CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — This dour Scottish links, named for the dreary town for which it provides the sole reason to visit, is not an aesthetically handsome course. But Carnoustie has never been about beauty. It’s about brutality, the medieval rack of British Open venues, designed to stretch knights of the golfing realm to breaking point.
Many competitors snap early in the tournament, others late. Some aren’t even intact when they step onto the first tee Thursday. There may not be a course on the planet that can intimidate the world’s best golfers as readily as Carnoustie.
Much of that repute owes to the infamous 1999 Open, when superintendent John Philp defended his beloved course in much the same way that a pitbull defends its master: without favor, restraint or regret. But that was almost two decades ago. Is that reputation warranted?
“Yes, especially if you were here in ’99. You don’t forget that,” said David Duval, who won the Open two years after that bloody ambush in Angus. “I often get asked what’s the greatest course I ever played. I can’t answer that, but I can tell you the hardest one I ever played!”
Six-over-par got in a playoff that week.
“That’s probably a consensus among players, that it’s one of the tougher venues they play,” said Phil Kenyon, the putting coach to nine players in the field this week. He insists that the familiarity European players have with Carnoustie — it is one of three courses used in the annual Dunhill Links event — won’t count for much this week.
“They know the challenges but it’s very different this year. Everyone is trying to work out how they play it,” Kenyon said.
It’s different because the Dunhill Links is played in the fall, when Carnoustie is greener, softer, kinder. For the 147th Open it isn’t green or soft. Compared to most PGA Tour stops, the fairways resemble lightly toasted bread and have the firmness of a parking lot.
And the kindness? Open to question.
On Monday Padraig Harrington, who won here in 2007, said he was unsure if this would be the easiest Open he’s seen or the toughest. The wind may help decide that, but not as much as you’d expect, insists Ryan Moore.
Moore is making his ninth Open start, his first coming right here 11 years ago.
“It’s a difficult golf course without wind,” he said. “There are quite a few [links courses] that if the wind lays down you can shoot good scores. This one you’ve got to play some serious golf to shoot scores.”
Dustin Johnson agrees.
“It’s just a tough course,” he said.
Even this year when the once-thick rough is wispy and playable?
“It’s still Carnoustie.”
He has a point. Can you think of another major championship venue where a man made triple bogey on the last to fall into a playoff that he lost? Or where another made double bogey to fall into a playoff that he won?
Not everyone seems intimidated though.
“The rough isn’t as thick as I expected,” said Harry Diamond, who caddies for Rory McIlroy. “It’s playable.”
He expects his man to hit a lot of drivers to take some fairway hazards out of play.
At least one wily veteran of ’99 agrees with Diamond. Back then Duval opened 79-75 and made the cut. He eventually finished T-62. He was 22 over par. He still shakes his head ruefully at the memory, the pain of which hasn’t faded with the years. He played a practice round Monday with Rickie Fowler.
“It’s not as hard as it was then, for sure,” he said.
The wry smile on his face said that it doesn’t need to be as tough as it was then. It’s still plenty hard enough to grind down most guys in the field. Some before they even tee off.