The nickname says it all.
Mention the Old Course at St. Andrews and you think of the history. Same with Muirfield, home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. Turnberry? The name brings to mind the grand hotel overlooking the great seaside links.
But Carnoustie? There’s nothing scenic or nostalgic about it. You know when you step on the first tee that you’re going to go 18 rounds, and you’re probably going to walk to the clubhouse with your psyche, if not your body, bruised and battered.
We wanted to capture the essence of the Carnoustie experience, so we asked more than a dozen Golfweek course raters to tell us about their recent experiences on this year’s British Open venue.
Needless to say, many of their comments could be boiled down to a single sentiment: It’s just plain nasty.
Jonathan Cummings, Cabin John, Md.: The sternest test in championship golf? Carnoustie – especially if, as the Scots say, the breeze is freshening. … What Carnoustie is, is honest championship golf.
Matthew Parish, Katy, Texas: Carnoustie is a relentless beast. Unlike other Open venues that appeal to your sense of history or captivate you with striking scenery, Carnoustie has no obvious charm, except (oddly) maybe the sense of menace it evokes. Just completing a round at Carnoustie comes with the feeling that you have been lucky to survive and fight another day.
Brian Sheehy, London, Fla.: Tournaments played here more closely resemble the feel of a U.S. Open, and this gives it a distinctive feel relative to other Open courses. … The unrelenting nature of the finish is probably the hallmark of Carnoustie and what makes it special from the standpoint of a championship examination – but it makes the most of the weakest portion of the property, topography-wise, to offer an interesting and varied test.
Mike Corbin, Weston, Fla.: What really made it “nasty?” The most famous major courses have a hole or two that you must escape. They have their own reputation. No. 12 at Augusta National, Nos. 17 and 18 at Whistling Straits, the Road Hole at the Old Course. Carnoustie chooses its champions on Nos. 14 through 18. These five finishing holes put the “nasty” in Carnoustie. The mental pressure to finish without the big mistake is intense.
Doug Roberts, Portsmouth, Va.: Carnoustie is a blue-collar championship links course. The town and golfing community of Carnoustie take great pride in their course being the toughest course in the world. … It does possess possibly the three strongest finishing holes of any Open venue.
Kevin Hall, Dallas: I remember walking off the course thinking that the brilliance of Carnoustie is in its simplicity. The course is all right in front of you, no tricks or surprises. As strategic a golf course as you will ever play.
Why, exactly, is Carnoustie such a demanding test? Is it the exacting tee shots? The penal bunkering? The demanding green complexes? The hazards?
The answer to all of the above is: Yes. And so much more.
John Weitz, Ashburn, Va.: I visited a month or so before the Open, with the massive grandstands and yellow scoreboard surrounding the first and 18th tees. What immediately stands out on the first tee, as an indicator of what lies ahead, are the menacing bunkers, tall rough and the burns.
Roberts: The course is all about tee to green. … The wind condition is always moving.
Parish: Carnoustie’s principal challenge comes on the tee shot. With the holes constantly switching directions and nearly every long hole requiring navigation between fairway bunkers or, as on 17 and 18, the burn, just getting to a spot that allows a reasonable approach feels like an accomplishment. … Carnoustie simply does not let up. There are no holes that allow you to relax, and in that it presents a unique challenge among the other Open courses.
Weitz: The course is extremely fair as the design allows the player to see the trouble and plan accordingly. Pick the correct line to avoid the many deep, penal bunkers and rough and you gain the best approach to the green. … The bunkering and the burns stand out most on this course, with the finishing stretch of holes living up to their tough reputation.
Cummings: I’ve always loved the intimate routing of Carnoustie, with holes and tees close together, an easy walk over mostly level duneland. Most fairways flow into the greens, affording optional ground-game attacks. The riveted bunkering, vertically faced and often tall, is made to strategically divert your play or add a stroke if you challenge and find them.
Tom Paskins, Hilton Head Island, S.C.: The defense is massive bunkering, out of bounds and Barry Burn. The beauty of the course lies in the demand to hit the correct driving lines, all of which are affected by the wind, the blind shots and the numerous bunkers. I think the bunkering is phenomenal.
Cummings: There’s an old adage at Carnoustie that if the wind is favoring the outward half you can score quite well. But turning back into the wind for the inward nine, you’ll have to play much better to score within 10 shots of your front-nine score.
Ken MacLeod, Tulsa, Okla.: On the front nine, with a favorable wind and swinging well, I was thinking the difficulty was overrated. Then our caddie looked at the sky and said, “Better get your slickers on.” Five minutes later, it was blowing 40 mph and rain was pelting us. Needless to say, it became very difficult, particularly the series of long par 4s on the back.
Josh Asher, Scottsdale, Ariz.: I played Carnoustie in a cold, driving rain for most of the round and it was as difficult a test as I’ve ever experienced. I quickly came to realize that there was a severe price to pay for errant shots and it’s almost impossible to fathom how even the world’s greatest players are able to play it without flaw under even the best of conditions.
Rich Campbell, Gold Canyon, Ariz.: Starting with the ninth hole, the real challenge began. No bailout left, and a long approach to a small green. No. 10 was one of the most difficult par-4 second shots I had ever experienced, over the Barry Burn. … The last five holes had so many different design features: the Spectacles bunkers on 14, the elevated green and four bunkers on 15, and the 245-yard par-3 16th, which has to be one of the toughest par 3s in the Open rota. The challenge on the famous 17th, started with an exacting tee shot, with almost no bailout, is that you have to come in from the left side to avoid the three bunkers on the right side of the green. If you do not carry the burn, you cannot get home on this hole.
Peter Clement, Chattanooga, Tenn.: The inward nine is magnificent! Every hole is memorable, with treacherous bunkering and diabolical green complexes. No. 16 may be the best par 3 in the world. … When you are done, you remember every hole, none are the same. The intimacy of the green complexes and the bunkers are the two design characteristics that stand out in my mind.
Carnoustie doesn’t evoke the majesty or the history of some of the other Open venues, but it does have a distinct brand vis-à-vis the other Open venues. When you talk about the most difficult courses on the rota, the conversation quickly centers on Carnoustie. Here’s a look at how the raters view it relative to other Open sites.
Dan Laline, New Canaan, Fla.: It starts with the setting – clearly not historic like St. Andrews, nor a picture-perfect Muirfield experience, nor the pedigree of a Hoylake or Royal Lytham & St. Annes. This is a public course set in the middle of a small Scottish town.
Clement: I didn’t get that “big course” feel like I did at Turnberry or Royal Portrush.
Sheehy: I think Carnoustie is behind the Old Course, Royal St. George’s, Muirfield and Royal Birkdale – the others being more playable, generally having more interesting green complexes (Birkdale being a possible exception) and having more variety in terms of topography, land forms, etc. They also are on more aesthetically attractive sites. I would put Carnoustie in a category alongside Troon, Lytham and Hoylake – courses that are less about the eye candy and more about the examination. Of those, I think Carnoustie separates itself by the drama offered by the closing stretch and the masochistic nature of the test.
Laline: What distinguishes Carnoustie from the other Open courses is the momentum that builds through the round. The front nine is a good test, but the back nine is where the course sets itself apart. The routing of holes 14 through 18 exposes the player to changes in wind direction, fairway and greenside bunkering to catch misplayed shots, and one of those devilish Scottish burns to be negotiated. The combination of the no-frills setting, the bunkering and the burns make Carnoustie stand out among the Open venues.
Hall: I played 16-18 with a string of solid pars. The last four holes represent one of the toughest finishing stretches of any golf course in the world. From my perspective, Carnoustie holds up against any British Open course. Is this the perfect golf course? Certainly not. Age tends to show your imperfections. Would I change anything about it? Absolutely nothing.
Paskins: I have played Carnoustie and all the Open rota courses on numerous occasions. As with a lot of very difficult courses, my views have changed over the years. Last August we had no wind and the rough was dry and wispy. As a result, I had an actual score. … If the wind is up and the rough is long and green, this is the toughest test I have seen. Unlike most Open venues, there is out of bounds on numerous holes. The other unusual characteristic is the Barry Burn. Carnoustie brings penalty shots into play. Water hazards are a rarity at the other sites.
Gregg Feinberg, Allentown, Pa.: Visually, Carnoustie does not have the aesthetic beauty of Royal Dornoch or Turnberry or even just the seaside benefit of St. Andrews, Crail or Cruden Bay, but it has teeth. Possessing some of the strongest finishing holes in championship golf, holes 15 through 18 will test the best players and leave you wondering how a small burn could cause such trouble.
Sheehy: Carnoustie simply does not let up. There are no holes that allow you to relax, and in that it presents a unique challenge compared to the other Open courses. Gwk
(Note: This story appeared in the July 2018 issue of Golfweek.)