When I walked from the car park onto the grounds at Carnoustie Golf Links, I immediately knew it was going to be a memorable experience. I was about to play a course that’s obviously in the Open Championship rota, so that immediately makes it special, but when you step onto a major championship golf course, you can feel something particularly distinct in the air.
The atmosphere at Carnoustie is welcoming and relaxed, but there’s a grandeur to the venue. After covering nearly every major over the last four years, you can sense that feeling right away. (Then again, you also show up at some major venues and don’t get that vibe, but I won’t go into naming some of those places.)
The sun was peeking through the clouds and the wind was blowing a steady 10-15mph, with gusts up to 20mph. Regardless of the outcome, it was going to be a round to remember.
I also already knew it was going to be a challenging day on the course — by reputation Carnoustie, also often referred to as “Car-Nasty,” is one of the most difficult tests of golf. I’d been told by some colleagues and friends that it was “too hard” and it just “beats you up.”
Well, all of that was true. However, while it’s an extremely tough track, it’s very fair. It was just unfortunate that it happened to be my worst day on the course of the year — you know, one of those days where you simply can’t find your rhythm or swing and when you want to scream expletives every other word (but I’m a lady, so I’d *never* behave in such a way).
I knew it was going to be an even more interesting day when I was by the caddiemaster’s office and a group of guys who were obviously on a buddies trip gathering around. I had just met my caddie and we were preparing to head over to the first tee when we realized the three strangers that I was supposed to play with hadn’t arrived. Then, I suddenly spotted a guy wearing a Seahawks Super Bowl hat.
Now, any of you who are longtime readers or social media followers know I’m from Seattle, and a massive sports fan, so of course, I’m a massive Seahawks fan. Naturally, I started chatting to this guy with the hat and quickly discovered the majority of them were from the Tacoma area, just about 45 minutes south of where I grew up and where my parents still live. What a coincidence! — but it didn’t end there.
(Cue the Disney “It’s a Small World” song…)
Turned out the threesome I was supposed to play with didn’t show up, so I’d be playing a single smushed in between a bunch of foursomes. As I walked to the first tee, my caddie Chris casually suggested that I ask if I could join the group behind me — since there were 15 of them, it meant there had to be a three-ball somewhere. The starter was OK with it. The guys were OK with it. So, off we went!
What I liked immediately about the three-ball I was paired with was not only were they from my native greater Seattle area (not to mention their awesome pace of play), but they weren’t afraid to “tee it forward.” In other words, they played with me from the “red tees — and that was what their entire group of 15 was doing — knowing that Carnoustie is a beast of a test. It’s not exactly “easy” from the forward tees, either. It measures 6,144 yards from the “ladies” tees.
As we walked up the first hole, I asked them what other courses they had played on what sounded like an epic two-week 15-person buddies trip that included three days at the Ryder Cup. Tom said they were playing Kingsbarns on Wednesday. Funny, I replied, I’m playing there that day, too. He said half-joking, “Maybe you’re playing with us! When’s your tee time?”
Now that would be one hell of a coincidence, but I told him, “1:40.”
He replied, “You ARE playing with us!”
SHUT THE FRONT DOOR.
I also highly recommend getting a caddie, especially for shots like this:
I would’ve never known what to do with that shot had it not been for my caddie. I’d probably still be trying to hack it out of there while standing inside the bunker, or broken my ankle trying to kneel with my leg in and the other out, or something equally silly.
I must say the layout of Carnoustie is incredibly genius (just as it is difficult). It will certainly beat you up, and unfortunately, it did that to me — but I think I just wanted too badly to play well because, after all, it was Carnoustie, a historic venue that has hosted seven Open Championships.
What makes the course so difficult? Well, there’s always the wind and there was about a 2-3 club breeze the day I played and I’m guessing that was tame. Then, there are the BUNKERS, which are EVERYWHERE. Off the tee, they’re like predators, waiting to eat you up — they’re just visually intimidating. Same with the ones by the green.
The no. 1 stroke index hole is no. 6, dubbed “Hogan’s Alley,” a 485-yard par-5 (at least for the ladies). There’s out of bounds all along the left side, not to mention two daunting bunkers in the middle of the fairway, along with another one guarding the right side.
Carnoustie is famed for its challenging finishing holes, which also are what make it such a fantastic championship course. The par-4 (5 for the ladies) 418-yard 15th is a pretty straightforward par-5 because of its length, but it’s a beast as a par-4. It requires a long and accurate drive and then a strong approach shot into a well-guarded green. When you’re into the wind, it’s nearly impossible to get it on in two, and if you’re going to lay-up, stay clear of the bunkers that are about 25 yards shot of the green.
Next, the par-3 (4 for the ladies) 212-yard 16th called “Barry Burn” is usually playing into the wind. It seems like an easy and short par-4 for the women, but it’ll get you. Be sure to take enough club to get it to the hole.
The par-4 374-yard 17th can be extremely demoralizing. The Barry Burn twists and turns all the way down this hole. The drive must be hit accurately and then you’re left with a long approach into a green well protected by ominous bunkers.
As we walked past the place where Jean Van de Velde infamously made a triple-bogey in the ’99 Open Championship, my caddie recounted his stroke of poor luck and bad decisions that led to the Frenchman’s eventual loss in a playoff.
Finally, we made it to the par-4 383-yard 18th, dubbed, “Home.” We’re coming Home! Trust me, you’re ready to be finished after the butt-whooping you’ve been handed. My caddie pointed me toward the clock tower on the hotel as the line off the tee. The burn is in play for the drive on the right, along with left and short of the hole. Fairway bunkers protect the right hand side (as you may recall, it was here that Johnny Miller lost the ’75 Open Championship when it took him 2 to get out of the bunker).
The course guide warns, “Watch out for the Barry Burn on both sides of the fairway, as well as the out of bounds further left. Find the fairway and you still have to decide whether to carry the Burn at 20 yards short of the green or lay up. Go for the green in 2 and beware the out of bounds just 12 yards left of the green.”
The good thing about the Burn is that if you hit your ball in it, it can easily be recovered with these retrievers they have; otherwise, I would’ve lost a couple on the last few holes.
Biggest takeaway: Carnoustie is the toughest yet fairest test of golf I’ve ever encountered. Even though I posted my highest round of the year, I couldn’t walk away condemning the course or even disliking it. It’s the most enjoyable butt-kicking you’ll likely ever endure. Make sure you’re in good company, though.
Here are some of my favorite shots from the day — forgive me that I can’t remember which hole was which
For more information on holidaying in Scotland go to: www.visitscotland.com.