Carnoustie is known as much for the calamity it causes as the British Open champions it crowns.
Any mention of Carnoustie immediately brings back that image of Jean Van de Velde, equal parts tragedy and comedy, standing in Barry Burn on the 18th hole with water up his shins and rising. He made triple bogey to lose a three-shot lead, and then completed as great a collapse as can be found in a major championship by losing in a three-man playoff in 1999.
Just don’t get the idea Van de Velde owns all the rights to bad endings at Carnoustie.
Jose Jurado was the first victim.
He had a three-shot lead going into the final round in 1931 and was still two shots clear late in the round until coming undone in the brutal closing stretch, topping one shot on the 17th hole into the burn. He lost out to Tommy Armour.
More recently was Padraig Harrington, only it worked out well for him in 2007. Playing the 18th with a one-shot lead, the Irishman hit his tee shot into the Barry Burn. He took a penalty drop and then hit his next shot into the winding stream. Harrington managed the best double bogey of his life. It got him into a playoff when Sergio Garcia made bogey from the bunker, and Harrington went on to win his first major.
Of the six previous Opens on these menacing links, Ben Hogan is the only winner to hold a 54-hole lead.
For most everyone else, Carnoustie always seem to dish out its share of carnage. Rod Pampling once opened with a 71 and had the lead. He followed with an 86 and missed the cut. Phil Mickelson still hasn’t seen a weekend at Carnoustie. Garcia made his major debut as a professional at Carnoustie. He shot 89.
“That’s a brutal course,” Bernhard Langer said. He speaks from experience in 1999, when Langer had his third-highest score of the 23 Opens he completed. He shot 297, and he tied for 18th that week.
The first time Tiger Woods went an entire round without a birdie in a major was in 1999 at Carnoustie.
“I think I made one birdie on the weekend and I finished three or four back of the playoff,” Woods said. “That was ridiculous how hard it was.”
One month after Shinnecock Hills was punishing as ever in the U.S. Open, golf’s oldest championship doesn’t figure to be much of a reprieve. Scotland has been going through a warm, dry patch of weather, which figures to make it firm and bouncy.
Carnoustie in any conditions is regarded as a beast, with a reputation as the toughest links in the world. Sir Michael Bonallack, the former R&A secretary, might have sized it up the best when he said, “When the wind is blowing, it is the toughest course in Britain. And when it’s not blowing, it’s probably still the toughest.”
In recent Opens, it has picked up a nickname: Car-nasty.
For so much of the field, it will be a new experience. Only two players from the top 10 in the world have played a British Open at Carnoustie — Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy, who was an 18-year-old amateur in 2007 and immediately showed his potential when he opened with a 68. He tied for 42nd that week.
Only 33 players in the 156-man field have played an Open at Carnoustie, and only 12 have played it twice. Defending champion Jordan Spieth only knows it from television.
There is no faking. Nothing comes easily. No one really conquers Carnoustie. It’s more about survival.
The highest compliment might have come from Tom Watson, who won his first major at Carnoustie in 1975 in a playoff over Jack Newton.
“Carnoustie is like an ugly, old hag who speaks the truth no matter how painful,” Watson once said. “But it’s only when you add up your score, you hear exactly what she thinks of you.”