Very often as a golfer, your impression of a golf course will depend almost entirely on the way on which you played on the day you visited - it's difficult to wax lyrical about a hole or layout that you have just butchered en route to your worst score in several years.
But as a journalist and supposed seeker after truth, I'm meant to be dispassionate, and to look beyond my own temporary form and a string of double or triple bogies and still be able to offer an objective account of arguably one of the world's toughest, and definitely one of its greatest, golf courses, so let's put that theory to the test.
Having just played it in the prevailing wind, which meant that for most holes on the front nine it was blowing constantly against us at 20mph, and gusting to 35mph, and that occasionally, even more ferocious squalls would whip up horizontal rain and make forward progress almost impossible, I think I'm in a good position to make judgement.
Playing off an 11 handicap (my partner, a Carnoustie member, plays off 8) I took 55 strokes on the front nine, and was one-up at the turn. On two consecutive holes I hit absolutely pure iron shots - an 8-iron from 105-yards and a 7-iron from 110 and in neither case was my ball past the flagstick. And I kid you not, those shots were as pure as I have hit all year.
We both improved on the back nine, a little, and I came home in 46 for a total of 101 or, to put it another way, 17 shots above my handicap (the CSS was 73 on the day). My playing partner and I felt battered, bruised and on the verge of collapse and agreed that a few rounds with Muhammed Ali at his prime would have been easier.
And I loved it.
I'm not a masochist, and am not one of those people who thinks a golf course is great just because everyone else says so (for example, I think that purely as a test of golf the Old Course at St Andrews is vastly over-rated - it has too many weak holes and you can miss it left all day and never be in trouble). But although Carnoustie is undoubtedly a tough challenge it is fair, memorable and offers all the variety you could want.
I asked my playing partner how many days a year it was still and calm at Carnoustie and he replied: 'About three,' so the first tip is, be prepared for the wind but at least be aware that if it's in the prevailing direction, the back nine will be considerably easier.
Second, early morning or late evening is often the best time to play, because that is when the breeze is likley to be at its most gentle. The time to avoid is a late morning start because the wind often switches around lunch-time you you could be battling it all the way round.
Third, beware the bunkers. With the exception of a newly-installed hazard to the right of the third, the only club you can take into them is a sand wedge - and if you're up against the lip, sideways is your only option. And when you stand on the tee or in the fairway, ignore the sand you can see and widen your danger area to at least 10 yards either side. In classic links style the bunkers almost all have significant gathering areas that feed everything into the sand so the hazards are, in effect, much bigger than they look. That's the bad news. The good news is that almost all the trouble is clearly visible so you should know exactly what shot you are trying to hit.
And there, I believe, lies the beauty, and simplicity, and challenge of Carnoustie - it is all there in front of you and constantly asks the question: Are you golfer enough?
And yet, with the possible exception of the 17th, where the Barry Burn snakes around in such a way as to leave a virtual island of fairway to aim for, nowhere on the course do you look at the shot and think: 'I can't make this, it's too tough.' I have stood on resort courses in America, with water guarding both sides of a fairway, or looking at an impossible carry to reach short grass, or facing the prospect of a long iron to a virtual island green, and thought: 'I just don't know if I can do this.'
You have no such fears at Carnoustie. In fact, I would go further and say that almost every tee brings a smile to your face because the holes lend themselves to the eye, you can see the problems, identify your target and then try and hit it.
If you want to make a good score you need to get a fast start because after playing five holes you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. They are all par fours, only one of which (the second) is over 400 yards and, if you've managed to avoid bunkers you could be in pretty good shape and feeling rather pleased with yourself.
And then you're staring down the barrel of Hogan's Alley - the 500-yard, par five sixth that was re-named in 2003 on the 50th anniversary of the one time the great man played our national championship - which of course he won. The tee shot has to be threaded between bunkers in the right half of the fairway and OB left. The lay-up needs to be equally accurate because a burn snakes down the right side of the fairway, and the final approach has to negotiate a gruesome pot bunker, guarding a green with such a steep swale in it that you need crampons just to walk to the flagstick.
When Hogan played it, perceived wisdom suggested that flirting with the OB fence was just too dangerous so the 'smart' play was to go right of the bunkers from the tee. This meant you were firing towards OB for your second but at least you'd have an iron in your hand. Hogan eschewed this nonsense and went straight down the middle every day with such relentless accuracy that one observer swore he played his second shot in the afternoon (in those days they played 36 holes a day) from the divots he'd made in the morning. Which begs the question - if he was that accurate, why didn't he avoid the divots?
The original architect was James Braid - one of the best and most under-rated there has ever been - and as soon as you step onto the first tee you realise that you're playing a course that did not evolve by accident but was touched by the hand of genius - albeit a genius with a slightly malicious bent. The best way to describe this feeling is to offer the following challenge.
Stand on any tee on the course and look carefully at the hole ahead of you for a few seconds. Now close your eyes and imagine the hole with no sand on it at all. Finally, think about where you would least like bunkers to be sited, open your eyes again and there they are. Braid was a man who knew golf and golfers, and particularly understood the best way to challenge us to perform at our best.
Willie Gardner, vice-chairman of the Carnoustie golf links management committee, a man who can't remember how many times he's played the course but it must be in the tens of thousands, says: 'I think it's the toughest course on the Open rota, mainly because of the bunker placement; there isn't really a place where you can freewheel.
'I remember a quote from Nick Faldo at the Scottish Open and he said that when he got to the 15th he felt as if he'd played a full round; not physically but mentally. Because you have to think so much about every shot it takes its toll. And the course asks questions to which you don't always have answers. The bunkering is pretty strategic.
According to golf services manager Colin McLeod, one visitor allegedly asked the pro: 'How do I get out of the bunkers?' When the pro started demonstrating the technique he said: 'No, I don't mean the ball; I can get that out. But how do I get myself out of the bunkers?'
And all of this is not to suggest that bunkers are Carnoustie's only defence, far from it, but they are the most visible and ubiquitous weapon in its formidable armoury. The other, of course, is supplied by God, in the form of weather - particularly the wind.
The final part of Carnoustie's defence comes at the end of the round - more specifically, the final three holes and here there is no doubt and no argument that they represent the most fearsome finish in championship golf. In the same way that people on the Old Course at St Andrews start thinking about the 17th long before they reach it, so it is with this closing trio of holes in Angus.
The par three 16th, for example. It's 235 yards from the yellow tees, has wickedly placed greenside bunkers and the putting surface, from the tee at least, looks long and emphatically not wide. When Tom Watson won the Open here in 1975 he played the hole five times and didn't make par once - he bogied it four times in regulation play and then birdied it in his 18-hole playoff with Jack Newton.
Jack Nicklaus has said that it isn't a short hole because, by his reckoning a par three must, by definition, be reachable in one and there have been times when he couldn't get home with a driver.
It's followed by a 421-yard par four. The best line to the green, from the left side of the fairway, involves putting your drive as close to the burn as possible. Negotiate this safely and you still have the 18th. Another par four (it used to be a five and many think it still could be), this time of 428 yards, it has OB all the way left, a burn right, well-sited fairway bunkers and a burn in front of the green.
Apart from that, it's a piece of cake.
The 18th will forever be remembered as the place where Jean Van de Velde imploded during the '99 Open where, needing only a double-bogey six to win, he contrived the unlikeliest seven ever seen, fell back into a playoff and allowed Paul Lawrie to play four superlative holes and pinch the claret jug from his back pocket.
But that Open, which has earned its place in the pantheon of toughest ever Majors, gives a distorted view because today's Carnoustie has negligible rough. The head greenkeeper recognises that the course is a good enough challenge for anyone; he also has a responsibility to try and get groups of American or Japanese visitors round in under six hours, so straying off the fairway does not automatically mean a dropped shot.
Carnoustie is, simply, a truly great test of golf and no matter how often she beats me up, I will always want to return.
Carnoustie Golf Course
Angus DD7 7JE
044 (0)1241 853789
Web: www. carnoustiegolflinks.co.uk
|| 7 - APRIL 2005