Carnoustie, historically the toughest course in The Open’s rota, could see low scoring this week
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – A record heat wave has tee shots at Carnoustie running faster than a caffeinated Usain Bolt.
Players are hitting as little as 7-iron off the tee, and even long-irons are crossing the 300-yard barrier. The toughest course in The Open’s rota is providing a different type of test this week.
“Car-nasty” became notorious in 1999, when lush rough and narrow fairways made the course near-impossible. The course was damp again in 2007. Even with easier conditions, 7 under par was Padraig Harrington’s winning score.
Now players will face a firm and fast Carnoustie on fairways that have been yellowed by a record heat wave in the United Kingdom.
Last month was the second-hottest June on record in the United Kingdom. Motherwell, Scotland, recently hit 91.8 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded in Scotland.
“I don’t remember the last time we went six weeks without rain,” a British farmer recently told the New York Times. “Only a proper week of full-on British rain can save the situation now.”
That’s not in the forecast this week. Carnoustie has received half its usual rain over the past three months. There have been occasional sprinkles this week, but not enough to alter the conditions. The forecast for the remainder of the week calls for minimal precipitation.
That means the 7,402-yard course, the longest in The Open rota, will play significantly shorter. And the rough that tormented players in 1999 now offers little penalty because it is so dry and brittle. With well-watered greens and breezes that may not blow harder than 20 mph, there is some talk about an unprecedented week of scoring at Carnoustie. No one has finished double-digits under par in seven Opens here.
“When the wind is blowing, it is the toughest golf course in Britain,” said World Golf Hall of Fame member Sir Michael Bonallack. “And when it’s not blowing, it’s probably still the toughest.”
Some are comparing this week to 2006, when Tiger Woods won at Royal Liverpool. He hit driver just once on a course so parched that balls kicked up dust when they hit the turf. He shot 18 under par to beat Chris DiMarco by two shots.
This week, Woods put a new, lower-lofted 2-iron in his bag to send his tee shots scooting down the fairway. There’s one problem, though.
“I haven’t been able to use it that many times … because I’m hitting my other irons so far,” he said. That includes a 333-yard 3-iron on the 18th hole.
That hole used to play as a par-5. Now players who hit driver are left with little more than a pitch shot. Dustin Johnson drove it into the burn fronting the green. The 12-yard-wide hazard crosses the fairway 450 yards from the tee.
Along with the bothersome Barry Burn, which plays an outsized role for such a narrow hazard, it will be imperative for players to avoid Carnoustie’s penal pot bunkers.
“I haven’t seen one yet that … I could actually hit it on the green out of,” Dustin Johnson said.
Carnoustie’s bunkers, among the toughest in the British Isles, are comparable to miniature water hazards because both hand out a one-shot penalty. Some of the vertical faces are 6 feet tall. The bunkers are so small that players are often left with awkward stances, and the ball is so close to the face that it’s impossible to do much more than pitch out.
Johnny Miller lost the 1975 Open here when he needed two shots to get out of a fairway bunker on the 18th hole. He made bogey to fall one short of the playoff won by Tom Watson.
There are, however, a few opportunities for long hitters to blow their tee shots over the traps because the rough is of little concern. On other holes, it is better to lay back short of the bunkers.
“There’s 5,000 different ways … to play these holes out here,” Reed said. The safe play often leaves a more difficult approach shot, though.
“There’s no perfect strategy that eliminates risk,” said Harrington. “It’s very difficult to play short of the bunkers all the time. The beauty of the course is that there are a lot of different ways of playing it, but eventually you’re going to have to grow up and hit the shots.”
Players will certainly have plenty of decisions to make. Carnoustie has just three par-3s, leaving players with 15 tee shots on par-3s and par-4s. They may be hitting wood off the tee of the 248-yard 16th, as well. Jack Nicklaus hit driver into that hole in the 1968 Open.
Choosing a club isn’t the only challenge. Trajectory will have an outsized effect on the distance shots travel.
During Tuesday’s practice round, Reed hit two tee shots with 6-iron on the 16th, which was playing downwind. The “chipped” shot, the one he hit with 70 percent of his strength, rolled 40 yards past the shot he hit with a full swing.
“Trajectory means a lot,” Woods said. He didn’t foresee a lot of opportunities to hit driver because it is so difficult to control a ball that rolls on Carnoustie’s sloping fairways for 60 or more yards. But U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka said he could hit up to 9 drivers.
“Sometimes we can just take all the bunkers out (of play) by hitting driver,” he said. “There’s no reason not to take advantage of that, especially with the rough being not so thick.”