'Carnasty’ consensus: Players agree Carnoustie toughest test in Open rota

French golfer Jean Van de Velde (bottom, centre) takes his 5th shot on the 18th green in the final round of the British Open Championship at Carnoustie, Scotland, 18th July 1999. Having arrived at the 18th tee with a three-shot lead, Van de Velde narrowly lost the championship to Paul Lawrie. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images) Andrew Redington/Getty Images - 1999

'Carnasty’ consensus: Players agree Carnoustie toughest test in Open rota

Courses

'Carnasty’ consensus: Players agree Carnoustie toughest test in Open rota

After the shambles of Shinnecock, will we get carnage at Carnoustie for the 148th British Open? Probably not. Unlike the U.S. Golf Association, the R&A learned its lesson about taking courses to the edge of insanity after the 1999 Open. Besides, there’s no need to make Carnoustie tougher. It’s already a brute, the hardest links on the Open rota.

“In terms of toughness, you couldn’t go past it,” said two-time winner Padraig Harrington, who won the last Open at Carnoustie, in 2007. “It’s the toughest, not only because of all 18 holes, it has the toughest finish in championship golf. You’ve got a very tough 14 holes and an extremely difficult last four.”

Harrington won that Open in a playoff against Sergio Garcia. He took the title on the longest course to have staged the game’s original tournament. Carnoustie measured 7,421 yards to a par of 71, with Harrington taking the title with a 7-under 277. It’s 19 yards shorter this year and still plays to a par of 71.

Of course, Carnoustie’s fearsome reputation was enhanced in 1999 when the R&A let the course get out of hand. Knee-high rough just off narrow fairways and rough in spots where players could normally putt from led to the layout being dubbed “Carnasty.”

Jean Van de Velde’s woes hardly alone

Players lined up to try to outdo each other describing how difficult the course was.

“I feel like I just fought a war,” Hal Sutton said after an opening 73.

“Hitting the fairways is like driving the ball through the door of my hotel bedroom,” two-time Open winner Greg Norman said.

The Jean Van de Velde/Paul Lawrie 1999 story is the stuff of legend. Lawrie never has received proper credit for winning. Lost in Van de Velde’s French farce is Lawrie’s brilliant closing 4-under-par 67 to come from 10 shots off the 54-hole lead to defeat Van de Velde and Justin Leonard in a playoff.

Garcia made his British Open professional debut in that 1999 championship. An opening 89 followed by an 83 reduced him to tears, as David Howell remembers. The Englishman won the 2013 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, which is played over the Old Course at St Andrews, Kingsbarns and Carnoustie. He’s one of a select band of current players to have played in the 1999 and 2007 Open Championships.

“It’s just a bloody difficult golf course, especially if there’s any rough,” said Howell, a five-time European Tour winner and chairman of the European Tour’s tournament committee. “It got the term ‘Carnasty’ for a reason. My first one was when Lawrie won. I remember seeing Sergio crying, that’s how hard it was. That finish is the toughest in the world. If 15, 16 and 18 are into the wind, then it’s brutal, and by the time you get to that last four holes you’re already drained.”

Howell is among those who arrived at Carnoustie that year and scratched his head in amazement.

“I think we were all taken aback because it was already a brute. They didn’t need to make it more brutal,” he said.

Garcia wasn’t alone in returning scores in the 80s. There were 101 scores beginning with the number 8. Thailand’s Prayad Marksaeng had an opening 91. Michigan’s Tom Gillis shot 90 and withdrew. Australian Rod Pampling suffered the ignominy of taking the first-round lead with a 71 only to be 15 shots worse in the second round to miss the cut.

CARNOUSTIE, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 20: Brian Davis of England plays a bunker shot on the 14th hole during the second round of The 136th Open Championship at the Carnoustie Golf Club on July 20, 2007 in Carnoustie, Scotland. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

There are golf bunkers. And there are Carnoustie bunkers. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

The bunkers are ‘incredible’

It was beyond ugly.

Ernie Els finished T-4 in 2007, two shots out of the playoff. He also played in 1999.

“The bunkering is incredible, and every single hole has its challenges,” he said. “You have a bit of breathing room here or there, that short par five (the 14th) on the back nine.”

Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher, winner of the 2004 Dunhill Links Championship, is well versed on the challenges of Scottish links, having grown up playing amateur tournaments in his homeland.

“Carnoustie’s the hardest,” the three-time European Tour winner said. “They’re all tough when the weather’s bad, but when the weather’s calm that’s the toughest. Having said that, it’s a really good, fair golf course.”

Paul Casey agrees.

“It’s one of the fairest because most of the fairways are incredibly flat, unlike a lot of links,” the Englishman said. “I’m not a massive fan of the third hole or the first, but the rest is incredibly tough but fair because of the flattish fairways.”

Casey finished T-27 in the 2007 championship and has played the Alfred Dunhill Links 11 times. Carnoustie stood out from the Old Course and Kingsbarns of the trio of Alfred Dunhill Links courses, which influenced Casey’s pre-tournament routine.

“I always played my practice round at Carnoustie rather than the other two, because it’s the toughest,” he said. “I always felt Carnoustie was going to predict how I’d perform that week.”

Brutal finish awaits competitors

Carnoustie can be grouped with Royal Lytham and Royal Troon, where common wisdom dictates players make a score on the way out and try to hang onto it on the way back. That’s sometimes impossible on Carnoustie’s last four holes.

“The finish is just brutal. Sixteen is always a good short par 4 the way I played it,” Casey joked about the 248-yard, par-3 16th. “If you need to play catch-up on those holes, then good luck. Level par over the closing stretch is a good effort.”

Thomas Bjorn is a two-time British Open runner-up who’s played in the last two Carnoustie Opens. He agrees with the common consensus, but struggles to stay excited the closer he gets to the end of his round.

“It is the toughest on the rota,” Bjorn said. “I think the first 15 holes at Carnoustie are the finest 15 holes in links golf, and then the next three are maybe not quite there with the rest of the golf course. Opens we’ve played there have been extremely tough. Some of the pin positions they can use, you think, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to get close to that?’ They can make that golf course extremely difficult.”

Carnoustie doesn’t have the grandeur of Turnberry, the classic links land of Royal Birkdale or the charm of St. Andrews. First-time visitors might stand on the first tee, look out over a dour, bleak landscape and wonder what all the fuss is about. 

It doesn’t take long to find out. Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the July 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

Latest

More Golfweek
Home