When the 136th Open Championship commences Thursday morning at Carnoustie, it won’t take long for the contenders to separate themselves from the pretenders. Links golf does that, and there’s nothing a player can do to hide his flaws.
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — It’s all about creativity. And vision.You either look at a links course for the first time and shake your head or you smile and envision the possibilities.
The bumps. The lumps. The brown-green grass. The wispy rough that’s anything but.
It’s as close as you can get to the auld days as you can get. Days when wind carved out fairways and bunkers; when sheep kept the courses neat. Days when cleeks and brassies filled canvas bags and featheries and gutta perchas tumbled across the uneven ground and dove into the rough or bunkers or, occasionally, found the fairway.
Days like the one in 1567 when Mary Queen of Scots shocked her subjects by playing a few days after the death of her husband, Lord Darnley.
Today, of course, links are laid out. They’re tweaked. They’re manicured. They’re re-routed. But they’re still the most challenging courses you’ll find.
And, just in case you need to be reminded for the millionth time this week, Carnoustie is the toughest of them all.
The site of the 136th Open Championship has a dark and nasty side. Even on a good day. Those bunkers. That length. Those closing three holes. And when they introduced human error — or devilish malevolence — to the equation in 1999, it morphed into Carnasty.
And even if it does an about face in the next four days to become Carnicety, it won’t be easy.
“I love it,” said Lucas Glover, who is playing in his second Open. “I think it’s the way it’s supposed to be played. The staff doesn’t trick it up. They just let the weather take care of it, and it usually does.”
The rain has blown in the last three days, soaking the course and — players hope — taking some of the harsh edges off. But with the North Sea just a driver away, they know the course could feel the wrath of the wind whipping off it any day now.
Which is, well, part of the package. And, for the creative ones in the crowd, part of the fun.
Topping the list of fans would be Tiger Woods, who happens to be going for his third consecutive Claret Jug and fourth in his career. And, with a dozen majors and a few career Slams in his pocket, there is no better authority on the planet.
“I love playing over here because it allows you to be creative,” he said. “Augusta used to be that way. The U.S. Open is obviously not. The PGA is kind of similar to a U.S. Open setup.
“Over here you can create shots. You get to use the ground as an ally. We play so much in the States where everything is up in the air. If you had a day like we did yesterday, you really couldn’t play a States course, because you can’t use the ground. Everything needs to be in the air.
“To be honest with you, you couldn’t carry the ball far enough. So I think that’s one of the great things about playing over here.”
Woods’ first trip over here was in 1995 when he played Carnoustie and St. Andrews, which, he said, made his first two experiences on the links “probably as good as they get.”
For a kid who grew up playing on kikuyu grass in Southern California and a creative shotmaker — he always believed creating was the way to go — it was this close to heaven on earth. Suddenly the bump-and-runs he could use in, say, Texas, were in play all day.
“I thought it was neat to putt from 40 to 50 yards off the green, hit 5 irons from 135 yards and run the ball, because the conditions dictate, and it allowed you to do it as well,” he said. “That to me was fun. I immediately just loved it. I just wish that we could play more golf on it. But you only get one time a year, basically.
“I always enjoyed playing different shots. I enjoyed playing and maneuvering the golf ball and would always do something with the golf ball. I wouldn’t just hit a normal shot. That’s one thing my instructors tried to get me to do, just hit a normal shot. I like to maneuver it a little bit, I like to do something with it. That was always an enjoyable part of the game of golf. Coming over here enhanced that.”
Notice he didn’t say anything about perfection. Which you can’t get over here.
Placing the ball in a U.S. fairway is easy compared to links golf. Here, the best-played shot can turn nasty and pinball its way off the charts.
You haven’t, in fact, played a links course until you get one of those slam-dunks off a hill and straight into, well, golf hell.
“It’s close to a trampoline bounce,” said Mike Hulbert, a three-time PGA TOUR winner and part-time announcer who is caddying for close buddy Davis Love III this week. “It’s like when you toss your kid on the trampoline and you don’t know where he’s going. With the ball, it could go into bunker or gorse.”
Or the rough where Tiger’s opening drive at Royal St. George’s went in 2003. And no one in the army of marshalls and spectators could find it.
That course was running hard and fast. But here, with the length, balls could hit the fairways with enough velocity to cause chaos if the sun comes out and the wind whips up.
“Last time I knew, the golf ball didn’t listen to you,” Hulbert said. “Here, you don’t even have time to say get down.”
Added Shaun Micheel, “You hit great shots that often aren’t rewarded . . . It’s fun if you’re not teeing it up in an Open Championship.”
Here it’s often about a few lucky bounces and those creative recovery shots. Shots like Seve Ballesteros’ out of the car park at Royal Lytham in 1979. He recovered, birdied that 16th hole and walked away with the Claret Jug.
Or how about Ernie Els from the bunker at the 13th at Muirfield in 2003? It wasn’t a links shot, per se, but it was creative.
“I pulled it left and almost holed it,” Els said. “I still don’t know how I got it out of the bunker. It was a good shot.”
Els fell in love with links golf even earlier than Tiger.
“Luckily for me I found a natural way to play links courses from a very early age,” he said. “Now, whether that was watching it on television, I just found the natural way of hitting bump and runs, and hitting the ball low in the wind and taking more club and just kind of carving shots through some of these flat positions.”
And, he said, some people never do adjust from playing high, soft shots.
“It’s a totally different type of golf, as you guys know,” he said. “And if you don’t have it naturally, you’ve got to really learn how to play some of these shots. And I think some of the guys have probably had some problems trying to change their games.”
Which brings us back to the eye. It’s the creative players who usually fare the best on links. Players who don’t throw their hands up over a bad shot. Instead, they look at it as a chess match of sorts with the course and find a way like Tiger did last year at Hoylake, placing the ball and letting his creativity take over.
“I just think that a lot of guys just get into a mode where they hit one normal shot all the time,” Woods said. “And I just think that if you’re limited to just hitting one shot, and that shot goes awry for the day, you have no shots to go back on.
“If you understand how to hit multiple different golf shots, you can always play something else to get you through.”
Yes, he loves it. The challenge. The shots. The bumps and humps. The gorse. Even the wind that blew so hard at Muirfield it left him limping in with a third-round 81.
And so far that creativity and vision has translated into three Claret Jugs. Can a fourth be far behind?