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In Praise Of . . . Carnoustie

Carnoustie was the first great golf course I played. My dad took me when I was 15 years old. The course in those days, it has to be said, did not make the strong first impression that it does now. The imposing hotel overlooking the 18th green had yet to be built. The outstanding modern clubhouse wasn’t even in the pipeline.

Instead there was a professional’s shop, where you could buy a bar of candy, some tees and, if you were lucky, a sleeve of balls, and a tiny starter’s hut next to the first tee. Both were flat-roofed, concrete-sided monstrosities. When you paid for your round you received a thin paper receipt from the cash register, as if you were buying a stick of gum. Nothing about the setup hinted at the quality of the course, or the rich heritage that had seen the likes of Hogan, Player and Watson win Open Championships here.

These were unlikely circumstances for romance to blossom, but I fell in love with Carnoustie that day, and have loved it ever since. Other Scottish links may have a more dramatic setting, or better views, or ritzier gift bags, but for me Carnoustie is the ultimate Scottish test of golf.

What makes it so special? Well, for one thing, it’s scrupulously fair. The layout changes direction regularly – you never play with, against or across the prevailing wind for more than three holes in a row. For all that it’s a true, hard-running links course, there are very few unfair bounces or blind targets – no golfer will ever be able to say they were duped. And for a track renowned for toughness, it is remarkably playable. It’s only when a decent player decides to try and shoot a low number that Carnoustie really bares its teeth… and what a set of snappers it has. 

Nowhere is this more clearly shown than Carnoustie’s famous closing stretch. The sequence from 15-18 reads 4,3,4,4 against par but any golfer who makes it in level fours has played well. The 15th, for instance, is a long par four which requires a draw off the tee and a high fade to a raised green nestled in the dunes. The 16th is a 245-yard par three. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of standing on the tee here, preparing to hit a driver into a 30mph wind, only to have your caddie whisper sagely in your ear, “remember, all the trouble is at the front of the green”. 

The 17th is a risk/reward par four. You can lay up on an island fairway and leave a long iron to a shallow green or try and carry the Barry Burn and set up a birdie chance. And then there’s the last. The 18th is famous for Jean van de Veldt’s meltdown at the 1999 Open. The Frenchman could have won the Claret Jug by playing this long par four as a three-shotter but, by taking the course on, he opened the door to a world of hurt involving penal rough, a water hazard and cavernous bunkers. In many ways it was a perfect fable for Carnoustie, a course that doesn’t set out to embarrass a modest golfer but can make fools of the very best. A true golfers’ course.

Alan Greenwood is co-founder and Director of College Links Golf