Carnoustie - a monster bash!

Both as player and broadcaster, Peter Alliss has experienced the thrills and spills of Carnoustie, a gruelling championship test that has a knack of producing unforgettable drama. Here, the ‘Voice of Golf’ takes a trip down memory lane...

Written with Richard Simmons

As a player my memories of Carnoustie are vivid to this day. I was there in 1953 when Ben Hogan made his one and only appearance and won the championship amid tremendous excitement. In fact he played the last two rounds with WJ (Bill) Branch, the head pro at Ganton and a good friend of my fathers, and over the years conversation often turned to the exploits of the ‘Wee Ice Mon’ over what was a rather dank and miserable week’s weather on the Angus coast.

You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. So much had been written about the ‘Coming of Hogan’ that people turned out in their thousands to get a glimpse of this mysterious figure, curious to see how the enigmatic Texan would cope with the fine fescues, tight lies and revetted bunkers. More urgently, however, he had to deal with his domestic arrangements. Hogan and his wife Valerie had arrived at the Bruce Hotel in town only to discover there was no private bathroom...and immediately checked themselves out. A big American company, NCR (National Cash Registers), came to the rescue with the offer of a suite in a large guesthouse they had taken in Dundee – the only other alternative was going home!

It was said that Hogan had only entered because he was badgered to do so by the likes of Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen, who told him he couldn’t regard himself as a true champion – even though he had that year won the Masters and US Open –until he had proved himself on a traditional links.

Hogan duly arrived in Scotland a full week ahead of the tournament to prepare and get used to the smaller British ball (1.62” in diameter as opposed to the 1.68” USA regulation ball). Magazines and newspapers were full of speculation as to how this most meticulous of golfers would adapt to the conditions. The weather wasn’t kind, it was a dull and murky week. When I think back on it now all of the men seemed to be wearing raincoats and trilby hats, while the women all looked as though they were on their way out to do a little shopping, with handbags over their arms. It was the most bizarre scene really. There were hordes of excited spectators all over the course. Hogan was obviously the star attraction –you simply couldn’t get close to him – while the supporting cast included a full­-time amateur, Frank Stranahan, the handsome multi­-millionaire heir to the Champion spark plugs empire, who travelled the world with a set of exercise dumb­bells, clearly way ahead of his time! The great Australian, Peter Thomson, was just beginning to make his presence felt and he would finish in a four-­way tie for second. I was there with a young Bernhard Hunt and Dai Rees, the determined Welshman putting on a great performance to share second place. I finished in a tie for 9th alongside Scotland’s Eric Brown. But Hogan was in a class of his own, lowering his score with each successive round, 73, 71, 70 and 68 for a four-­shot victory.

At the mercy of the elements, as all links courses are, Carnoustie can be a monster, there’s no doubt about that. Flanked by the North Sea and the sober grey­granite buildings of this historic industrial town, Carnoustie can be a foreboding place. The toughest links on the Open rota? For me, when the wind is blowing, it’s a toss up between Carnoustie and Muirfield...and on balance Carnoustie edges it. You get to see the course a little more easily at Muirfield, the sight lines are more comfortable –plus it doesn’t have the sneaky little streams and burns running through the course.

In the wake of events at Shinnecock for the US Open, the last thing Carnoustie needs is heavy­-handed intervention from the R&A. There was carnage (and no shortage of controversy) in 1999 when the powers that be made the mistake of letting the semi­rough get too long (not helped by the weather leading to the tournament) and the punishment for missing the fairway (in the R&A’s own words) was “disproportionate”. I remember seeing Greg Norman miss the 17th fairway by a yard or two and being unable to move the ball more than 20 yards. Lessons were learned. The course was magnificent when the Open returned in 2007 and Padraig Harrington made hay while the sun was shining, ultimately triumphant in a playoff with Sergio Garcia.

Honestly presented as a fast-­running links, Carnoustie is a very fair and playable golf course – at least it is if you can stay out of the hazards, and there are few championship courses that can match Carnoustie for the quality and placing of the bunkers. I’m talking now about real hazards. Links bunkers are beautifully cut and shaped and – most important of all – they stop you in your tracks. As Peter Thomson always liked to say, “They’re called hazards – you’re supposed to avoid them!” That’s why these anodyne flat bunkers that we see so much of today are a waste of time. You see golfers take a hybrid or a longish iron and flash the ball out 200 yards and more. I don’t think you should be able to move the ball no more than 150 yards from a bunker. That’s a proper penalty.

Carnoustie has a knack of identifying genuine champions, and how well I remember Gary Player’s victory in 1968. He really is an amazing man, Gary. In one way he annoys me intensely but in others he is extremely likeable and he was a majestic player winning major titles over four decades. That’s some achievement. What he has done in the game is staggering...of course he tells everybody how many miles he’s travelled and how many push-­ups he’s done. But I like him very much. Against huge opposition he really was the little man battling the world of golf. To this very day he describes the 3­-wood second shot to the par-­five 14th, as the greatest shot of his career, the ball soaring over the Spectacle bunkers to finish a matter of inches from the pin for a decisive eagle three.

Other notable highlights include being there with the BBC in 1975 to witness the first of Tom Watson’s five Open titles with that extraordinary 18-­hole playoff with the Australian, Jack Newton. Like Hogan, this was Watson’s first taste of links golf and his refreshingly bright and brisk manner earned him a legion of fans north of the border. He’s another remarkable golfer – what’s he had, a couple of new hips and a new knee and he can still swing the club back to the horizontal. A player for the ages, and a fitting name on Carnoustie’s roll­-call of true champions.

They say that major titles are decided over the back nine on Sunday –well, at Carnoustie we can whittle that down to the last three holes, for this is where the identity of the champion will be decided. When the wind’s up the closing stretch is brutal. The 16th, at 245 yards, often into the prevailing wind, is as tough a par-­three as you will find anywhere in championship golf, the green pitched at the front and raised at the back, while at the 17th and 18th holes – par fours at the thick-­end of 500 yards – ‘Barry Burn’ provides protection with menaces as players attempt to navigate their way from tee to green. Sitting alongside Alex Hay in the commentary box, the events that we witnessed here at the conclusion of the 1999 championship remains the most compelling, gut­-wrenching spell of golf I’ve ever witnessed. Jean Van de Velde came to the tee with a three-­shot advantage...the tournament was as good as his... and then all hell breaks loose.

“Now, what to do, what to do...”

“Crikey, he’s pulled out a driver...I’m not sure this is right.”

It still gives me goose bumps to watch that footage. Alex and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Crash, bang, wallop! Van de Velde’s tee­-shot is 80 yards off line...and yet with the most extraordinary luck his ball finds a peninsular of grass between the loops of the burn, right in front of the 17th tee. Not only that, he has a half­-decent lie and a clear shot to the green. In fact, he could have hit wedge­wedge and taken two putts... If only, if only. It was the saddest thing I’d ever seen in golf. It would have been lovely to have seen Van de Velde succeed Arnauld Massy, the last French player to have won the Open (in 1907). Having made a total mess of the hole he actually made a ballsy up­-and­-down from the green-side bunker, holing a six­-footer to at least get into the playoff, but his heart was ripped apart. If it affected Scotland’s Paul Lawrie he didn’t show it, producing a couple of majestic long iron shots to settle the playoff with birdies at seventeen and eighteen.

I always hope to see a home winner and this year we have a chance. It’s good to see one or two of our younger players becoming more consistent –Tyrell Hatton and Matt Fitzpatrick among them. I am a huge fan of Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and I’ll be very surprised if he isn’t in the mix. Justin Rose too. And then there’s Tommy Fleetwood. I was glued to that final round of 63 at Shinnecock Hills – a masterclass in ball striking and if ever a player had a right to come off the 18th green slightly irked at equalling the all-­time low round in US Open history, well, Tommy earned that privilege. It could so easily have been one or two better. Outright second place to Brooks Koepka underlined yet again the quality of his game and it’s a matter now of applying himself and mastering his craft. [If you believe in such omens Fleetwood carded a course-­record 63 at Carnoustie in last year’s Dunhill Links...].

To all of today’s young up and coming stars I say sit down and watch the profile of Jack Nicklaus in Chronicles of a Champion Golfer, a series I’ve enjoyed immensely on Sky Sports. Jack talks so much common sense when it comes to preparing mentally for the big titles – he had the most wonderful golfing brain and always played his own game – I don’t think I ever once saw him throw away a tournament. You couldn’t say that about Arnold Palmer, a different animal altogether, always gung­-ho, going for broke. He threw away countless opportunities. Jack didn’t waste anything. I wish more of our young stars would follow Jack’s example. Rory McIlroy is only 28 and perhaps we expect too much of him every time he plays but I do worry that he has only one gear – he needs to learn to change gear occasionally. When he’s on song he is absolutely stunning to watch, he’s an Arnie or a Tiger in full flight – but sometimes you have to throttle back. Rory hasn’t learned that yet. As a lover of the game of golf I miss the art of playing within yourself, taking an extra club or two and smoothing the ball to a pin, as opposed to hitting everything flat out. Lee Trevino and Seve Ballesteros were the last two supreme artists, and it’s an element of golf that is sadly missed.

Oh, one more thing: I know I’m a dinosaur from a bygone era but what is it with all these books players carry around with them these days, which i see includes maps of the greens? The last time I looked reading the contours and gauging the speed of the greens was part of the skill of the game. I don’t seem to recall Bobby Locke or Bob Charles or Gene Littler –three of the greatest putters of all time in my view – having to stop and consult a map. They did it by eye. These days tour players carry so much reading material it’s a wonder they actually get round to playing golf...