Carnoustie Golf Links has such a fearsome reputation among professional golfers that it sends a veritable shudder down the spine of even the very best. “Carnasty”, as it is not-so endearingly termed, is a mass of harsh links terrain, devilishly deep bunkers and winding burns, all of which promise to wreck the scorecard of anyone that fails to approach every single shot without the highest precision. It’s long, it’s unrelenting and so frequently breaks a player’s spirit that locals have termed its psychological warfare the “Carnoustie effect”.
It sent Sergio Garcia off the course in tears during the 1999 Open and left him pulling his hair out in 2007; it blew the chances of Greg Norman on 17; and caused that meltdown from John Van de Velde on the 18th hole. Countless others have suffered similarly in years gone by. They may as well have called the place Heartbreak Links.
Set between Dundee and Arbroath on Scotland’s North Sea, stepping onto the tee at Carnoustie is to enter the lion’s den – except the wind bites harder than any big cat ever could. It is unquestionably the most difficult golf course in the British Isles and the toughest Open venue on the rota. In a year where each Major championship feels wide open, there could be no greater test of who really deserves to get their hands on the Claret Jug in 2018 than this.
Meet the five holes that could win or lose The Open:
Hogan’s Alley, 6th Hole
Par five, 578 yards
Ben Hogan’s prolific career is filled with iconic moments, but his visit to Carnoustie during the 1953 Open became the stuff of legend. Back in the days before transatlantic flight was commercially viable, the news of the current Masters and US Open champion making the trip across the ocean to Britain was big news, but it grew into one of golf’s most memorable moments when the all-time great romped to a four-shot victory in the links. In what is generally considered one of the greatest single seasons in golf, Hogan’s victory at Carnoustie completed The Triple Crown and consigned his name to the history books.
Success at Carnoustie did not come easy, however. In windy conditions, Hogan’s masterful plotting around the golf course and superior ball striking simply meant he gave himself more chances than the rest of the field – and nowhere is this better exhibited than the 6th Hole, these days known as Hogan’s Alley.
This severe par five plays into the prevailing wind, with danger all around. There’s out of bounds left off the tee, deep bunkers on the right portion of the fairway and a bail-out area right that blocks anybody attempting to get to the green in two. During the four rounds of Hogan’s 1953 round, he threaded the fairway between out of bounds left and the fairway bunkers right to give him the green light to go for the green in two on each occasion. It’s the kind of accuracy that will be required of the very best in the game in 2018.
The 6th is not only Hogan’s hole, but the first time Carnoustie really turns up the heat on the players during the round. Any mistakes will be severely penalised, whereas a well-executed tee shot will be rewarded; the kind of margins that win and lose golfers The Open. Safe to say it’s a tee shot of some magnitude – and, for players who do find Hogan’s Alley on the left side of the fairway, a great relief once it’s over.
Spectacles, 14th Hole
Par five, 515 yards
The 14th hole lives up to its name as one of Carnoustie’s greatest golfing spectacles. Like the 6th, it begins with an incredibly tricky tee shot – this time firing blind over thick gorse and rough – that requires players to carefully navigate past three bunkers on the left and one on the right side of the landing area. Trouble awaits anything but centre of the fairway, but unlike Hogan’s Alley this hole only bares its teeth for those brave enough to take on the green in two.
In the do-or-die throes of the final two rounds of The Open 2018, we’re likely to see more than a few big hitters pull out the fairway wood and go for broke, but caution should be advised: the Spectacle bunkers located 50 yards short of the green are two of the most hellish sand traps you’ll find anywhere on earth. Find yourself in one of these bad boys, where even the tallest players will be unable to see over the top of the mounds, and you’ll do well to get up and down for par.
No doubt the R&A will set up the course so eagle is a possibility on the weekend, but even those who manage to bypass the Spectacles will have two bunkers, guarding the green left and right, to slip passed. It’s a conundrum that will no doubt see a number of players come unstuck: take it on and possibly enter the most difficult part of the golf course (15-18) with the momentum of a birdie or better, or play conservative and try to hold onto your score.
You only need to look at the last winner at Carnoustie, Northern Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, to see the importance of the 14th. He shot four-under on this hole during the tournament, including an eagle during the first round.
On a brute like Carnoustie, you’ve got to take what you can get when the opportunities arise. Anyway you slice it, this hole could prove to be the pivotal moments for the players in contention on the back nine on Sunday.
Barry Burn, 16th Hole
Par three, 248 yards
“The hardest par 3 in the world.” That's how Tom Watson refers to the devilish Barry Burn – a hole he failed to make a par on in five attempts (including the playoff) during his 1975 Open victory at Carnoustie. He is by no means alone in his summary…
On paper, 248 yards makes for a lengthy hole, but by modern standards that’s nothing new. The real test comes when the wind kicks up. Traditionally playing into the wind, this hole can play as long as 300 yards on a blustery day – making for one of the strongest natural defences a golf course can have.
More trouble lurks ahead, though. For starters, there is a smattering of bunkers right and left at the front of the green, while the challenging green falls off on all sides to make holding the putting surface a feat unto itself and escaping the hollows and humps even harder. Pull your shot and you risk meddling with the Barry Burn that snakes along to the left of the hole.
Three holes from home, standing on the tee of this brute is sure to set the nerves jangling in the final pairings on Sunday. Par is by no means a certainty, while disaster lurks just one badly struck shot away.
Choose your yardage, stick a smooth swing on it, and pray the wind doesn’t gust. Nobody’s saying you’ll win the tournament on the 16th hole, but you can certainly lose it.
For Watson, it still sticks in the mind. Looking back at the hole that threatened to derail his first of five Open victories, he simply says: “Couldn't lick it. Tried, but couldn't lick it.”
Island, 17th Hole
Par four, 461 yards
Sandwiching two very bogeyable holes is the quirkiest hole on the golf course – and certainly not the hole you want to run into as your mind and body are beginning to tire. The Barry Burn rears its head on more than one occasion as the water horseshoes from left to right, cutting off the fairway from the green and lending the hole its name, Island.
Hit the ball left off the tree and you might as well pack your bags and go home, anything right will find a swale of rough that can equally prove hazardous – keep it on the fairway and you’re in with a chance of getting home with a par, don’t and you’re in Greg Norman territory.
During the second round of the 1999 Open, Norman was sitting pretty on five-under for the day as he teed off on 17. The smile on his face didn’t last long: “I was nine feet off the edge of that 17th fairway and I don't think I deserved to get what I got for missing by that much," he said. “In my estimation, that's not the way that golf should be played," the Australian would say after his round.
Straying ever-so slightly into the right-hand rough proved to be a costly couple of feet for Norman as he caught an evil lie that took him two swings to get out of before dumping the ball in more rough and failing to get up and down for double bogey. Things get ugly pretty quickly out on the Island.
For those who safely find the fairway, standing in the players’ way is a green complex dotted with bunkers on the right-hand side, which you can bet your bottom dollar is the side of the green you’ll find the pin come Sunday. But among the humps and bumps, there’s no guarantee that even the best shots will hold the putting surface. Only 29% hit the 17th green in regulation in 1999… in the whole tournament.
Danger, drama and a need for precise play? It can only be The Open.
Home, 18th Hole
Par four, 499 yards
If the par-three 16th is a banana skin waiting to happen, the terrifying final Home hole is a dark abyss that many have fallen into and never returned. Most famously, it is the site of Jean Van de Velde spectacular collapse during the final round of the 1999 Open when, needing only a double bogey to win, he found the water and could only get up and down for a triple-bogey 7. Into a playoff he went, and out came Paul Lawrie as the most unlikely Open champion in history.
Van de Velde may be the most notable player to taste the salty demise of the Barry Burn, but he is by no means the only one. Harrington carded a double bogey in 2007 after finding the water twice, and looked to have all but ended his chances of victory, before Sergio Garcia (needing only a par to win his first Major) saw his putt slip by before eventually losing to the Northern Irishman in a playoff.
How will the young crop of pros cope with one of the most ruinous holes in the world of golf? Unlike Van de Velde, they should be advised to plot their route to the green carefully.
For starters, the tee shot needs to find the left portion of the fairway to avoid the bunker and the burn on the right hand side. With the green ahead of them, they must negotiate the burn once again, this time just 30 yards short of the putting surface. Many will bail out into the bunker to the right of the green (seen as the safest miss), but step up and make par on this hole and it will feel like a victory in of itself.
BOSS is the Official Outfitter of The Open. For more information, see hugoboss.com