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Carnoustie: Tough love

A three-­time winner on the European Tour, Sky Sports’ Nick Dougherty enjoyed his finest professional success at the Dunhill Links Championship in 2007, his 72-­hole total of 18 under par good enough to edge out Justin Rose by a single shot, Rory McIlroy by two. A third round 67 at Carnoustie that week remains one of the most satisfying of his career over a course regarded as the most challenging of all Open Championship venues. Here, Nick explains what makes this Angus links as fearsome as it is unique

Written with Richard Simmons

'Hogan’s Ally': Only the brave will fire their tee shot down the left side of the fairway at the par-five 6th – as Hogan famously did on all four days in winning the 1953 Open

There are no two ways about it: Carnoustie is a cracking tournament golf course. Aesthetically, the Angus links may not be the most pleasing on the eye – it does not have the majestic dune-scape of a Royal Birkdale or the stunning seaside holes of Turnberry – but from the player’s perspective it has substance over style. The design and variety of holes is fantastic; sure, there are prettier links courses in the world but the challenge and the integrity of Carnoustie is second to none.

One of the things that has always struck me when I visit this historied corner of Scotland is the importance of placement off the tee. The bunkering of the whole course is superb – but what makes Carnoustie extra-special is the positioning of the fairway traps and the way the ball gets sucked in from anywhere within the vicinity of these menacing hazards. They really do pose a genuine threat to progress – as they rightly should.

Overall, the course sets up in what I’d describe as a more ‘traditional’ style – i.e. the fairways are not overly generous and the bunkering and rough dictates your strategy from tee to green. There are a number of very demanding tee shots and the price of unforced errors is high. The par-five 6th hole immediately springs to mind – Hogan’s Ally – where the bravest of tee shots takes on the left side of the fairway, a narrow strip flanked by out-of-bounds left and penal bunkers sited across the fairway. Then, of course, you have the stretch of four closing holes that ask every awkward question in the book – particularly under tournament pressure. You stand on the 15th tee and it’s almost like the course is goading you to pull a club and put the ball in play…“Come on, punk, make my day!”.

You just know, coming into that loop of closing holes that anything can happen; you can have a lovely round of golf going and still shoot an ugly score. At St Andrews you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach approaching the 17th, the ‘Road Hole’; at Carnoustie, from the 15th, you are facing four Road Holes on the spin, if that makes sense.

This is why Carnoustie has the reputation of being the toughest track on the Open rota. You leave the green at the par-five 14th and take a deep breath as the focus narrows on 15-18 – four holes that demand every ounce of nerve and concentration. Of course, we’ve witnessed unforgettable drama here – and no-one will ever forget poor old Jean van de Velde’s implosion in 1999. But if you think the Frenchman played played the 18th badly you should have seen me in the first round of the 2013 Dunhill Links. I had started my round on the 10th and was three over par standing on the 18th tee. Twenty minutes later, having carted two balls out of bounds,  I’d signed for a 12 and would card a round of 86 (in my own defence, the following day at St Andrews I shot a 68 to better my score by 18 shots, which surely has to be some sort of record?).

How tough is the finish? Well, let’s put it this way, at 471 yards, the par-four 15th, ‘Lucky Slap’, probably offers the best birdie opportunity on this closing run to the clubhouse. The hole demands a strong drive, ideally with a draw, and then sets up for a fade into the well-bunkered green. Not the wind it’s tough to get there in two. You daren’t miss left; if the rough is thick and you miss left you’ll be in all sorts of bother.

Tough target: The green at the par-four 15th is fronted by a cluster of Carnoustie’s devilishly positioned bunkers – and missing either side is no picnic, either

At 245 yards the par-three 16th is always going to be a handful, and the way the green slopes up to the main surface with run-offs left and beyond makes it a devil to find, especially when the prevailing wind calls for timber. You hit the shot as straight as you can and wait anxiously to see the speed at which the ball comes over the hill and up the rise. Miss the green either left or right and a four is not guaranteed. Get too cute and the ball is deflected either side. It’s just so easy to run up a double. Looking at the history of the course and the Opens staged here, in 1968 Jack Nicklaus was the only player in the field to reach pin-high on the final day, while in 1975 Tom Watson had five attempts (including the Monday play-off) and didn’t make par.

Not so sweet 16: The raised green at the 245-yard 16th hole would be tough to hit with a mid iron – let along the timber required when the prevailing wind blows!

At the 461-yard 17th, ‘Island’, you need to lay it back of Barry Burn, but not too far, otherwise you’re looking at 200 yards to the green. The burn itself doesn’t run directly across the fairway but dissects it at an angle. Fire your tee shot down the left side – which is the fast track – and there’s every chance the ball runs away from you. From memory there is some thick gorse around the green and it’s well bunkered, too. A clever hole. Paul Laurie made an incredible birdie three here before following it with another at the 18th to seal his playoff victory in 1999. Knowing how difficult these closing holes are that was an unbelievable time to find two irons shots of such class.

The 17th hole, ‘Island’, calls for a steady nerve to position a tee shot within the fairway loop of the Barry Burn

And so to 18, where every shot asks a question. Much depends on the wind. Sure, in good conditions with a down breeze you can be going in here with a 9-iron. But does that sound like a Sunday at the Open Championship at Carnoustie? If it’s blowing into your face the drive is threatened with the loop of the Barry Burn, and anything ‘leaked’ off the tee is headed for trouble. You stand on the tee and try and hit the right shot, but you know that if you turn it a little, and the wind gets it…it’s gone. Out of Bounds runs all down the left side. And even firing a great drive doesn’t guarantee safety. Johnny Miller drove it into the third of the three fairway bunkers here in 1975 and took two shots to get out, throwing away his chance of joining Nicklaus and Newton in the playoff.

Watery grave: The Barry Burn makes its presence felt all the way from tee to green at the 18th – a scene that will forever be remembered for Jean van de Velde’s spectacular faux pas in 1999

While the closing holes inevitably get all the attention Carnoustie has a number of stand-out holes that will play a big part in deciding the outcome. I mentioned the 6th, Hogan’s Ally, and this is a fascinating par-five. It’s a difficult hole because of the tee shot. If you can blow it over the middle two bunkers then you’re fine, and with the likes of Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka we will no doubt see some ridiculous ball striking. But if the wind is against this may not be an option. The right side offers a safe option off the tee but it’s a horrible angle for the second shot and a tough lay-up. Keep it short of the ditch and you still have an 8-iron third shot into a par five which is unusual in modern tournament golf.

Of course, the 6th has that unique history, too. Wouldn’t it be incredible to wind back the clock and stand there to watch Hogan hit all four drives down the left side of the fairway – so closely grouped it was said you could throw a blanket over the four balls. I love that sort of history and I’m sure we will talk about it during the Sky Sports broadcasts. It is said that Hogan hit the ball down the OOB line and faded it into the fairway – just phenomenal. And to think that he had to get used to the smaller 1.62 regulation ball before teeing up that week in 1953. It’s mind boggling. He made four identical swings, same correlation between ball and clubhead, the sound of persimmon: Crack!

Interestingly enough I was speaking to Gary Player recently and he told me that what Ben Hogan didn’t know about the golf swing you could write on the back of a stamp. Gary made the point that unless you have the right mindset for it modern golfers should steer well away from theory and technical analysis – in Gary’s eyes the vast majority of young tour players today are simply not wired that way. “I only ever met one man who knew what he was talking about when it came to the intricacies of the golf swing and that’s Ben Hogan,” said Gary. Who am I to argue.

You have to wait until the 8th to face the first of Carnoustie’s short holes, but it’s worth the wait: the 8th is a classic par-three, a great number at 183 yards, OOB down the left to a green protected with four bunkers. A straightforward hole that demands a well-struck iron.

Talking of Gary Player, we have to mention the 14, ‘Spectacles’, a very reachable par-five that offers a terrific birdie or even eagle chance before the push for home. The 14th is a rare breath of fresh air on a course such as this – and one Gary Player took full advantage of in 1968, hitting a 3-wood second shot to within inches of the hole for an eagle three. The tee shot ends thinking about but if you get one away here you should not be making worse than four.

Who’s going to win? I said earlier in the year that I believed Tommy Fleetwood would be a likely contender and I’ve seen nothing in recent weeks to change that view. He’s playing really well, and that second place spot at Shinnecock in the US Open revealed to the watching world what Tommy is made of. Right in front of our eyes he’s developing into a big-time player. There’s no bigger ball striking or mental test than a US Open, and he’s a great wind player. He also happens to hold the course record – a 63 he set during last year’s Dunhill Links.

If I could choose that player to lift the Claret Jug it would be Tommy Fleetwood. Besides being from my neck of the woods, I have had the great the pleasure of watching him play the game for a few years now and of course I have been fortunate to get to know him through my role with Sky Sports. He is head and shoulders above so many of his peers, his work ethic is exceptional and there are no weaknesses in his game. There’s a little bit of northern spirit, too, the humble background, he’s a fighter and what’s most refreshing of all is that nothing about him has changed since the days he was battling for his tour card. His persona is very real, not just when the cameras are rolling. In fact, I’d be surprised if that quality ever changes – Open champion or not.

Ultimately – and this is testament to the quality of the golf course – I think we will see all of the usual suspects rise to the occasion. There are simply too many top players for there to be a huge surprise. A lot depends on how the course is set up but with the growing conditions that we have had this year – and from what I’ve heard about how fantastic the course has been playing over the last few weeks – I think the R&A will put on a spectacular show and Carnoustie will produce a very worthy winner.

Nick Dougherty will be presenting from Sky Sports’ innovative Open Zone at Carnoustie