What’s it going to take to win at Carnoustie? The next four days will offer a unique challenge to 156 of the world’s best players, with just one of them holding the Claret Jug aloft come Sunday evening.
Here are some of the attributes needed to make a sustained challenge.
The last two Opens to have been played at Carnoustie show just how difficult it is to cross the finishing line.
In 1999, Frenchman Jean Van de Velde had a three-stroke lead playing the last only to blow his chances after first hitting an approach shot off a grandstand and into thick rough, then visiting the Barry Burn. His triple-bogey seven got him into a four-hole play-off with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie, but it was latter who emerged triumphant.
Such was Lawrie’s staying power that day that he came from ten strokes behind at the start of the day to claim a stunning and unexpected victory.In 2007 Padraig Harrington was leading playing the 72nd hole, but walked off with a double bogey that looked to have cost him the Claret Jug. The Irishman also ended up in a play-off but kept his focus to beat a demoralised Sergio Garcia, who had narrowly missed a putt in regulation play that would have secured his first Major championship.
With Carnoustie’s undulating fairways running hard and fast – and with the greens predicted to firm up over the next four days – there are going to be some bad bounces as well as difficulty judging how far the balls will roll. Many will end in hazards that could easily cost the player a shot. Those who shrug their shoulders and move on will do well; those who let it get to them will struggle.
This is a thinking man’s course, so it’s time to leave the ego on the first tee. It may be tempting for the big hitters to go for extreme length off the tee, but there is probably little to be gained by taking such an approach. Those who take a more cautious approach – knowing where to hit it and where not to hit it - will still be within reach of the greens, but will have a better chance of avoiding the dangers lying in wait. On a course such as this, creativity and imagination will trump brute force every time.
To witness the players going about their business in the days leading up to The 147th Open is to witness friendships in full bloom. Whether it’s the top Europeans chewing the cud, practising and laughing together (think Rose, McIlroy, Fleetwood and Rahm), or a young American contingent (think Spieth, Koepka, Thomas and Johnson), all of these players know when friendship ends and business begins. They are focused on winning, pure and simple. “We want to beat each other’s brains in,” said Justin Thomas with brutal honesty. “I never want to lose to any of my friends, especially my best friends.”
Keeping a clear mind when all around you is collapsing is what sets the champions apart. This could not have been better illustrated than when Jordan Spieth took an age before taking his now famous drop onto the practice range at the 13th hole in the final round of The Open at Royal Birkdale last year. He escaped with a bogey but fell behind, to Matt Kuchar, for the first time in three days. It kick-started the rest of his round, however, and after picking up five shots in the next four holes, the young American won by three strokes.
Speak to any of the professionals and they will talk about players who are great ball strikers. These are the guys who seem to strike the ball more cleanly than others, who produce a sound like no other as the ball comes off the clubface, and who can move the ball both ways through the air at will. This is a course made for strong, consistent iron play. One of the best of all time is Tiger Woods. He will be certainly be worth following – as will Europe’s Justin Rose.
Creativity and technique around the greens will be vital for success this week. Players will need to have a sharp and imaginative short game to cope with the challenges that lie ahead, whether it’s to thread the ball between bunkers from a tight lie, to take the aerial route to ever-firmer greens, or to play out of some of the fearsome, steep-sided bunkers that protect the greens.Putting
Every hole finishes with a putt (unless, of course, you chip in), so the best putters always have the best chances. Most of today’s players are used to playing lightning fast greens, so the slower greens at The Open will test a player’s ability to adapt. There are some great putters in the field, among them Patrick Reed, the Masters champion. Not only is he a top-class putter – unfussy and with a smooth stroke - he has nerves of steel standing over a putt.
As can be seen, there is plenty that goes into making a Champion Golfer. Let the best man win.