Saturday, January 28, 2006


When Carnoustie (ranked #26 in the world) is brought up in conversation, the discussion invariably turns to Jean Van de Velde and his meltdown in the 1999 Open Championship. It is too bad if that is the only impression many of us have of Carnoustie, because, despite the R & A allowing the course to be made ridiculously penal in 1999, it is an impressive course. Hopefully, the R & A has learned its lesson and for future Open Championships will let Carnoustie defend itself without trying to trick it up.

Carnoustie is an important and historic golf course. Originally laid out in 1840 by Allan Robertson, it is one of the oldest courses in the world. Subsequent changes were made by Old Tom Morris and James Braid, which is not too shabby a group. For years I organized a small golf trip to Great Britain or Ireland. We were frankly scared off of Carnoustie after seeing it on TV, so had not made it a priority to play. After a half dozen years, we finally put it on our itinerary, and having done so are now sorry that we waited so long.

If every golf course has a personality, Carnoustie is that of a working man. Looking over Carnoustie from the first tee and you are bound to be disappointed. Be patient, however, and you will be rewarded.

One of the key things that makes Carnoustie great is its variety and the selection of shots you are asked to hit. Another defining feature is the series of burns that run through the course. On six holes you have to navigate the most "Scottish" of burns in golf. The tenth is guarded by the unforgiving Barry Burn:

Tenth Burn
The Barry Burn snaking through the 10th hole

Carnoustie is an enigma. It is unquestionably one of the greatest golf courses in the world but not for the usual reasons. It has none of the beautiful scenery that Pebble Beach or Turnberry has; in fact, some of the views are almost industrial and gritty. It is not set directly on the water. It does not have the storied history of a Merion or a Muirfield. It does not have a Royal pedigree or a delightful clubhouse like Hoylake or Lytham and St. Annes. In fact, it has a bit of a dis-jointed history and has been the home of many different golfing societies and local clubs over the years. Carnoustie is a public links, roughly the equivalent of a Bethpage in the U.S. And, it has an inferiority complex to its neighbor across the bay - St. Andrews.

Yet, despite all these apparent shortcomings, there is a certain charm to the place. Carnoustie is not pretending to be something it is not. It doesn't put on any airs or try to be fancy or pretentious in any way. It deserves a high place in the world of golf because it has evolved into something great. It is pure golf.

2nd green
The second green, like many at Carnoustie, is set in a hollow

Every hole at Carnoustie fits perfectly into an overall mosaic. Unlike an out and back routing such as Troon, Carnoustie offers variety. There is a constant change in direction, which, given the strong wind that is frequently present, is important, so as not to wear a golfer down. The course follows the natural contours of the land. It has some short holes, some long ones, some holes that are easy to drive, others that are quite narrow. It rewards driving but is also a shot makers course. And, its caddies have the best wit and sense of dry humor in all of Scotland. The short commuter trains going by not far away with a stout whistle are charming, reminiscent of Prestwick.

The third hole is guarded by Jockie's Burn. It is a classic Carnoustie hole. How can you make a 355 yard hole difficult? Make the second shot a blind one and put a burn like this directly in front of the green:

3rd jockie's burn
Jockie's Burn protecting the third green

Like a Beethoven Symphony, Carnoustie starts slowly, gets increasingly more complex and finishes with a bang. The last five holes have to be the hardest finishing holes in championship golf (other contenders would be Bethpage? Oakmont?). They start with "Spectacles", a hole so named for the fearsome bunkers located fifty yards short of the green that resemble a pair of glasses. From the tips, the hole is a 510 yard par FOUR. Even from the regular tees it is 461 yards. Although I'm told differently, every time I've played it, it's also into the wind.

Fourteen Spectacles
The fabulous 14th hole at Carnoustie, "Spectacles"

It ranks among the hardest holes in the world, with certainty. Even if you can navigate the Spectacles, there are a couple of pot bunkers that await your blind shot near the green. With well placed bunkers in the fairway and O.B. left, it also features a daunting tee shot.

The fifteenth, "Lucky Slap", is a 459 par four that normally plays into a prevailing wind and features a narrow fairway to a green that sits between treacherous bunkers.

The sixteenth is an impossibly difficult 250 yard par three, whose green slopes back to front. During the 1968 Open Championship the hole played so long that Jack Nicklaus was the only player able to hit the ball past the pin. Tom Watson describes it as the hardest par three in golf and I won't disagree.

The seventeenth and eighteenth have the Barry Burn snaking through them. We all remember what the Barry Burn did to Jean Van de Velde on that dreadful Sunday in 1999. Ironically, the seventeenth hole is actually a more difficult hole. The seventeenth is aptly named "Island" and when you stand at the tee you quite literally think to yourself, "Where the F am I supposed to hit the ball?"

One of my favorite golf writers, Dell Leigh, had this to say about Carnoustie in 1925 and it still rings true today, "The burn meanders slyly about the course to trap the shots of the unskilled at several holes. But the course is all the better because of it. There is a great satisfaction in beating the burn, and beating it convincingly."

On seventeen you need to hit your tee shot to a very small landing area that exists between the snaking burn. It is equally as important to hit the ball both the correct distance and on the correct line. Most people hit into the burn. Your choice is whether to do it left or right. This is all difficult enough, add in the wind and you've got your hands full.

"Island", the wicked seventeenth hole at Carnoustie

The eighteenth repeats a lot of the characteristics of the seventeenth, but in the opposite wind direction, which completely change the dynamics. Also, the eighteenth has an out of bounds along the left side, so any tension in your swing coming in on a close match easily brings it into play.

The famous British golf writer Henry Longhurst describes Carnoustie perfectly: "It defies you for thirteen holes and hammers you over the last five."

Come see where the Wee Ice Mon, as the Scots called Ben Hogan, won the 1953 Open Championship, his only time competing it that championship. The sixth hole is now named "Hogan's Alley". The hole is one of only two par fives on the course and has an out of bounds down the entire left hand side and a ditch down the right side. Hogan hit an almost identical shot in all four rounds in 1953, starting the ball out over the O.B. and fading it into the middle of the fairway. He did it with such precision that it is said the ball almost landed in the identical spot each day. What Hogan accomplished at Carnoustie is breathtaking, during the 1953 Open Championship he missed no fairways on the way to his victory and was the first champion since Willie Park in 1860 to win the tournament on his first try. It's too bad he didn't play in other Open's, which at the time was scheduled at the same time as the PGA Championship.

This part of the course is also next to a firing range the British military uses. The last time I played, in the middle of the day on a weekday they were firing automatic weapons into a big dirt hill while we played, perhaps 300 yards away.

It was with great amusement that I recently came across a review of Carnoustie published by Golf Illustrated in 1930. The only criticism they had of the course was that the greens were in such good shape that it actually made putting too easy. More than 70 years later, Carnoustie has had the best greens of any course I've played in the top 100 (although Winged Foot is a close second).

Patric Dickinson selected Carnoustie as a course in his 1951 book, A Round of Golf Courses, where he picked the eighteen best courses in the British Isles. He wrote, ". . . On the whole it is a friendly giant who prefers not to show his strength but to defeat you by wiles which one would, rather, attribute to a midget--by cunning changes of direction, by narrowing, subtle ditches, and by the winding of the Barry Burn. What finally one feels about Carnoustie is that it is a course one will continually want to return to. One could not ever get tired of it, and I mean that as a great compliment. It is fierce as a lion and sheet as honey."

Well said. Whenever I return to Scotland I try to play Carnoustie and consider it among my personal favorites in the world, and for me it is the best course in Europe.


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Anonymous said...

This course is a dog track for the most part

Anonymous said...

I agree with the last comment it is a dog track and a waste of money. The course reminded me of a upscale muni course. The few days my friends and I were in Scotland, we played St Andrews ( Old, New and Jubliee)and Kingsbarn (which we all agree was the best course out of the five).

Top 100 Golfer said...

Humbug to the last two comments! Carnoustie is one of the best golf courses in the world. It takes a keen eye to look beyond the lack of beauty and to see how great it really is.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Top 100 Golfer - Carnoustie is one of the world's best courses. It is hard to love, but easy to respect. The course, the town and the people live and breath golf in its purist form - with no elitism or pretension.

The very fact that 'Anonymous' could think that Kingsbarn (sic) is the best of those five courses, automatically indicates that they a) are an idiot, and b) should stick to playing the dog track they're a member of and which has clearly numbed their ability to appreciate greatness.

Anonymous said...

Some of the comments are a bit of an over-reaction I think.
We played Carnoustie last month, hence had to play off mats with a couple of shortened holes.
That said, it was only £62.50 each...!

We really enjoyed the course, with the highlight holes being the 1st, 16th and 17th.
At first sight it didnt feel like an Open Venue which added to its charms in many ways.
stayed at the Golf Hotel, excellent value, and talking with the locals walking their dogs on the course and people in the town everyone knows about golf.
incidentally one of the best curries i have ever had is available in the town at the friendly Ganges, and a night out in nearby Broughty Ferry is a must - real ales at the Fisherman's, followed by a tremendous meal upstairs at The Ship. Wonderful food, and a view across to the East Neuk of Fife to plan future golfing raids on its links.

Will def be back.

Anonymous said...

The two cretins calling Carnoustie a 'dog track' clearly struggled that day! It is by far the best course in Scotland and on The Open rota. Kingsbarns is nice but it's an easy track. If you want to play real golf, if you're a real golfer you play Carnoustie! Great review!

Bach said...

I had the opportunity to play Carnoustie this fall and I have to admit in regards to a golf course, there is a lot better. But saying that, similarily to Lambeau Field or Fenway Park its all about the history and aura that surrounds the sacred grounds. Everything from Jean Van de Velde to Hogan's Alley and Caledonia Golf Club and Simpson's Pro Shop. Every turn around Carnoustie has something to offer. This is a must do trip on any golf trip to eastern Scotland.

Unknown said...

A friend of mine lives near Carnoustie and is a member there. As a result I have been able to play the course at least 30 times in the last 10 years. Depending on the wind direction it's possible to score really well there especially on the front 9. As the author noted the greens are usually very good. I'm not sure they are some of the best in the world though. That's a big offer. What the greens are is tough to read from the standpoint that they are in some cases so flat it's tough to discern the very slight borrows.

The back 9 is where it's at and it really starts at the 15th with what's called the hardest finish in major championship golf.

The overall difficulty of the course really depends on the condition of the rough. When it's down the course is very playable. When it's up in the summer there isn't a lot of margin for error before you are hacking out. Unlike many older courses in Scotland and Ireland that have a number of blind shots the "Medal" as it's known really only has 1 at the "Spectacles" (14th). Much like Bethpage Black the course is very big and pretty much right in front of you. It doesn't give you the 18 hole beating that Bethpage does but with the wind up Carnoustie can hold it's own...witness the '99 Open.

T. Morgan Otte said...

Carnoustie is an enigma. When I played it in 2009 there was no driving range, warmed up hitting off mats into a screen. Most difficult course I have ever played. At the Old Course you're usually safe if you miss off the tee to the left. At Carnoustie there were no safe places to miss off the tee. Made for an incredibly frustrating round of golf, that was happily ended with a birdie on the 18th. Van de Velde would have been proud of my finish. Why is Old Head in Ireland not on your list of top 100 courses. It should be!

Anonymous said...

T. Morgan;

Your question regarding Old Head leads me to believe you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about in terms of golf course rating. Sure, Old Head is one of the greatest views, not only in golf, all of the world. The golf course is nothing more than a "newer American style, boring golf course". That being said, I have enjoyed being at Old Head both trips. Please stick to whatever it is you do and leave golf course rating to someone else....