Carnoustie is known as much for the calamity it causes as the British Open champions it crowns.
Any mention of Carnoustie immediately brings back that image of Jean Van de Velde, equal parts tragedy and comedy, standing in Barry Burn on the 18th hole with water up his shins and rising. He made triple bogey to lose a three-shot lead, and then completed as great a collapse as can be found in a major championship by losing in a three-man playoff in 1999.
Just don’t get the idea Van de Velde owns all the rights to bad endings at Carnoustie.
Jose Jurado was the first victim.
He had a three-shot lead going into the final round in 1931 and was still two shots clear late in the round until coming undone in the brutal closing stretch, topping one shot on the 17th hole into the burn. He lost out to Tommy Armour.
More recently was Padraig Harrington , only it worked out well for him in 2007. Playing the 18th with a one-shot lead, the Irishman hit his tee shot into the Barry Burn. He took a penalty drop and then hit his next shot into the winding stream. Harrington managed the best double bogey of his life. It got him into a playoff when Sergio Garcia made bogey from the bunker, and Harrington went on to win his first major.
Of the six previous Opens on these menacing links, Ben Hogan is the only winner to hold a 54-hole lead.
For most everyone else, Carnoustie always seem to dish out its share of carnage. Rod Pampling once opened with a 71 and had the lead. He followed with an 86 and missed the cut. Phil Mickelson still hasn’t seen a weekend at Carnoustie. Garcia made his major debut as a professional at Carnoustie. He shot 89.
“That’s a brutal course,” Bernhard Langer said. He speaks from experience in 1999, when Langer had his third-highest score of the 23 Opens he completed. He shot 297, and he tied for 18th that week.
The first time Tiger Woods went an entire round without a birdie in a major was in 1999 at Carnoustie.
“I think I made one birdie on the weekend and I finished three or four back of the playoff,” Woods said. “That was ridiculous how hard it was.”
One month after Shinnecock Hills was punishing as ever in the U.S. Open, golf’s oldest championship doesn’t figure to be much of a reprieve. Scotland has been going through a warm, dry patch of weather, which figures to make it firm and bouncy.
Mickelson, who played Carnoustie a week before the Open, said it was unlikely he would even carry a driver.
“I’m either going to carry a driver or that hot 3-wood, but there’s only two or three holes — there’s actually only two holes I plan on using it, both par 5s. I have a low 1-iron that I’ve been putting in the bag and … it’s very low. Gets on the ground quick. I’ll hit that on probably the last ten holes, almost every hole.”
Carnoustie in any conditions is regarded as a beast, with a reputation as the toughest links in the world. Sir Michael Bonallack, the former R&A secretary, might have sized it up the best when he said, “When the wind is blowing, it is the toughest course in Britain. And when it’s not blowing, it’s probably still the toughest.”
In recent Opens, it has picked up a nickname: Car-nasty.
For so much of the field, it will be a new experience. Only two players from the top 10 in the world have played a British Open at Carnoustie — Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy , who was an 18-year-old amateur in 2007 and immediately showed his potential when he opened with a 68. He tied for 42nd that week.
Only 33 players in the 156-man field have played an Open at Carnoustie, and only 12 have played it twice.
Defending champion Jordan Spieth only knows it from television.
He was 13, just starting to blossom as a junior, and he watched the Open from home as Garcia and Harrington tried to survive the finish.
“I remember … how good of a score par was on that hole and will continue to be for Opens going forward,” Spieth said. “It’s one of probably the toughest closing holes in the Open Championship anywhere, and that creates some drama when it comes down to Sunday, as we’ve seen. And I don’t think it will be any different this year.”
Carnoustie gets its mean streak from the way the course was set up in 1999, with narrow fairways and high grass. But its strength comes from the wind, like most links courses, and this course near the North Sea is particularly exposed.
It measures 7,402 yards, which is 19 yards shorter — yes, shorter — than it was in 2007, the last time the Open was at Carnoustie.
Spieth will try to become the first player in 10 years to repeat as British Open champion, and right now he’d simply settle for a chance. Since his closing 64 at the Masters to finish third, Spieth has finished at least 12 shots out of the lead in four of his seven tournaments. He missed the cut in the other three.
Like most majors these days, the Open figures to be wide-open.
Dustin Johnson, who lost a four-shot lead over the final two rounds at Shinnecock, is back to No. 1 in the world and eager to pick up another major. He has not played since the U.S. Open. The next three players behind him in the world ranking — PGA champion Justin Thomas, Rose and U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka — all have a chance to replace him at No. 1.
Recent history would suggest a young American — the last five majors have been won by Americans in their 20s.
“It’s definitely been pretty one-sided, and the Americans are dominating,” Rose said. “So it would be lovely to turn that around next week.”
Woods is happy to get another crack at it.
Carnoustie was his first experience with links golf in 1995, when he was still at Stanford and came over for the Scottish Open at Carnoustie ahead of the British Open at St. Andrews. He opened with a 69, closed with a 78 finished 48th.
“Carnoustie is an unbelievable driving golf course,” Woods said. “You have to drive the ball well there, but also it’s not your traditional in (and) out golf course. It’s a lot of different angles, so a lot of different crosswinds. I have to be able to maneuver the golf ball both ways there efficiently. You just have to hit the golf ball well.”
There is no faking. Nothing comes easily. No one really conquers Carnoustie. It’s more about survival.
The highest compliment might have come from Tom Watson, who won his first major at Carnoustie in 1975 in a playoff over Jack Newton.
“Carnoustie is like an ugly, old hag who speaks the truth no matter how painful,” Watson once said. “But it’s only when you add up your score, you hear exactly what she thinks of you.”