Strategic Carnoustie may still present opportunity for bombers
The ageless beauty of links golf is that players of any age and playing style stand a chance to win the Claret Jug if their game is on form.
Just look at 2011 Champion Golfer of the Year, 42-year-old Darren Clarke, or the recent near-miss of 59-year-old Tom Watson at Turnberry in 2009.
When links are firm and fast, as is the case this week at Carnoustie, it’s anyone’s game.
The brown fairways are drawing comparisons back to the 2006 Open at Royal Liverpool when Tiger Woods plotted his way around the course hitting all irons off the tee except one en route to his third Claret Jug.
And Carnoustie’s reputation, regardless of the speed of the turf, is that of strategy playing a key part in a players’ fate.
But “strategy” shouldn’t be considered a synonym for “safe.” The bombers in the 156-man field, if they pick their spots wisely and execute, may still find the inside track.
Though trap doors most certainly abound as well.
Players are surveying the thin, baked out rough around the sun-scorched links this week and realizing that it may be less of a penalty skirting many of the course’s cavernous, 112 bunkers.
That’s a far cry from the 1999 Open, when the fescue was much thicker and players had little chance for recovery.
Rory McIlory, Champion Golfer of the Year in 2014, is third on the PGA Tour in driving distance this season. He has been watching this summer’s other pro tournaments held on links – the DDF Irish Open at Ballyliffin and the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Gullane – and noticed a gradually aggressive theme emerging from contenders’ strategies.”
“You plan to play the golf course a certain way, but you see guys on Saturdays and Sundays taking way more drivers,” he said. “Way more risks just because they've played the course a couple more times, and they've weighed it up, and you know what, I think this is worth it.”
Few players can knock it past Dustin Johnson, who has contended in past Opens and competed in years past at the Dunhill Links at Carnoustie.
“If I can hit driver and take the bunkers out of play,” said Dustin Johnson. “[I’m] absolutely going to do that.”
Other big-hitters in The Open field who certainly have some touch to boot include Jason Day and Jon Rahm. Power players Tony Finau and Jhonattan Vegas are in the same grouping for rounds one and two.
It will be difficult to truly “overpower” Carnoustie, even though despite driving distance gains on the pro tours since 2007, is playing 19 yards shorter than its previous Open. And those 19 yards will be exacerbated by the fiery turf and expected consistent wind. The genius in the design is too nuanced for any one player to sail past trouble on a consistent basis.
But the bombers want the fans and viewers to know they aren’t one-dimensional, even if we may be fanatical about their power.
Back-to-back U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, who hasn’t played since the Travelers Championship the week following the U.S. Open, is well regarded for the long-ball, but he’s relishing the chance Carnoustie offers to showcase his developed skill set.
“They get infatuated with distance and they only see that,” said Koepka. “I’m a good putter. My short game’s come a long way in the last few years.
“I can take advantage of long courses but I enjoy plotting my way around probably more than the bombers golf courses where you’ve got to think, be very cautious sometimes, laid back, and you’ve got to be very disciplined and that’s the kind of golf I enjoy.”
Justin Thomas - the big-hitting PGA champion whose fancy footwork when swinging all-out is a marvel to watch - is eager to play with finesse.
“You have to be so creative and so decisive,” he said. “You don’t hit very many full stock shots out here. You’re hitting a lot of knockdowns, a lot of holds, using the slopes, whatever it may be.”
Thomas has been surveying the rough in his practice rounds and thus far appears to believe it’s better to be in the fairway than take any chances from the hay.
“I’m probably not going to make any bogeys from a gap wedge in the rough,” said Thomas. "But I’m probably going to make a lot more birdies with a 7- or 8-iron from the fairway.”
Many eyes will be on Woods - who tees off Thursday in the afternoon, when winds are expected to pick up - not just because it’s his return to The Open after a two-year absence, but to see whether he deploys a similar strategy as he did at Hoylake. First-round winds are expected to pick up slightly but remain in a manageable 10-15 mph range.
Will it be the players who stay conservative, or brashly challenge holes off the tee, who have the winning formula?
“Because the golf course is playing so firm and fast, you'll see guys playing the golf course ... completely different than the way I see it and vice versa,” McIlroy said.
Holes to watch:
No. 3: It’s the shortest par 4 on the course at just 350 yards, but don’t expect to see many players going for the green off the tee due to Jockey’s Burn in front of the green. A new fairway area right of the bunkers may be utilized by players looking for a good angle into certain pin positions.
No. 7: Out-of-bounds threatens the left side while two bunkers defend the right. Expected to play downwind, and aggressive drive here could theoretically chase the ball close to the green.
No. 12: In the previous two Opens, the 503-yard par 4 ranked most difficult and second most difficult, respectively. Two bunkers swallow up shots to the right, and being one of the difficult greens to hit on the course, a booming drive is certainly useful. The expected wind may hurt out of the left.
No. 15: A sloping fairway from left to right makes the fairway even that much more difficult to find. It was the third hardest hole in 2007. "It’s very hard to hold that fairway," said Koepka. "We were hooking 5 irons, landing them in the left side of the fairway and they’re still rolling through almost into the gorse."
No 17: Players are expected to enjoy downwind conditions on the 15th, 16th and 18th holes, but the treacherous 17th will be into the wind. Two burns, one short and long, cut off the fairway and run up the hole diagonally from left to right. That means those who want to be aggressive off the tee risk a hazard left.
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