News & Opinion

Carnoustie looms as meanest major site

When bathed in sunlight, the Old Course is a magnificent postcard framed by St. Andrews, Scotland’s cherished Auld Gray Toon. Any view of Turnberry beneath a bright blue sky, with its famed lighthouse and Ailsa Craig floating eerily out in the Irish Sea, is one that rivals Pebble Beach for stark beauty.

Carnoustie? Well, if the British Open rota were a beauty pageant, it wouldn’t be a contender. Carnoustie is homely. It’s no fun. It’s bordered by a railway. Even the luxury hotel built near the course nearly two decades ago looks more like a storage facility than a swank vacation retreat.

I never picture Carnoustie, maybe the world’s hardest major-championship venue and site of this week’s 147th British Open (tee times), adorned by golden rays of sun. (Well, it’s in Scotland, so …) I picture it with low, leaden skies, a chilling mist and angry whitecaps wrestling on a gray sea.

Carnoustie is an ominous place of doom and gloom. It is not a tourist stop, not like St. Andrews. It is a golf course where par is a dare that often goes unmet.

Trouble looms throughout Carnoustie (Scotland) Golf Links, site of this week’s 147th British Open.

Trouble looms throughout Carnoustie (Scotland) Golf Links, site of this week’s 147th British Open.

Tiger Woods has felt the wrath of Carnoustie. In 1996, Woods arrived there as a 20-year-old amateur to play the Scottish Open and prep for the British Open the next week at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

It seemed like a good idea until the wind howled off the Firth of Tay at upwards of 40 mph in the opening round. Golfers were blown away, almost literally. Woods shot 81. The field’s average was 78.

I was there with a handful of British writers when Woods emerged from the scoring cabin after his round. He held a bottle of Scotch whisky, given to each player in the field. It was odd because I’ve never seen swag handed out to players after a round, but, hey, it’s not my country.

When he was asked how it went, a dazed-looking Woods held up the bottle and joked, “This might be empty by tomorrow.” He was seldom that funny over the next 20 years.

Jim Furyk shot 84 that day and said, “The Scots must be a tough people if they do this for fun.”

Said Ernie Els after his opening 76, “This is the hardest course I’ve ever played. I feel like a 10-handicapper right now.”

It was the wind that made it so challenging that day, but Carnoustie took another bite out of Woods when he returned for the 2007 British Open. After an opening 69, he began the second round by hitting 2-iron off the first tee, a conservative play – he thought. Woods hooked the shot so badly that his ball bounced left of the fairway, past the out-of-bounds stakes and into the Barry Burn, which few realized was in play at No. 1.

That gaffe led to a double bogey. Woods hit the 2-iron again for his second shot at the par-5 sixth hole and beaned a spectator, a 63-year-old woman who needed two stitches. “We were standing 30 yards short of the green and I said to my wife, ‘Get your crash helmet on; Tiger’s coming,’ ” the woman’s husband said. He meant it as a joke. Instead, it was a spoiler alert.

Woods shot 74 and dropped seven shots off the lead. He finished 12th.

The 1999 Open solidified Carnoustie’s claim as golf’s meanest major venue. That year’s setup featured absurdly deep rough and ridiculously narrow fairways. The conditions were widely criticized, and it remains an unfinished symphony about who was at fault: the R&A, club officials or the head greenskeeper.

But Carnoustie always has been a beast. Gary Player is a man known for enthusiasm and hyperbole. He won the 1968 Open at Carnoustie and called it “the most demanding and punitive test of links golf in the world.” It wasn’t hype. Even Tom Watson, not the president of the Player Fan Club, agreed.

What makes Carnoustie so hard? Historically, it has played long – 7,361 yards, par 71 in 1999; 7,402 yards this week – but I’m not sure that any course is considered long for today’s Happy Gilmore-length bashers. Carnoustie did play long in ’68, though, when Player had to hit 3-wood for his second shot at the par-4 14th over the famed Spectacles bunkers and knocked it to 2 feet, a shot for the ages. 

Carnoustie’s fairway bunkers are deep and feature sod faces. They might as well be water hazards because they usually require a sideways pitch-out and equate to a one-shot penalty. 

The finishing three holes help put the nasty in “Carnastie.” The 16th is a 248-yard par 3 where, in the old days, players often pulled out driver. The 17th is a long par 4 featuring the Barry Burn meandering across the fairway twice. The 18th is another long par 4, at 499 yards, and is the place where Frenchman Jean Van de Velde gave Barry Burn its closeup when he rolled up his pant legs and considered taking a desperate swing at a submerged golf ball before he made a triple bogey, lost a three-stroke lead and, ultimately, the Open in a playoff.

Carnoustie boasts a great honor roll of champions: Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton, Ben Hogan, Player, Watson and Padraig Harrington. Although Paul Lawrie, the ’99 champion, seems like the answer to a who-doesn’t-belong-and-why question, he survived that debilitating setup and a three-way playoff, so give him some respect.

As with most Opens, the fickle weather will determine just how difficult the course will play. In Carnoustie’s case, the best scenario for players is that it’s just a bear. The worst scenario? It’s a windy version of “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Which reminds me of what old-school entertainer Danny Kaye (Bing Crosby’s buddy in “White Christmas,” among other old movies) wrote in the Carnoustie visitors’ book after he played the course decades ago. It was one word: “Murder.”

These are different times, and golf is a different game. One thing hasn’t changed, though. No matter what happens this week at Carnoustie, it won’t be pretty.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle