CARNOUSTIE, Scotland—Mother Nature took just the right amount of nasty out of Carnoustie.
Light rough, record roll and mostly light breezes rendered the infamously difficult links more strategic and lovable than anyone in modern times thought possible. If the strong scoring over the first 54 holes put a little dent in its reputation as the rota’s most sinister links, the week also helped Carnoustie erase expectations of freakishness looming around every corner.
“The quality of golf required to play around at Carnoustie is high,” Paul Casey (T-51) said. “It’s not the prettiest links we play in the rotation, but it’s probably one of the strongest, maybe one of the toughest. It’s got something.”
Venue stature is a fickle thing in the major championship hosting world these days. Past Opens here have left a sour taste in the R&A’s mouth. That “something” Casey speaks of can go from a blessing to a curse with the slightest setup missteps. Consider the reputation of Shinnecock Hills, one of the world’s architectural masterpieces and perfectly managed agronomically heading into the U.S. Open.
The Southampton course’s reputation, still the talk of insiders and players at Carnoustie grasping to understand what went wrong, has now been stained by two setups gone bad. What should have been a joyous opportunity to play majors on William Flynn’s masterwork has now become a burden. Instead, Shinnecock has that “something” and few are entirely sure what that is following the 2018 U.S. Open.
Carnoustie, on the other hand, sends the world’s best away fully-tested but in no way feeling deprived of chances to display their immense skill. A bogey-free British Open weekend by Francesco Molinari allowed the 35-year-old Italian to edge an all-star cast and leave little doubt about Carnoustie’s ability to reward a blend of ballstriking, course management and short-game acumen. Even with stiff final-day breezes and leaderboard volatility, the golf world departs this baked-out links appreciating its qualities more than ever.
That today’s players warmed so much to the mentally taxing questions posed on every shot speaks to growing player awareness of links golf. The variety and number of strategically fascinating holes at Carnoustie shone through in 2018 after being muddled in recent Opens by an excess of lost-ball rough and gorse. With this year’s fescues and marram grasses allowing for bomb-and-gougers to dream big, the pre-tournament discussion focused on the best way to attack Carnoustie. Rarely has a modern major venue elicited so many different views on strategy.
“There’s no perfect strategy that eliminates risk,” 2007 Open Champion Padraig Harrington said. “You’re going to have to take some risk. You’re going to have to go by, skirt by some bunkers.”
Those who planned to bomb-and-gouge either failed (Jon Rahm, missed cut) or backed off their plans (Rory McIlroy, T-2).
“So the beauty of the golf course is there’s a lot of different ways of playing it,” Harrington said. “But eventually you’re going to have to grow up and hit the shots.”
The R&A setup at Carnoustie could very easily have been criticized by players for attempting to place way too many hole locations in anti-scoring locales. The design’s quality and greenskeeper Craig Boath’s conditioning prevented what would have been legitimate griping about an excessive number of holes cut on knobs or way so close to edges.
One annoyed caddie for a tournament contender labeled them “infinity cups” and suggested they were an excessive anti-scoring effort by the R&A.
“Unnecessary and a tad insulting given how much they claim to not care about the winning score,” the looper said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.
Tiger Woods tried to be diplomatic when asked about some of the cup locations.
“A little bit different,” he said with a smile, choosing his words carefully when speaking of two in particular during Round 3.
With green speeds never tipping over the edge, players looked past the absurdity of a few locations and focused on the shot options Carnoustie gave them.
“It requires some very, very difficult, committed shots off tees out here,” Jordan Spieth said.
While Molinari’s final fairway stats and greens in regulation did not leap off the page as Hoganesque, it was his control of distance and perfect placement of his iron shots that Carnoustie rewarded. Former Open champion Henrik Stenson explained the issues players faced on approaches.
“It’s not what you’d normally see, that an average to poor one is going to be far away and a good one is going to be really close.”
As with past championships here, the closing stretch with Barry Burn looming took its toll on the field. The 15th to 18th holes were the ninth, second, third and fourth toughest holes for the week. However, playing downwind Sunday, the 18th yielded 15 birdies and provided a welcome change from past Opens where the survival test felt excessive.
“No matter how you’ve done in those first 14 holes, where you might have played well, and yes, you could have cemented, you could have a good score, you still have to get home to the clubhouse in those four holes,” Harrington said. “It’s a difficult stretch in golf, and to have them the last four holes of a championship really is what makes Carnoustie as tough as it is.”
This time around, Carnoustie was difficult in a way that will only heighten interest in the already-thriving tourism trade and build on a lore that has seen most of the game’s great players face its challenge.
“It’s a beast of a course,” Molinari said. “I don’t think anyone feels too confident when they stand on that first tee at Carnoustie.”
Given its 2018 performance for the R&A and a golf world starving for a satisfying week, hopefully the wait isn’t 11 years for the next time golf’s best are asked to tackle Carnoustie. Gwk
(Note: The story appears in the August 2018 issue of Golfweek.)