A Carnoustie of a different tone set to stage The 147th Open
Little has changed on the famed Carnoustie Championship course since its last staging of The Open eleven years ago. That isn’t to say the links, in its current form, will be familiar to the field.
As is often the case given the strong environmental influence of links golf, it's Mother Nature who will have the greatest say about this week's Open. A bone-dry summer thus far in Scotland has yielded fairways of gold in both color and firmness throughout the country.
Carnoustie is hosting its third Open since 1999 and is also a regular pro and amateur tournament venue and many players in the 156-man field have competed here at some point in their careers. But no one has seen the links quite like this. The dry conditions are drawing comparisons to similarly fast-and-firm Opens in 2013 at Muirfield and 2006 at Hoylake. The winner of that 2006 Open, Tiger Woods was blown away upon arrival this week.
"The fairways were faster than the greens," said Woods. "I was very surprised with how fast they were."
Paired with the setup employed by the R&A and even players familiar with Carnoustie from past Opens or even the yearly Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on the European Tour admit this is a test of which they will be largely unfamiliar. Last fall, Tommy Fleetwood broke the course record at the Dunhill Links, firing a 63 in the second round. But much has changed since.
“It is a completely different course," said Fleetwood. "Shots that you've hit [here] have literally no relevance for a lot of it."
Since 2007, only minor design alterations by the firm of Mackenzie & Ebert have been made to the layout, the most notable being an alteration of the fairway at the par-4 3rd hole. The official yardage this week of 7,402 is 19 yards shorter than back in 2007 when Padraig Harrington defeated Sergio Garcia in a playoff.
Another difference that will create more strategic options between then and now is the fescue rough is considerably thinned in many spots, which will give players a better chance of recovery.
"If the rough is very, very thick, I think you would be seeing everybody playing the exact same way," said Justin Thomas. "But because the rough is as thin as it is, I think guys are going to be playing very differently."
That's why pros thus far are considering Carnoustie to be a fair test, especially since the wind is expected to be consistently from the southwest all week, a direction Justin Rose says the course plays best in. Strong play should be rewarded.
“I think this week we're going to see good scores," said Rose. It's going to be the perfect test. If you're playing well, you can score around here."
A deep history of the game at its highest level
Located in Angus on the east coast of Scotland between St. Andrews and Aberdeen, golf’s pedigree runs deep in Carnoustie, where the game has been played since the 1500s, and its earliest players had a profound impact on the spread of golf into the U.S. Alex and Willie Smith emigrated to the states and both ultimately won U.S. Opens and numerous Carnoustie natives were instrumental in the founding of the PGA of America in 1916.
In 1840, Allan Robertson altered the routing of the links and expanded the course to 10 holes. In 1872, Old Tom Morris Sr. redesigned and extended the course to 18 holes and 4,565 yards. James Braid came in 1926 and had a profound impact on today’s current routing, installing 60 new bunkers and removing others and considerably lengthened the course to allow for technological advancements in clubs and the golf ball. In its first Open, staged in 1931, Carnoustie played to 6,900 yards and Tommy Armour won with a score of +8. It stretched to over 7,000 yards for the 1937 Open won by Henry Cotton with a score of +2. When Gary Player won in 1968, highlighted by a pure 3-wood from the 14th fairway into a stiff breeze that landed two feet from the hole, Carnoustie was the longest Open yet at 7,252 yards.
This week as a par 71, with the unusual card of three par 3s and two par 5s, the yardages on the scorecard won't mean so much. As players are discovering in their early practice rounds, drivers will run out forever - perhaps until they settle in a bunker or a burn. Irons can rumble along the rippling fairways past 300 yards. Power stands to be runner-up to experience and strategy. That might explain why Carnoustie's seven Opens to date haven't produced runaway winners or those able to overpower the course. No one has scored double-digits below par and it has been the stage of exciting finishes and playoffs. The past three Opens here have been decided by playoffs. When Tom Watson won the Open's last 18-hole playoff over Jack Newton in 1975, three players, including Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, fell one shot shy.
It also produced Scotland's last major champion, Paul Lawrie in 1999.
With a coastal landscape of no more than 20 feet of elevation change and about a par-4 from the sea at its closet point, Carnoustie won’t win many beauty pageants held amongst the Open rota links – that award might be Turnberry’s to lose, or perhaps Royal Portrush when it makes its grand return in 2019. That isn’t to say there isn’t a lot to look at around Carnoustie. The links is magnificently and boldly bunkered – 112 of them in total. Many of which are huge and deep.
But it isn't just the bunkers. Its small, meandering burns play a giant affect on scores and strategy. Out of bounds abounds. Whereas many players employ the “left is right, right is wrong” strategy on the counter-clockwise, out-and-back routing of the Old Course in St. Andrews, golfers have nowhere to hide on many shots here.
"There’s no perfect strategy that eliminates risk," said Padraig Harrington. "You’re going to have to skirt some bunkers. It’s very difficult to stay short.
"Eventually you’re going to have to grow up and hit the shots."
The tee shot of lore is on the par-5 6th, "Hogan's Alley." Two bunkers bisect the middle of the fairway. Playing left of them flirts with O.B., while playing right makes the second shot exceedingly more difficult (if southwest winds hold as expected, it’s a tee shot that will be into a breeze).
“There’s no real bailout,” said Fleetwood of the 6th. “If you push it right, you could end up in the fairway bunkers or the rough. And left is left.”
Woods’ first taste of proper, competitive links golf came at Carnoustie in 1995 at the Scottish Open. That week and the following in his first Open a St. Andrews, he was smitten by the creativity and shot-making required that was such a stark contrast from the length and aerial requirements of back home in Southern California. Now a three-time Champion Golfer of the Year, Woods says that is what sets The Open apart from all other majors, and why players of all ages and styles stand a chance any given year.
"Distance becomes a moot point on a links-style course," said Woods. "But creativity plays such an important role. You've got guys like Tom [Watson] playing late in his career, doing very well.
"There's a reason he's won five of these. He's very creative and hit all the shots."
More course notes:
Carnoustie is accessible to the public and especially so following the 1999 Open when a new, 93-room hotel was added behind the 18th green.
Recent upgrades to the facility include a new, £5 million clubhouse opened earlier this year home to a new restaurant, The Rookery.
Six private clubs that play at Carnoustie help manage the club, which has been publicly owned since 1892.
Carnoustie Ladies Club is the oldest in the world, established in 1873.
The total greenstaff for The Open is 34, which includes a greenskeeper from each of the other nine Open Championship venues.
Carnoustie is home to two other 18-hole courses, the Burnside and Buddon, as well as a six-hole junior course.