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Tales of the unexpected

Carnoustie may have staged just seven Open Championships but such is the pedigree of this fearsome links that each and every one has produced a thrilling drama that lives long in the memory, as Ed Hodge reports

By Ed Hodge

On the first Thursday of each month, just to the left of the first tee of this year’s Open venue, a wonderful group meet together. Memories are the order of the day, often glancing at images of former winners of the Claret Jug at Carnoustie – Hogan, Player, Watson, Harrington and Scotland’s very own Lawrie among them.

There are smiles, banter and the sharing of many a golfing tale. The Carnoustie Golf Memories Group is one of a number that is springing up at Golf Centres across Scotland. They are part of the overall Golf Memories Project, as part of the Sports Heritage Scotland network to help those living with memory loss conditions, notably dementia.

The aim is to stir memories and fulfil lives and what better setting than an Angus town steeped in golfing history? For Gary Player, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his Carnoustie triumph this year, the recollections remain vivid.

The South African still rates his majestic three-wood approach to the 14th hole – known as ‘The Spectacles’ because of the two large bunkers in the middle of the fairway – in his final round of 1968 as the most memorable shot of his esteemed career.

Player’s ball stopped just inches from the pin to give him a tap in for eagle and set up his eventual two-stroke victory over the legendary American Jack Nicklaus and New Zealand’s Bob Charles. “That has to be the best shot of my life,” he admits to this day.

Paul Lawrie, approaching the 20th anniversary of his win next year, is also always happy to go down memory lane. “It’s the biggest thing that will ever happen in my golfing life,” states the Aberdonian, who sadly misses out at Carnoustie this year due to an ongoing foot problem. “As a past winner you go back and it’s a little special. You get in the champions’ locker room and it’s lovely. Even if I wasn’t a past winner, it would be a great event to play in every year.”

Lawrie came from 10 shots behind on the final day to memorably overcome Frenchman Jean Van de Velde, after his troubles on the 72nd hole, and American Justin Leonard in a play-off.

“I can’t really believe it’s almost 20 years ago,” says the two-time Ryder Cup player. “It didn’t dawn on me until a few months ago when someone mentioned it. Time just goes by, doesn’t it? If there was only one event I wanted to win in my career, it would be that one. So it’s pretty cool to have done it.”

Of course, come Sunday night on 22 July, the victor will be able to look back and forever share his memories of lifting the Claret Jug. Jordan Spieth returns as defending champion, but for the 24-year-old and other young players in the new vanguard at the top of the world rankings it will be an unfamiliar venue.

Golf has been played at Carnoustie since the early 16th century, with the links over time earning a well-deserved reputation as one of the great tests with its rough and devilish, well-positioned bunkers. When the wind blows, it only adds to the challenge. It’s a bucket-list venue and before a competitive ball is hit this year, 42 lucky club golfers will tee up in front of The Open stands as finalists in the R&A’s 9 Hole Championship, all savouring their moment in the limelight. Fond memories of their own are also guaranteed.

Lawrie simply loves it. The 49-year-old has reacquainted himself with various playing and promotional visits this year and felt Carnoustie was ready to stage The Open a number of weeks ago.

“Carnoustie has the length. It’s got great bunkering. You’ve really got to have your wits with you to play this golf course. It’s probably the best bunkered course that you’ll ever find anywhere in the world”.

- Ernie Els

The course will play slightly shorter than when it last staged golf’s oldest championship in 2007. Due mainly to a grandstand at the back of the tee reducing the length of the opening hole, it will measure 7,402 yards, some 19 yards shorter than 11 years ago.

“The rough may go up a little bit before July with some growth but the greens were magnificent when I played,” he said. “The course just stands the test of the time. It’s just a brilliant layout, a great links course. If you get in the bunkers you’re not getting on the green. For me, that’s a sign of a proper links course, you have to stay out of trouble. If you get in the bunkers round there you are in big trouble.”

Fittingly, the course has won honours of its own in 2018. Carnoustie Golf Links was named Environmental Golf Course of the Year back in January at the Golf Environmental Awards. The accolade is awarded to golf clubs that demonstrate expert efficiency in nature conservation management, turf grass management, waste management and water management. For Craig Boath, head greenkeeeper, and his team, it was a timely pat on the back ahead of a significant year of work.

“For me, it is one of the fairest Open rota courses – what you see is what you get,” adds Lawrie. “There is nothing hidden, you know exactly what is there. There are very few blind shots. A lot of links courses have got blind shots, which is not up my street. But these guys today are so good. They are going to find a way of shooting low if there is no wind so it still needs a little bit of weather no matter how tough a course it is.”

There are various intriguing stories that could play out. In 1999 at Carnoustie, a tearful Sergio Garcia left arm-in-arm with his mother after an opening 89. Then he lost a play-off to Padraig Harrington eight years later. Can the Spaniard now silence those lingering Open demons? And what of the chances of Tommy Fleetwood, who posted a new course record 63 at Carnoustie in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship last October. Lawrie mentions Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson as likely contenders. “The usual suspects will be there or thereabouts,” he states. Then there is the return of the Tiger, having missed the last two Open’s. His record at Carnoustie is noteworthy, having tied seventh in 1999 and shared 12th in 2007.

“Tiger has shown he is competitive again, he has got his speed back,” says Lawrie. “It’s great to see him back, the game needs him back, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in contention at Carnoustie. It’s right up his street, where a little bit of plotting is required, staying out of trouble, and he is one of the best ever at that. We all remember that.”

Ah the memories, the memories.