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Reflections on Carnoustie

David Leadbetter interviewed by Richard Simmons

In his role for BBC Radio 5 Live, the world's No.1 coach, David Leadbetter, was a thoroughly captivated spectator at Carnoustie – and enjoyed every single minute…

Wow! What a week that was! Major championship golf just doesn't get any better than that. Sport doesn't get better than that. Across the gloriously baked and uncompromising links of Carnoustie has been written another fascinating chapter in the history of the game's iconic showpiece – and at the end of a thoroughly absorbing final day, Italy's Francesco Molinari proved himself worthy of a place among Carnoustie's pantheon of champions. It was a privilege to watch it all unfold.

This being Scotland the weather was always going to be a factor – Factor 50 as it turned out! And you'd have to rewind the tape all the way to Royal Birkdale and the fabled heatwave of '76 to find a week to compare with this. With temperatures hovering in the upper 70s, as they had been for two months in the run up to the 147th Championship, this was a defining Open not only for Carnoustie but also for the R&A, who were roundly commended for the magnificent job they did in setting up the golf course. This was what the Open Championship is supposed to look like – and the famed Angus links was every inch the world-class test of golf that it is revered to be. In the build up to the Open all the talk was of Carnoustie and the pedigree of what is rightly regarded as one of the toughest Open venues. And after the borderline farce that was the US Open at Shinnecock Hills it was refreshing to see a course presented in exactly the way in which the designer intended. The US Open can never seem to get it right – for my money the USGA should take a leaf out of the R&A's book, and focus on accentuating the positives of genuinely classic design. As we saw time and again the bunkers were the hazards – hence the importance of strategy. The rough was pretty wispy, though still thick in places, but fair. Sure, there were some tricky pin positions, but this was a real and genuine test of golf – the course was laid out in front of you and every player I spoke to told me how much they enjoyed it.

Kevin Kisner takes opening lead

Only periodically do you get these sun-drenched fairways – this certainly wasn't 1999 with heavy conditions and cultivated rough. This was fast and furious links golf at its best, and players had no choice but to adapt their game to engage with Carnoustie's reputation. And it was interesting to me to see the American players doing this very well – certainly for the first three rounds they piled in and dominated the leaderboard, with real creativity in their strategy and shot-making. He may be little-known here, but Kevin Kisner is an accomplished player and he showed his class, as, too, did the 2015 champion – and one of the game's genuine shot-makers – Zach Johnson. From an American perspective it was good to see Kevin Chappell inside the top-10, and the experience will only make him a stronger player moving forward.

Weather-wise, this was an Open that had a little of everything: warm, balmy on Thursday, light rain on Friday, near-perfect with little wind on Saturday and what the locals would call a ‘gentle breeze' on Sunday. I am not going to say Carnoustie played easy over the first three days – this is Carnoustie we're talking about – but it played relatively easy before baring its teeth on Sunday. You don't get a real sense of the playing conditions on TV, but believe me the going was pretty tough out there on Sunday (I'd hazard a guess that had we seen Sunday's conditions over all four days par would have been a really good score). I was walking the course commentating for BBC Radio 5 Live and not only were the winds gusting at 15-20mph but in most cases they were cross winds, which are much more difficult to contend with on a links. Sure enough, the majority of the scores went north. And in that context Francesco Molinari's bogey-free performance was just sensational – 65-69 on the weekend.

Golf - The 147th Open Championship - Carnoustie, Britain - July 22, 2018 Italy's Francesco Molinari celebrates with the Claret Jug after winning the 147th Open Championship REUTERS/Paul Childs
Golf - The 147th Open Championship - Carnoustie, Britain - July 22, 2018 Italy's Francesco Molinari celebrates with the Claret Jug after winning the 147th Open Championship REUTERS/Paul Childs

Francesco Molinari has always been an amazingly consistent ball striker – we've known that for many a year and all credit to his swing coach Denis Pugh for crafting such a simple and repetitive action. When he's on, his iron play is simply mesmerising. I watched him at the Quicken Loans tournament – his debut victory on the PGA Tour – where he romped home by 8 shots. His iron play was superb, not only was every shot fired down the flag but always pin high. He lapped the field. In this day and age that was just ridiculous. Added to the BMW PGA Championship that he won in May, Molinari arrived at Carnoustie on a serious run of form and to my mind this burst of confidence comes down to the putter. While he has always been a phenomenal ball striker his putting has been iffy, at best, and whatever he and putting coach Phil Kenyon have been working on has taken his whole game to a new level. It's great to have a new player of this calibre earning the title of major champion.

Who else impressed me? Well, the young Xander Shauffele is emerging as a real talent and I think we will see him join the young group of players who contend regular for major honours. [Great name isn't it? He sounds like a good red wine!]. He looked very comfortable out there given this was his first real showing in a major. Tiger really impressed me, too. He was just missing that ‘X' factor he always relied on in the past. I honestly believe that if this was 10 years ago he would have won this Open. When he finds himself at the top of the leaderboard – as he was after, what, nine holes on the final round – he had that ability to shift into another gear. He played the front 10 holes on Sunday as well as anyone, then unravelled with that loose shot on 11, which cost him a double-bogey, and another dropped shot at 12. Ordinarily, the Tiger of old would have bounced back with a flurry of birdies and floored it over the closing holes. It wasn't to be. But all in all, considering how little he's played these last few years, it was a great performance and a platform going forward.

Golf - The 147th Open Championship - Carnoustie, Britain - July 21, 2018 Tiger Woods of the U.S. in action during the third round REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff
Golf - The 147th Open Championship - Carnoustie, Britain - July 21, 2018 Tiger Woods of the U.S. in action during the third round REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff

As a coach, I find Tiger's swing fascinating. And there's an interesting comparison here with Ben Hogan and the changes that he made in his aftermath of his car accident. I recently contributed an article for Golf Digest on this and there's a similarity here with Tiger and the evolution of his swing following back surgery. If you look back on Hogan's extraordinary career, he played his best golf in the years following his near-fatal his car accident. The leg injuries he sustained pretty much forced him to slow his lower body action, calming things down to where he was able to better synchronise his lower and upper body. The way I see it, back surgery has had a similar effect with Tiger. He no longer has that violence in his swing which caused so much inconsistency. As a result of the fusion in his spine, he seems much more comfortable with his swing and it's notable the way he has his arms and body movement in sync; he's not lashing at the ball, his balance appears so much better, and by necessity, if you like, he has found a way to blend upper and lower body. I'm not suggesting everyone rush out and have their back fused to experience this (!) but it's interesting to observe and clearly enables Tiger to deliver the club in a more controlled and consistent manner. The 66 he produced on Saturday was one of the great rounds of his career – a joy to watch.

Then there's Rory McIlroy. It seems ludicrous to level any criticism at a young player who has just finished tied second in the Open, but the thing that bemuses me with Rory, a player who is up on the links in Northern Ireland, is that he just doesn't appear to be a natural or instinctive wind or links player. Watching him play, he doesn't seem to be able to flight the ball with control; everything is high and it's a full swing. He doesn't seem to play those ‘knock-down' shots that are so effective in this unique arena. Of course, I know that's his game. He's playing mostly target-golf in America. But when you look back over the history of the game the greats have been able to make that little adaptation – Nicklaus, Watson, Palmer, Player. They developed a real affinity for the nuances of links golf. You have to. But with Rory, I don't think I saw any knock-down shots or cut-off swings that tell you a player is working on the trajectory. Rory was driving the ball beautifully, and he had a lot of short irons into greens and yet his wedge play didn't allow him to capitalise on it. Watching inside the ropes, I found myself comparing him directly with Tommy Fleetwood, who has his “wind swing” on from the moment he stepped onto the 1st tee. Everything is a “hold off”, short follow through. Back in the day this is the art that good players had to work on. You have to learn to “cheat” the wind, that's the art of the shot-maker.

The 147th Open Championship - Carnoustie, Britain - July 20, 2018 England's Tommy Fleetwood holds an umbrella during the second round REUTERS/Andrew Yates
The 147th Open Championship - Carnoustie, Britain - July 20, 2018 England's Tommy Fleetwood holds an umbrella during the second round REUTERS/Andrew Yates

I like Fleetwood. I think he's the real deal. A really good driver of the ball, and he played very well the last day, save for the horror-show double-bogey 7 at the tough par-five 6th hole. He has a bit of an old style swing, high hands, quite tilted through the ball, almost a throwback to the 1980s. I like his attitude, and he's a great natural putter of the ball, too. A player gaining in confidence the whole time – and a player who will be a valuable asset to the European team in Paris.