July 23, 2007

The Long Goodbye

Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia weren't the only ones to feel the pain of Carnoustie's home hole

Harrington's gutty pitch on the 72nd hole.

Harrington's gutty pitch on the 72nd hole.

Outside the Carnoustie hotel Sunday night, Hunter Mahan closed his duffle bag after escaping the toughest finishing hole in major-championship golf unscathed. The moans and groans echoing from the other side of the building sounded like a public execution as Mahan, a young American spared this time by the Scottish Dragon, awaited his bus ride to the Edinburgh Airport. "It's a hole of history," he said behind a pair of sunglasses. "It's got more legend than anything I've ever played."

And the legend only grew last week. How much would Sergio Garcia, Andres Romero and even the eventual champion, Padraig Harrington, have paid for Mahan's closing par in the 136th British Open? That 4 put the finishing touches on Mahan's 65, tied him with Stewart Cink for low Yank and sent him back across the Atlantic with memories of Carnoustie's famous and infamous 18th hole. "The tee shot is brutal," Mahan said. "You see out-of-bounds left. You see nothing right. And that O.B. left, on your second shot, creeps in your mind a little bit."

And, of course, there's the ghost of Jean Van de Velde, in the Barry Burn eight years ago, pant legs rolled up, on his way to the triple-bogey 7, one of the greatest final-hole collapses in major-championship history. No wonder Harrington called it "the toughest finishing hole in golf," after hitting his tee shot and his approach shot into the burn, making double-bogey 6 and nearly joining Van de Velde in British Open lore.

What saved the Irishman was the untidy closing bogey by Garcia, who had parred the 18th during the first three rounds, including a par-save from 10 feet at the end of his opening-round 65, and a searing 4-iron Saturday afternoon that had locals comparing it to Paul Lawrie's clincher to his Open victory in 1999. At times a cranky loser, Garcia blamed his bogey on a "15-minute wait" with a 3-iron in his hands while the green cleared. "I wasn't very happy about that," Garcia said.

The Spaniard was not the only pouty face coming off Carnoustie's home hole in the early evening Sunday. Harrington's 6 also meant Romero's closing bogey was just as costly as Garcia's. (Just as Justin Leonard's closing bogey in 1999 became crucial in the wake of Van de Velde's subsequent misadventures.) The Argentine hit his second shot short and left of the green, chipped on and missed a 12-footer that seemed meaningless until Harrington, playing in the group behind Romero, made a bigger mess. "It certainly causes some drama," said Harrington's mate from Dublin, Paul McGinley.

Drama was the intention of the course designers some 81 years ago: legendary Scotsman James Braid, who provided the framework of the hole, and James Wright, a local accountant and club member who provided the final polish. Judging his work by today's standards, it would be safe to say Wright had a little Pete Dye in him. The hole was originally a par 5 but was given the standard modern-day conversion into a 500-yard par 4. Semi-blind from the tee, players aim at the clock on the clubhouse and pray it's not their time to be swallowed by its ghosts -- or the serpentine burn that snakes across the fairway twice. And there were more casualties -- and near casualties -- over the course of the week than just Garcia, Romero and Harrington.

A bad drive into the burn at 18 Friday gave Phil Mickelson the weekend off. Two bogeys and a double Sunday sent Chris DiMarco packing without a top-10. The 18th was also where John Senden saw his second shot Saturday ricochet off the right grandstand, across the green, and off a white O.B. stake, keeping it in bounds. Sunday, Richard Green missed his driving line by one yard, caught the rough, had to lay up and made bogey, missing tying the major-championship record, 63. "The 18th hole has so much danger," said Cink after a closing bogey of his own in the Harrington pairing. "It's everywhere."

Harrington, besides seeing the danger looming back left on his third shot, also had to contend with a bad memory: In 1992 at Carnoustie, he was knocked out of the British Amateur when his approach rolled off the back of the green out-of-bounds. So instead of going long left, he came up short left with a 5-iron, into the burn for the second time in 10 minutes. "It's a hard hole," said sport psychologist Bob Rotella. "It's all we've talked about all week. We said, 'By the end of the week, Van de Velde is going to feel a lot better -- there are going to be a lot of guys making 6s and 7s.' "

The Irishman made a 6 by getting up and down after his second drop. (What would Van de Velde have paid for that?) Still, it was one of 44 doubles on the hole for the week. There were also 10 "others," bumping the hole's cumulative stroke average to 4.611. The hole was particularly hard on the French. Gregory Bourdy played it double bogey-triple bogey on the weekend, and Raphaël Jacquelin had a quadruple-bogey 8 the first day and a double-bogey 6 the last day. "You have to suck it up and hit good shots," said Jim Furyk's caddie, Mike Cowan. "You just don't want to yank it."

Furyk made one of seven birdies in the final round (after bogeying the first three days), one of only 17 3s made the entire week. It played the toughest into a headwind Friday, when players were laying up to avoid the dangers lurking near the green. But whether it was into the wind, or downwind, as it was Sunday, the 18th at Carnoustie is like playing a 500-yard miniature golf hole. "It's busy," said Mike Weir after a closing par locked up a top-10 finish. "You've got to hit two great shots, period, bottom line."

Working the event as a visiting rules official, the USGA's Mike Davis said he couldn't think of another links hole with so much going on at the end: O.B. left, grandstands, the burn, all at the end of 500 yards of major-championship pressure. It might not be a classic hole in the true sense but, as McGinley said, it does create drama, and it made anything Davis set up at Oakmont for the U.S. Open look tame. "It strikes again," Davis said, almost enviously, "doesn't it?"