three feet short. Missed approach shot, two-putt bogey.
The finishing 18th is a tough hole as well. Just ask Johnny Miller, who took two to get out of the bunkers on the right side of the fairway. Those two strokes blew his shot at an Open Championship. I beat Johnny Miller then, because it only took me one shot. A solid 8-iron to the green and I two-putted for a bogey. My friend Shane scored an amazing par on the 18th, never having hit any woods. Iron-iron-two putt.
Back nine score: 42. Total score 82. Broke 100 with 18 shots to spare! Pay up pals.
After the round our car was not ready to pick us up, so we had a “wee pint” across the street at the Caledonia Golf Club bar, a pleasant experience with some local flavor.
Had I not gagged on a few shots I could have easily broken 80. But had I had a few more bad swings or the wind was stronger, I could have easily had a hard time breaking 90.
Carnoustie is a very unique course, not like any other course I’ve experienced. The bunkering there is neater, cooler, better, more strategic than any other course I’ve ever played. The dunes and landscape there are stunning. Despite being a “links” course, no water can be seen from any hole.
My caddie was a young chap, probably 18-19 years old, and a member of the club. He was fantastic and I enjoyed the round that much more because of him and his solid skills.
Finally, the experience was special because I spent the round with three great golfing pals, a group of buddies who has now done two Scotland golf trips together. We are forming a unique scottish bond, we three chaps. The “four lads” plan to return to Scotland in 2015.
Can’t wait. I hope to return to Carnoustie in 2015.