World's toughest course?

July 10, 2007

The Barry Burn snakes through the 499-yard 18th (center) and 461-yard 17th (right).

The main road through the town of Carnoustie is a bleak street, framed by gray, sooty storefronts, a macadam so narrow you'll find yourself jumping a curb to let an oncoming double-decker bus rumble by. Turn right and ease through a skinny tunnel beneath the Dundee to Arbroath railway line, then right again, and you're at the municipally owned Carnoustie Golf Links, equally bleak, at first glance.

Carnoustie's Championship Course, acknowledged as one of the toughest in the world-perhaps the toughest-takes time to savor and appreciate.

Just inland from the North Sea, which is visible only from the 15th hole, the course is always exposed to the elements. But unlike most firm, fast, sand-based links, Carnoustie doesn't march out in one direction, then backtrack on the inward nine. Its holes change direction constantly. No more than two in a row face the same angle to the wind.

Its bunkers, as at most Scottish links, have vertical revetted walls of turf. But some aren't ovals. They twist and turn, distorting their walls into canted, even convex faces. Braid bunkers, locals call those concoctions, after their author, architect James Braid.

In other words, it's a fascinating design. The more you dig at Carnoustie, the more you understand. But, in this age of instant analysis, it's easier to be glib than accurate. Which is why, as Carnoustie prepares for its seventh British Open Championship, most will revisit the howls it generated at its last meeting.

In 1999, Carnoustie was considered one big unplayable lie, a links that demanded target golf, a scheme to make the best golfers in the world look like idiots. The finish was a Frenchman's folly (see page 138) and the wrong guy won, in the minds of most sportswriters. Scottish fans were thrilled that local hero Paul Lawrie prevailed, but most writers sniffed that Lawrie was a square peg in the shining round table of previous Carnoustie victors: Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Tom Watson.

Writers in '99 designated a villain. Not the Royal & Ancient, which conducts the Open and dictated its setup, but course superintendent John Philp, who was accused of putting a noose in Carnoustie by squeezing fairways into footpaths through a deliberately cultivated jungle of waist-high hay, and then cackling about it like some demonic sorcerer.

There are those who believe Philp got his comeuppance and was summarily fired after the event. No, what he got after the Open was investiture as a Member of the British Empire. (And therein lies another misconception. He is not now Sir John Philp. He wasn't granted knighthood, just an MBE.) Philp is still Carnoustie's superintendent, still there to make sure in 2007 that "no one makes an arse of my course."

Sure, Carnoustie's setup in 1999 was severe. Each fairway varied in width at several spots from tee to green. One stretch on the 18th was just 18 yards wide, but it got wider at the landing area, then narrower again short of the burn in front of the green. The fairways averaged about 28 yards wide, the same widths they had been in the 1996 Scottish Open, when nobody complained, and mostly the same widths they'll be this year.

The secondary rough-that waist-high hay-was thick, but Philp hadn't fiendishly irrigated and fertilized it. The months prior to the Open were rainy and warm, perfect for native grasses to grow amok. Every course on Scotland's eastern seaboard was throttled with tall, thick rough that summer. By August, things had dried out and the tall stuff had wilted. But the Open was played in July. What exacerbated the situation were howling winds on the first two days of the championship, blowing hard from the west, opposite of the prevailing wind.

Let's quash the rumors that Philp chemically enhanced the rough in the months before the Open. There's almost no way to realistically spread fertilizer through the areas at Carnoustie where the tall rough grows: There are humps, dunes, clumps of gorse, unimproved ground. Second, we're talking about native grasses. Hit them with commercial fertilizers-especially chemical sprays-and you'll probably kill them, not improve them. Third, Carnoustie is a public facility with three 18s. I've seen its maintenance building. I've seen the equipment. I can't believe Philp and his people, without help from the R&A, would have spent the excess money to fertilize the acres and acres of tall rough. The setup in '99 didn't cause Jean Van de Velde's last-round collapse (he started the day at even par, ahead by five), and it didn't prevent Lawrie from closing with a Hogan-like round of 67, to tie at six-over-par 290, and then birdieing the 17th and 18th in the four-hole playoff to win easily over Van de Velde and Justin Leonard.

Speaking of Hogan, his victory there in 1953, his only appearance in the Open, establishes that fans of Carnoustie can be equally guilty of hyperbole. To hear people tell it these days, Hogan loved the place, every bonnie burn, every Braid bunker, every bad bounce. In truth, he didn't much care for it. "This is like putting on putty," he told club officials, adding that he should have brought his lawn mower with him from Texas.


There is a muzzle of sorts on Philp this year. Among five Open contacts listed for the media, Philp's name is conspicuously absent. Initial requests to interview him were turned down, but then genial Graeme Duncan, Carnoustie's general manager and secretary to the Open Championship Committee, relented on the condition that no questions be posed to Philp regarding the '99 event.

Duncan is the official spokesman for all things 1999, and he says mistakes were made that year. "The combination of firm fairways and high rough meant the course was perhaps too difficult. Players went away unhappy. That's certainly not what we wanted," Duncan says. "Certain elements were probably unfair. We didn't have enough semi-rough [what Americans call a narrow band of primary rough], so balls off the fairways just got swallowed up. We've learned our lesson. We'll have three to four meters of semi-rough along each side of every fairway this time around."

"Mr. Duncan has that wrong," Philp says, bringing up the subject by asking this reporter what he'd been told about the setup in '99. "We had a band of semi-rough in 1999. It was the same width and the same depth as it will be this year. But the purpose of semi-rough is to prevent a ball that's rolling from going into the thicker rough. If a ball is bouncing off-line and bounces through the semi-rough, well, sorry, but that's what they call the rub of the green. If it doesn't, that's a bonus. If it does, that's golf."

Philp thinks most of the brouhaha of '99 stems from incidents on a single hole, the par-5 sixth made famous by Hogan. Its wide fairway has long been split by a pair of deep bunkers, one beyond the other, forming two avenues. The safe, right-hand fairway presents an awkward second shot over dunes and the end of Jockie's Burn to reach the green. The dangerous left-hand route has out-of-bounds on its left flank but presents a much better angle to the green. The left corridor looks extremely narrow and exacting from the tee, just 20 yards from the first center bunker to the O.B. stakes, but the corridor widens to 32 yards past the second bunker. After Hogan bravely drove down that avenue in each round in the '53 Open, it was dubbed Hogan's Alley.

For the '99 event, the R&A extended the hole from 525 yards to 578. When the winds blew from green to tee, it became a three-shotter for everyone. "So the second shots were landing in this little neck of fairway where it was about 14 yards wide for 40 yards or so," Philp says. "That was never intended to be the second-shot landing area. The real area was closer to the green, where it widened to about 30 yards."

The R&A also insisted before the '99 Open that Philp install a third center bunker to discourage players from trying to carry the first two. (After the event, Philp filled it in.) Last year, the R&A's consulting golf architect, Martin Hawtree, came up with a different strategy, creating two bunkers at the far end of the right-side fairway, placed to catch drives that might carry and roll 300 yards or more. The idea is to discourage anyone from going down the right side, to force players to either carry the center bunkers or play down Hogan's Alley.

Philp concludes that there was "a lot of weak golf that week, bad shots, played with iron clubs, let alone wood clubs. Take away the wind, and it would never have been topical. The rough would have been exactly the same, and nobody would have seen it as tricked up."

Weather conditions leading up to this year's Open have not been conducive to waist-high hay. It'll probably be more like knee-high oats. However, fairways will be even firmer than in 1999. They should look something like those at Royal Liverpool at last year's Open, where most of the color and nearly most of the life was drained from Hoylake's turf to make it play far livelier than it otherwise would.

At the request of the R&A, Philp shut off Carnoustie's fairway sprinklers in a dry run during the summer of 2006, and achieved firm, fast conditions that pleased officials who visited just after the conclusion of the Open at Hoylake.

"The R&A would like us to play just as Royal Liverpool did last year," Duncan says. "But that's not possible. Royal Liverpool was golden brown. Being adjacent to the North Sea, with so many squall lines moving through, the best we'll be able to achieve is greeny-brown."


Carnoustie has one of the most stirring finishes in all of golf. It starts with the 248-yard, par-3 16th (the hardest par 3 in the world, according to Tom Watson, who won his first of five Opens there in 1975). That's followed by the 461-yard, par-4 17th, where the Barry Burn crisscrosses the hole three times, and the 499-yard 18th, once a par 5 but now a par 4 for the Open and members, where both tee shot and approach shot must tangle with the same burn. (By the way, the Barry is not really a burn, what we would call a creek. It's a tidal basin that rises and falls with the tides.)

So who is responsible for Carnoustie's fantastic finish? Although the course is more than 150 years old, the present-day Carnoustie is generally considered to be the work of five-time Open champion James Braid, who from the 1920s until his death in 1950 was Britain's leading golf architect. Braid, and his partner John R. Stutt, had remodeled the course in 1926, expanding tees, reshaping greens, adding 60 bunkers and enlarging others.

But Braid had hardly anything to do with those last three holes. Credit for them goes to James Wright, an accountant, longtime Carnoustie member and chairman of the Links Committee from 1926-'37. It was Wright who first hired Braid, and it was Wright who then convinced the R&A to award the 1931 Open to Carnoustie.

That announcement was made in the spring of 1930, just after Carnoustie had hosted the Scottish Amateur. Many players expressed skepticism. Although Carnoustie's routing was shaped like a scorpion poised to strike, most thought its tail lacked sting. The 15th was a bland par 4 of just 339 yards. The 16th, in the opposite direction, was only 335 yards, the 17th was a wee par 3 of 150 yards and the 18th a drive-and-pitch 365-yard par 4. At least that green sat on the far side of Barry Burn. In the summer of 1930, Wright proposed radical changes. The par-3 17th would be abandoned, replaced by a new par 3 to be played as the 13th. The 18th could then be extended back to the old par-3 tee box, creating a par 5 with two carries over the burn. The old 16th would become the 17th, played from a new back tee to a new green appropriated from Carnoustie's other course (now called the Burnside Course), its fairway defined by the several bends of the Barry Burn. The old 15th would become the 16th, shortened from a pushover par 4 to a stern par 3.

"The work which is to be commenced ... is no hair-brained scheme of a company of amateur course architects," wrote Harry Chapman, sportswriter for the Carnoustie Guide and Gazette in August 1930, "but is merely the continuation of the original plan suggested by James Braid in 1926."

In truth, it was the scheme of Wright, the amateur architect. Braid had offered additional ideas back in 1926, but his suggestion was that the par-3 17th be abandoned in favor of a new par 3 that would be created by dividing the par-5 Spectacles hole (now the famed 14th) into two holes. He never envisioned the par-3 16th or today's 17th. In September 1930, after construction on the new holes had begun, Wright traveled to Braid's home in London to obtain his blessing for the changes. "There is little doubt that the benediction of such an experienced player and course architect as James Braid should go far to subduing the hostile criticisms of those who do not see eye to eye with the local authorities," Chapman wrote.

Pride or curiosity apparently got to Braid. In November 1930, he rode a train all night, then caught a bus to Carnoustie. There, he, Wright and others walked the course for six hours. Braid made several suggestions regarding the new holes. He spent an hour staking out six bunkers around the new par-3 13th green, proposed three bunkers for the new 17th green, a new back tee on the 12th and a new tee on the Spectacles hole that would turn it into a dogleg-left over a wild stretch of gorse. All those changes were adopted and remain today.

Shortly before Braid departed, the group wandered over to the par-5 sixth. Braid proposed three new bunkers, including one in the center of the fairway, "for the purpose of forcing it to be played as a double-dogleg."

Thus was born Hogan's Alley, almost as an afterthought.

Somehow, using only horses and carts, greenkeeper Andrew Scott and his workers got the holes rebuilt and regrassed in time for the British Open in June 1931. After that, Wright tinkered with Carnoustie some more, filling in dozens of superfluous bunkers that affected only bad golfers, and he brought the Open back to Carnoustie in 1937. Wright also completely remodeled Carnoustie's Burnside Course. (There's now a third course, the Buddon Links, built in 1979 and totally remodeled by Philp in the late 1980s and early 1990s.)

"Carnoustie would not be a championship course without James Wright," Graeme Duncan says, and he's right. Which brings up one last misconception regarding Carnoustie: Several people told me that Wright died during World War II. There's a plaque on a clubhouse wall of the Caledonia Golf Club (one of several artisan clubs that utilize the three courses of Carnoustie) honoring James A. Wright as one of several "members of this club who gave their lives in the war of 1939-1945."

Turns out, that was a son of James Wright who died en route home from the European theater. Carnoustie's James Wright, the man who first brought the Open to town, the man behind the strongest finish in golf, lived a long and full life. He died in August 1962, at age 82.