News & Tours

The teeth of a major

For men and women, final four holes define why it's 'Car-Nasty' in Open

August 20, 2021

Sei Young Kim tees off on the 18th hole during the second round of the AIG Women's British Open at Carnoustie.

Andrew Redington

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Back in 2018, the last time the Open Championship visited Carnoustie Golf Links, the famed and ferocious finishing stretch from the 15th tee to 18th green provoked the usual mixture of shock and awe from the unfortunate competitors. “A slog,” was 2014 champion Rory McIlroy’s verdict. Zach Johnson, the Irishman’s successor as “champion golfer of the year,” came up with one word, “nasty.”

And three years on, nothing much has changed, both psychologically and statistically. “No. 17 is a beast,” says Lydia Ko. “And 18 is also a beast.”

Which sounds about right. Just as they were halfway to Francesco Molinari’s eventual triumph in 2018, this week the last four holes are all among the top-six toughest after 36 holes of the AIG Women’s Open. Which is the stat you can take to the bank at any Carnoustie Open, male or female. Day-to-day, though, the identities of the other hardest holes can vary.

Take this week. On Thursday, the most difficult hole on the ancient links (relative to par) was the 387-yard fifth. Famous at the venue for Ben Hogan’s iconic chip-in for birdie during the final round of the 1953 Open, the fifth green has two tiers. The slope between the two is somewhere between “steep” and “severe.” And when the pin is placed on the upper level, as it was for the opening round, this relatively innocuous hole is suddenly transformed. Jekyll becomes Hyde, pushing the field average up to 4.48. But in Friday’s second round, the fifth averaged only 3.96 and was ranked only 14th hardest. Because the pin was on the lower level, Hyde back to Jekyll.

Weather, both good and bad, plays its part, too. It wouldn’t be golf in Scotland otherwise. The first two rounds have been played in relatively benign conditions, a fact reflected in the average scores. In Round 1, the 144-woman field averaged an impressive 73.15; for Round 2, it was 72.93.

Things can change in a hurry though. European Solheim Cup captain Catriona Matthew recalls competing in a Scottish Ladies Amateur Championship “sometime in the early 1990s” when she was the only player to break 80 on a particularly severe day out on the Carnoustie links. And she shot 79. So things can get (Car)nasty, even if the deteriorating forecast for the third round isn’t predicted to be not quite so cataclysmic.

Only eight eagles were made during the first round. And, unusually, one of those came on the closing four holes. Australia’s Su Oh was the lucky player, her 6-iron approach (one she says she hit “fat”) finished at the bottom of the cup on the 437-yard 15th.

A closer inspection of holes 15-16-17-18 on Thursday reveals some interesting trends. For one thing, the fairway on the 17th—the hole dubbed “Island”—was the easiest on the course to find, although hitting the green in regulation is a lot harder.

To the surprise of no one, the hardest green to find on Day 1 was the 16th, a notoriously difficult 220-yard par 3. Not much more than one-in-three players managed to locate the putting surface in one shot.

We could go on and on. Suffice to say that, during Day One, the field played the course in a collective 166 over par, 149 of which were accumulated on Carnoustie’s “final four.” Hardest finishing stretch in golf? Of course. Nothing else is close.