After a spell in the wilderness, Carnoustie got the Open Championship back in 1999 and duly showed why it is regarded by many as being the toughest course in the world. A number of the game's top players were brought to their knees by the Angus course as Paul Lawrie beat Justin Leonard and Jean van de Velde in a play-off to lift the Claret Jug. While essentially flat, the key to getting round Carnoustie in a decent score is accuracy. The finish is particularly tough, the 14th, which boasts the famous 'Spectacles' bunkers, being the first of five holes which will make or break a score. Going forward the world's best golfers will again compete for the Claret Jug in 2007.
There it was. An invitation to play at Carnoustie with my
father-in-law. What followed was an afternoon of sobering contemplation
at the task ahead.
I'd heard the course was challenging, and I knew Paul Lawrie won The
Open in 1999 with an over-par total, but the true venom of this coastal
beast percolates the Internet like a public health warning.
"Austere. Bleak. Barren. Desolate. Forbidding," read one website. "The hardest golf course in the world," said another.
It's just 18 holes, I thought. Nobody died.
And so a golfing odyssey began. We landed in Edinburgh and headed
north. Traveling by train, Scotland's stunning natural beauty ebbed and
flowed from valley to mountain, through rocky outcrop and over
Gradually, we left the lowlands and entered the heart of this beautiful
country. "Scotland starts as Perth," said our landlord in Blair Athol.
Having scaled as high as Inverness, we started our descent
south-easterly towards Carnoustie, encountering the genial Scottish at
every turn. It seemed nothing was too much trouble, and nobody too busy
to indulge in conversation.
Each time we bought up Carnoustie, however, a strange thing happened.
Glowing faces turned suddenly ashen. As if comprehending the most
heinous of all places, landlords, taxi drivers, and pub regulars alike,
would drift towards a dark corridor of their mind and offer their
foreboding tales of sporting misery.
The message was clear. We, the golfing hobbits, were heading for the
links equivalent of Mordor. Following a wonderfully scenic train ride
from Dundee, we arrived in Carnoustie and strolled into town to soak up
The golf tourists were everywhere, immersed in sporting pilgrimage and
paying their respects at the local golfing stores. "Must get a load of
balls," said one well-jumpered golf-lover to another.
It's a strange feeling to look upon scenes of iconic sporting triumph
(and disaster) with your own eyes. For a true fan, it felt surreal and
magical. Ben Hogan had won here in 1953, Gary Player in 1968, and Tom
Watson in 1975. Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Severiano Ballesteros
had all walked the legendary fairways at their peak.
And then there was Jean Van De Velde. "We're not worthy," I thought.
Having delayed the inevitable for as long as possible, Tim and I left
the comfort of the practice area and made our way to the first tee.
A couple from Vancouver, dressed as if they were extras in The
Sopranos, had been given the dubious pleasure of accompanying us on the
round. Completing our group were two local caddies, Fiona and Andy, a
luxury that Tim had insisted on funding.
Both were strong golfers who knew the course inside out. Their patience
would be tried in the afternoon ahead, but they began by lifting our
moral. "Sergio Garcia got an 8 on this one in '99," said Andy, "so
anything better and you'll be ahead of him going into the second."
As Fiona checked the yardage, showed me an illustration of where to aim
and handed me the driver, I suddenly felt like the biggest fraud in
sporting history. "I'm here to write a piece," I told her, "so don't
expect any great golf." "You'll be fine, just avoid the bunkers on the
right and the OB on the left, " she said calmly.
You'll be glad to know I did both, sending a vicious hook into the deep
heather over by a parallel fairway. "We'll find that," she said softly.
Tim, on the other hand, blazed a comfortable drive down the middle and
left Andy very satisfied.
Poor Fiona, I thought. Somehow I managed a sketchy five and Tim and I
moved onto the second tee just one over par. "You're both three ahead
of Sergio," said Andy. It proved a monumental false dawn.
While Tim played with guile and composure, I zigzagged the course like
a frightened rabbit, dragging the hapless Fiona along for an exhausting
front nine. "I'll go find those other three balls when we come back
down the eighth," she offered.
Though there were a couple of pars in the mix, my hilarious card showed
a 12, an 8, and at least one score that could have won a rugby match.
"I'm just trying to get the full experience," I joked. I doubt very
much Fiona laughed.
As we made the turn, I bought Fiona a candy bar and she disappeared to
pick berries behind the tee box, no doubt stifling the urge to end my
misery with a three-iron to the head.
"Never pick them below waist height," she said dryly on her return. It
took me an age to work out why, but then I clearly wasn't on point.
Heading into the epic last four holes, I had regained some confidence
and felt ready to re-enact the childhood fantasy of winning major down
For my back garden, substitute a real, genuine championship course. I
would still provide the commentary in my head. On the last tee, the sun
burst through and illuminated a quite wonderful vista. If there was a
golfing heaven, we had arrived.
The silhouettes of golfers ahead were breathtakingly cinematic, and one
couldn't help but feel privileged to be enjoying such a unique
opportunity. Thoughts soon turned to Van de Velde. It was the Frenchman
who famously capitulated on the 18th at Carnoustie, needing just a six
to win The Open in 1999.
"He hit a bad drive," said Andy, "then a bad second shot which cracked
into the grandstand, and then he went in the water." Van De Velde got a
seven that day and the chance of a lifetime slipped through his
fingers. He will be relieved to know, however, that his triple-bogey on
the last was considerably better than my attempt at the hole.
Luckily, I had little more than pride at stake. With the round over,
our strange-looking foursome shook hands and reflected on a truly
memorable experience. For Fiona, a long day's work was finally over.
"Thank you so much," I said, " sorry you ended up walking twice as far
as usual." "You're not very good at golf," said Fiona, "but at least
Carnoustie's narrow fairways and cavernous bunkers had proved every bit
as hard as its reputation suggested. Having benefited from perfect
conditions and rough cut far shorter than it will be next summer, it is
with utmost respect that this course should be approached.
Ultimately, the experience of playing such an iconic and picturesque
course is worthy of any embarrassment its trials and tribulations may
bring, for to walk in the footsteps of sporting legends is a rare and
- by golf.co.uk pro golfer