With five Open Championships, including his first at Carnoustie in 1975, few are as qualified to speak about what is readily acknowledged as perhaps the toughest venue on the Open rota as Tom Watson.
A fascinating design, Carnoustie doesn’t follow the more traditional routing of outward and inward nine holes, preferring instead to have its holes constantly changing direction.
In doing so, its wonderful architecture comes to life, forcing the course players out of their comfort zone with its constantly changing wind directions, cavernous bunkers, and a series of winding water hazards or burns that put a premium on distance control and ball-striking accuracy.
As a course, it doesn’t need to be manipulated or protected in the way that Shinnecock was for the US Open last month. Its record stands for itself. In its natural state, it has enough in its own armoury to break the wills of the world’s best players. Just ask Jean van de Velde or Sergio Garcia.
Great ball strikers like Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, and an under-the-radar Tiger Woods will no doubt fancy their chances this week but on a course where the fairways are running faster than the greens, expect the lesser of two evils, the rough to be a strategically important play all tournament long.
So, what are some of the key holes to look out for as you watch the very best tackle this great course?
6th: HOGAN’S ALLEY, Par Five, 578 yards
In 1953, Ben Hogan, arrived into Scotland looking to complete a unique ‘treble’ in professional golf.
Already the US Masters and US Open champion from earlier in the year, Hogan meticulously used his brilliant ball striking ability and tactical awareness to overcome a game field in difficult conditions — securing an Open Championship victory by four shots.
It would be the only Open Championship he ever participated in and nowhere was his mastery of the course better exhibited than on the sixth hole, these days known as Hogan’s Alley.
This severe par five normally plays into the prevailing wind, with out of bounds left and deep bunkers down the right side of the fairway. There is a bail-out area right but that most often prevents anyone accessing the green in two shots.
In 1953, Hogan used the wind conditions to his advantage when fading his tee shots off the out of bounds by way of avoiding the fairway bunkers right. In doing so, he was able to reach the green in two on each occasion.
On a course with limited opportunities, the leading players will hope to take advantage of the fine margins presented here.
It is fair to say that the final four holes at Carnoustie — three par fours that measure more than 450 yards and a par three that’s almost 250 yards long — are probably the hardest closing stretch in all of tournament golf. In 2007, they all played over par. I will analyse the final three.
16th: BARRY BURN, Par 3, 248 yards
When Tom Watson famously won his first Open Championship at Carnoustie in 1975, he failed to make a par on the Barry Burn in any of his five attempts — including the play-off.
Playing into a strong wind, it is not unusual to see players having to resort to a driver on a hole littered with bunkers and a putting surface that falls off on either side. Drag your shot too far left and you risk flirting with the Barry Burn which menacingly snakes its way along to the left of the hole.
With nerves jangling, this hole will be most likely to derail a championship bid or two come Sunday.
17th: ISLAND, Par 4, 461 yards
With firm and very fast running ball conditions this week, tee shots, like the 17th hole, ask multiple questions with few answers.
In normal conditions, this hole demands accuracy and good distance control to clear the Barry Burn and stay comfortably short of the same burn, which twists and turns through both the 17th and 18th fairways at a farther intersection.
On a receptive course, that is a fairly easy task for the world’s best players but not this week as the players struggle to calculate how far a particular shot will run out after it has made contact with the firm turf.
For those who safely find the fairway, there is no let-up as standing in the players’ way is a green complex dotted with bunkers on the right-hand side and the reality that only 29% of the participants hit the 17th green in regulation in 1999… in the whole tournament. Expect players to favour the front left with their approach shots.
18th: HOME, Par 4, 499 yards
There are few more terrifying holes in golf than the final hole at Carnoustie.
Memories of Jean van de Velde and Pádraig Harrington easily come to mind, but every golfer this week will know that this hole, represents both opportunity and disaster.
The ideal tee shot should find the left-hand side of the fairway, thereby avoiding the bunker and the Barry Burn on the right but for those taking an iron off the tee, that most usually means a long iron into the green.
Given the dry wispy rough is less of an issue this week, I fully expect players to target distance on this hole over accuracy — thereby affording those in contention come Sunday more loft and potentially more control into a green protected by the meandering burn some 30 yards short of the putting surface.
Conscious of the out of bounds over the green, don’t be too surprised to see players in trouble bailing out into the bunker on the right but with a victory potentially on the line, no competitor will feel safe on this hole until the ball is firmly back in his pocket.