On course for a rough time

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Carnoustie, a drab, or as the Scots would have it, dreich little village at the end of the Firth of Tay and hard by the North Sea, has the great good fortune to house one of the finest, and most difficult, golf courses in the world.

The Championship links at Carnoustie have brought fame in large measure – and fortune more modestly so – to this part of the world, and this week will host the Open Championship for the seventh time. Every Open brings with it an excitement and an anticipation but, in the case of Carnoustie 2007, there is also trepidation.

The last edition to be played over this course, in 1999, led to a wonderful links being labelled “Car-nasty” as the professionals, plagued by rough so long they were in danger of losing their caddie never mind their ball, returned ridiculous scores. Collectively they were an unbelievable 3,746 over par as the slightest error led to a punishment far in excess of the crime.

For instance, Sergio Garcia, who hit rounds of 89 and 83, called the course “the worst experience I have had in golf” and, as if to underline the unfairness of it all, a month later finished second to Tiger Woods in the US PGA Championship.

It all stemmed from the preparation of the course by the head green keeper, John Philp, who before the championship said he was going to produce conditions that would allow a score of six-under par to win. He got it so badly wrong that, in fact, six-over was the score returned by the eventual winner, Paul Lawrie, after a play-off with Jean Van de Velde and Justin Leonard.

The Royal and Ancient, the ruling authority and organiser of the Open, also has a share of the blame. It was ultimately responsible for the state of the course and by taking its collective eye off the ball ensured that the ball remained undetectable once it went into the rough.

All this was a shame because Carnoustie needs no
tricking-up. It is quite difficult enough without penal rough, as successive Open winners on this often cold and windy corner of the east coast have found out. Sir Henry Cotton believed that of his three Open wins, the one in dreadful weather conditions in 1937 was the best of them all.

Perhaps the most famous of Carnoustie’s champions, American Ben Hogan, simply gritted his teeth, did what had to be done, won in his only appearance in an Open, and got out. Hogan triumphed in 1953, only four years after the collision with a speeding coach that all but killed him. It left him with permanent poor health and, to add to his troubles, he caught a bad cold while preparing for the Championship.

In those days, the tournament was completed with 36 holes on the final day, and a doctor, who discovered at that point that Hogan’s temperature was 102, advised him not to play on. But Hogan, in contention, knew he could win and knew, too, that the likelihood of his ever returning to Great Britain was negligible. Having only entered because the likes of Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones had said he could not call himself a truly great champion unless he won the Open, he decided to battle on: few players have ever approached the game over a career with such steely determination as Hogan.

He won all right, but he did not really enjoy his trip. For a start, rationing was still in force and although he brought some food with him, American staples such as plentiful meat were not readily available. The staff at the guest house where he was staying on one occasion pooled all their ration points and bought Hogan a steak. He ate it but never knew what it had cost those who cooked it for him.

He did not enjoy the course either. He complained that the greens were “like chewing gum” and, on being told that they were being mowed twice a day, remarked sarcastically that it would be better “if they put the blades in”.

But this was a man who had won the US Masters and the US Open already that year, the first by five shots, the second by six, and he went on to take his only Open by four. The great golf writer Bernard Darwin was moved to pen the words: “Here was such a player as occurs only once in a generation, or indeed once in a lifetime.”

The finish to the 1999 Open could also be said to be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, both for the victim and for all who watched the awful scenario. The Frenchman Jean Van de Velde, a journeyman professional, stood on the par-four 72nd tee with a three-stroke lead. He could take a double-bogey six and still win. He took seven and lost the play-off. It was an idiotic interlude, one that involved a second shot into a grandstand, a third into the Barry Burn that runs in front of the green, a fifth into a greenside bunker and a 7ft putt just to get into the play-off. At the French Open the following year, he said: “On the 13th tee at Carnoustie, I said to myself, ‘Six pars and you can win.’ On the 18th tee, I was one better than that, so I could take five or six and win. Of course, if you think of that, you play the hole in a different way. But it took me 10 months to think of that.”

Tiger Woods, 10-over par in 1999, finished tied for seventh but this year, as in every major championship of recent times, will start as favourite, this time to win his third Open Championship in succession. In the whole of the 20th century, only Australia’s Peter Thomson, from 1954 to 1956, achieved this, and if Carnoustie is set up with reasonable rough, so that Woods’ errant driving is not punished too severely, the American may well achieve yet another incredible golfing feat.

At least if Woods won, the Championship would be going to the world number one. When Lawrie won, he was ranked 159th and is now 276th. The Scot was, of course, the last British or European golfer to win a major, but at least nowadays there are some genuine contenders to succeed him.

The names of Luke Donald, Justin Rose and Paul Casey come to mind as do the Swedes Henrik Stenson and Niclas Fasth. Stenson needs to recapture his early season form; Fasth to continue his recent showings, but there is every reason to hope that all five will, in the time-honoured phrase, be there or thereabouts on Sunday.

The Open Championship 2007, July 19-22

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