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Carnoustie

Yardage
6941
Par
72
SSS
75
Built
1839 / 1928
Architect(s)
Allan Robertson, Old Tom Morris, James Braid, James Wright, John Philp
Nature:
Flat Open Championship links with tumultuous history. The toughest challenge with no weaknesses and brilliant Braid bunkering.
Location/Address:
On Angus coast east of Dundee. Postcode DD7 7JF
http://www.carnoustiegolflinks.co.uk
Secretary
Michael Wells
Telephone
44 (0)1241 802270
Professional
Colin Sinclair
Green Keeper
Sandy Reid, Craig Boath
carnoustie 17th green
carnoustie 17th green
Carnoustie 7th
carnoustie 3rd
carnoustie 5th
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Access Policy:
Visitors welcome
Dog Policy:
No dogs
Open Meetings:
Craw's Nest Tassie week - Sept
Fees in 1960s
20p
Fees today
£175 - 2017

Review

Carnoustie (pronounced Car-noo-stee) is forever remembered in the modern mind with the sight of a forlorn Jean Van de Velde paddling in the Barry Burn in 1999, when a truly amazing and controversial Open Championship catapulted Carnoustie back to prominence in sensational fashion.

Carnoustie has had a tumultuous history and is sited just nine miles across the Firth of Tay from St Andrews. While the Royal & Ancient has ruled the golf world, the oldest artisan Club in the world was in fact formed at Carnoustie in 1839 on a links that has always been operated as a municipal course.

Carnoustie 17th

Ubiquitous circumbendibus at 17th

Six golf clubs play over the links and, though Old Tom Morris extended the course to 18 holes in 1872 from Allan Robertson’s original 10  and James Braid re-bunkered it in the late 1920s, it was the strength of local golf knowledge, expressed through the local committee and led by James Wright, that changed the course’s finish to enhance the strategic value of the winding Barry Burn, (described with his usual wit by Bernard Darwin as that ‘ubiquitous circumbendibus’) which having The Open here for the first time in 1931, put this course on a path to what many describe as the greatest links course in the world.

Unlike most of the other Open venues which have steadily acquired their greatness, Carnoustie has achieved its iconic status as the toughest test, through the dichotomy of the weakness of being at the financial and political behest of local government (more of that later) while on the other hand being strengthened through the pride of being  run by its people.

There have been great amateur events here over the years and The Craw’s Nest Tassie week , started in 1927, attracts an international field in the same way as Dornoch’s Carnegie and St Andrew’s Eden weeks. It also stages that mixture of celebrity fun and fine professional golf, the Dunhill Links tournament every October, but I shall focus on The Open events to explore the heart of Carnoustie.

The roll-call of Open Carnoustie Champions is legendary. Tommy Armour in 1931 got the better of the local man Macdonald Smith who has been called the best golfer to have never won either The Open or the US Open, while Sir Henry Cotton in 1937 kept the rampant Americans at bay in atrocious weather, in what is recognised as this supreme master’s greatest performance.

Carnoustie 6th and Peter

Peter walking up Hogan’s alley

Ben Hogan, reputedly the best golfer of his era, only once came to the UK for the 1953 Carnoustie Open, practising at nearby Panmure, and he is said to have hit only one bad shot in the whole tournament – at the 17th in his third round – where he took 6. He forever made famous the sixth hole (520/575 yards) where there is a run of “John Low-style” bunkers in the middle of the fairway, which give the player a strategic choice of whether to take on what became known as “Hogan’s Alley” between the OOB up the left or play short which then required a long iron third shot. Hogan smacked all four of his drives up the left which, with a prevailing south westerly wind – such as it was when I played it recently – the line is almost over the OOB with the wind helping to fade the ball back!

It was this hole more than any other that had so many professionals whingeing about the tough set-up in 1999. That year the weather had thickened the rough and the R&A, though they maintained the width of the fairways, had allowed it to grow in from the left at the point where Jockie’s Burn pinches from the right and where the second shots are usually laid up, if Hogan’s Alley was not achieved with the drive.

A number of famous names were embarrassed in retrospect for their hasty words. They seemed to be unused to so much challenge in difficult weather conditions. They should have heeded the words of the genius links player and five times Open Champion Peter Thomson prior to the 1968 Carnoustie Open: “lots of players are going to get annoyed at the course and beat themselves”!

Carnoustie 14th

The ‘spectacle’ bunkers on 14th

Gary Player won in 1968, whose swing was described as ‘a marvel of disciplined violence’ (!), and young Tom Watson won in 1975, both putting their Open wins down to the eagles they achieved at another iconic hole, the fourteenth  where the famous “Spectacle” bunkers create a blind approach shot on this dogleg hole that shares a double green with the fourth,

By the 1970s, with the people like Bobby Locke calling for British professionals to practise the “American” game so they could compete with the likes of Palmer and Nicklaus, ‘Target’ golf was regrettably becoming the fashion, with the introduction of automatic watering.  Jim Arthur just saved Turnberry from a meadow grass based boringness to provide firm running conditions for the ‘duel in the sun’ between Watson and Nicklaus in 1977. For Carnoustie, however, a different kind of disaster, linked to its ownership, sadly set back the course for twenty years, though subsequently it was to create a new hero.

I am unaware of a single other instance where government policy has so affected a golf club. A reorganisation of local government in the 1970s meant that the control of Carnoustie links moved to the distant Angus District Council with the Carnoustie greenkeepers reporting to Park Superintendents who thought “green was good” and that over-watering and fertiliser had to be the remedy and aeration equipment thought to be much too expensive.

Carnoustie 8th

The par three 8th

The quality of the course soon plunged as meadow grass (Poa annua) took over and the hosting of The British Amateur was lost in 1983. Much as James Wright led a renaissance in the 1930s, a certain John Calder came to the rescue by persuading Angus District Council to pass control back to a local links management committee with representation from the six local clubs. Crucially he attracted John Philp, a strong disciple of Jim Arthur, to take the reins as Course Superintendent in 1985.

It took John, along with the team that he built, at least seven years to re-establish a domination of fine bents and fescue grasses again and return a firmness to the greens, through the introduction of traditional greenkeeping disciplines and after an interval of 24 years Carnoustie was at last again awarded The Open in 1999.

Some have argued that the R&A, miffed over an inappropriate bill after the 1975 Open or the lack of a major local hotel, contributed to The Open’s absence. However, it was clearly the patent failings on the course created by Angus DC that (with also perhaps investment diverted inappropriately to the new Buddon course) was the real problem and, with Jim Arthur’s advice, the modest, hardworking and knowledgable John Philp was recruited to save and, in time, re-establish Carnoustie as one of the finest ‘running-game’ links course in the world.

Queen’s Park, Bournemouth was another municipal course that hosted championships in the 1950s but with the local council ‘letting it go’ I have had to drop it off the list of Frank Pennink’s fine courses.

Carnoustie 12th

‘Southward Ho’ the 12th

Carnoustie is not spectacular in its vistas and does not possess the beautiful movement in the ground of, for example, County Down,  or Dornoch. Nevertheless, the ‘joy to be alive’ is intense, playing on flat terrain that contains no weak hole.

It is golf on a grand scale, a links built for big golfers, for all the bunkers are placed to catch their shots rather than those of their weaker brethren. An attractive element for a holiday course.

The 1920s James Braid bunkering is brilliant and was further improved by changes to the green complexes at holes 1,3,5,6,8,11 and 18, overseen by John Philp since 1988 (the year when I first played the course).

So many new modern green complexes with their computer designed undulations look identical to one another, with raised greens, moulded moundings and deep run-offs all round. Not so at Carnoustie, where the traditional run-ins through the front of greens have been maintained and the contours of each green have been kept in natural harmony with the surrounding ground. Every hole stays in the memory with its own natural characteristics.

The newly sculptured landing ground for drives at the eleventh hole with its modest new bumps and hollows is so much more attractive in comparison to the modern flatness of fairways, preferred by professionals since they reduce unpredictability, at new courses like Kingsbarns, Castle Stuart or The Renaissance.

John Philp is only the second greenkeeper to my knowledge across GB&I to have a hole named after him and it is appropriate the changes he has made to the eleventh have been celebrated in this way. The other is Paddy Cawl’s second hole at The Island GC, Malahide.

Carnoustie 15th

The Hotel behind ‘lucky slap’ the 15th

These changes are all in keeping with the historical look of open-fronted greens beckoning the running ball played under the wind. There is the odd blind shot here, like the courageous one over the famous ” Spectacle ” bunkers on the 14th but the challenge is clearly set in front of you at Carnoustie, laid out without the hidden traps of The Old Course across the water.

Some might think that Carnoustie is all about length – and the Open Tees can be extended to 7400 yards – but it’s not. There are six holes of around 400 yards or less off the very back tees at holes 1,3,4,5,7 and 11 and two of the three par fives are less than 500 yards.

FineGolf is a game in which accuracy should be rewarded and there should be a requirement for imagination and shot-making. Donald Ford in his well researched and empathetic book the carnoustie story quotes the local pro Colin Sinclair as suggesting, the Championship course hits all the aforementioned FineGolf spots.

” Of all of golf’s natural hazards my favourite is the stream.” So wrote Frank Pennink. The stats tell us that there are  here 1450 yards of ditches including the Jockie Burn, three-quarters of a mile of the Barry Burn, 113 bunkers  and more than a mile of OOB; all of these challenges have to be faced and surmounted.

On a calm day Carnoustie is a stern examination and with eleven radical changes in hole direction, only twice does a hole follow the line of the previous one – at 7 and 9, when the wind blows, as it nearly always does, it is tough.

Carnoustie 2nd

‘Braid’s bunker’ on the 2nd

As in all the greatest courses, it is the long par fours that define Carnoustie. At 2,9,10,17 and 18 the placement of the drive is critical and often (as at holes 12 and 14 also) needs to be positioned between brilliant Braid bunkering (cunningly sited exactly where the scratch man wants to put his ball). At these holes, the long iron is likely to be the wise choice, to weave the ball through the gaps and run onto the green.

Such play is in distinct contrast to today’s Wentworth West, where Ernie Els has supervised the raising of the greens and the encroaching ‘tonsil’ bunkers, require the ball to be played at all times ‘through the air’.

I guess Mark Parsinen, the joint creator of that stunningly beautiful new course at Castle Stuart, would refer to Carnoustie as having to be played ‘through the uprights’ and there are no 80 yard-wide fairways as there are to be found at Castle Stuart.

Back in 1933 James Wright is quoted as saying “The ideal course is the one which gives the greatest pleasure to the many, and at the same time constitutes a searching test for the crack golfer – whether professional or amateur. Carnoustie is nearing the ideal.”

‘South America’s’ 10th green

The second and ninth are both great holes while the tenth (with its important deciduous trees near the green that stick out like a sore thumb and should have been swapped for  Scots Pine many moons ago!, similar to the fifteenth at Monifieth), is world famous for its curious name of “South America”.

Scots used to have a long tradition of colonising the world including my own ancestors (the Macphersons of Skye became sheep farmers and the Smiths of Darnick, timber traders, both around Melbourne in the early nineteenth century) and some 300 local golfers emigrated from Carnoustie including a David (locally known as ‘hairy’) Nicol, whose intention after a leaving party was to catch the boat to South America. He missed the boat, waking up the next morning on the fairway of Carnoustie’s tenth hole, for ever after named in tribute as “South America”.

Another émigré from Carnoustie was the famous coach Stewart Maiden who was the first and only teacher of the incomparable Bobby Jones who won the Grand Slam of both amateur and professional Open Championships in the UK and the USA in 1930.

Having said all of the above, what really makes the Carnoustie round is its finish. It has simply the most testing final five-holes on the Open rota, and I include the stretchy Hoylake finish in my comparison.

Carnoustie 16th roger

Roger walking to 16th green

With only three short holes, two of which are pretty 160 yarders, the sixteenth at 245 yards can be almost treated as a par four as Tom Watson did when playing it with four fours to clinch the 1975 Open, after which he called it the hardest short hole on the Open rota.

To see Padraig Harrington who won his first ‘major’ in the play-off for the 2007  Carnoustie Open, taking a rescue club here was a disappointment to me, (although we all now possess such clubs!) while his opponent Sergio Garcia, was using his glorious bladed long irons.

The R&A and the USGA must be complimented on the rule changes to grooves on club faces and long-handled putters but we really do need to lighten, decompress or make larger the ball the professionals use, simply so that our finest courses don’t have to be of monumental length in order to provide a test.

So much has been written about the seventeenth. This hole is unique as well as having a green with the highest percentage of fine grass on the course. John Philp correctly identified the need for humps on the right of the fairway to make those bailing out there take more of a risk.

Carnoustie 13th

The par three 13th

Paul Lawrie’s 3, 3 finish to win the 1999 Open was a stunning achievement while Jean Van de Velde’s comment to reporters after losing out was understandable: “It is a golf tournament – a game – and I gave it my best shot. Next time I hit a wedge, OK, you all forgive me? You say I’m a coward, whatever; next time – I hit a wedge!”

The previous fragmented nature of the Pro shop, starter’s hut, changing rooms, administration offices and the six clubhouses was a little confusing to a visitor and the warmth of welcome at such a prestigious venue inevitably compromised.  The new golf centre has enormously improved the focus of the welcome.

What is also encouraging is that the locals have shown they have the confidence to continuously adapt the course, analysing how to improve it and not being hidebound by history. Carnoustie is now in safe hands and led by men continuously generating improvement through agronomy and design.

There are also two other shorter courses. The Burnside (1892/1935) is well-regarded as a mini-championship lookalike after one is past the rather dull opening holes and The Buddon, a family holiday course has recently been through a redesign.

See ” The Carnoustie Story ” by Donald Ford (2006) and Experience Carnoustie golf links by Richard Goodale (2007)

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2011, updated 2015.

Reader Comments

On January 21st, 2015 Philip Addis Said:

A very perceptive view of a fantastic course which I have had the privilege of playing on in a number of Tassie Tournaments.
The feel of the Championship course is unsurpassed by any of the others on the Open Championship rota including Hoylake and St Andrews.