Sixth in a series
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Oh, the blood that has been spilled on the 18th hole at the legendary Carnoustie Golf Links.
It has humbled, humiliated and haunted a handful of PGA professionals who have had the misfortune of collapsing – a nice word for choking – in front of a worldwide audience here. Instead of carrying away the Open Championship’s Claret Jug, they were left holding the bag.
Look no further than Frenchman Jean Van de Velde and the 1999 Open. He needed a six to win on the final par-4 18th but took a triple-bogey seven and ultimately lost in a playoff. A more breathtaking breakdown could not be imagined. Just like that, his name went from a noun to a verb.
He was not the first failure, just the most spectacular. There have been seven Open Championships held here since 1931, four have been decided as much by dramatic failures on the 18th as winning surges.
1931: Argentina’s Jose Jurado, the first great South American player, falsely believed he needed a par four on the 444-yard 18th to beat American Tommy Armour. He played safe on his second shot, laying up short of the burn. It then took him three shots to get in the hole, missing a short putt for a 5. At least, he thought, he had done enough for a playoff but was told after the hole that he needed to par, thereby losing the Open by one shot.
1975: Australia Jack Newton tied with American Tom Watson after 72 holes, forcing a 18-hole playoff the next day. Watson would win it by a stroke when Newton missed a five-foot putt on the 18th that would have tied it.
2007: Star-crossed Spaniard Sergio Garcia had a four-stroke lead at one point in the final round but was feeling the pressure from a resilient Padraig Harrington. Garcia, leading by one heading to the 18th, had the chance to win it with an eight-foot par putt. He rimmed it. Harrington eventually won in a four-hole playoff.
Of course, nothing compares to the Van de Velde’s nuclear meltdown, which we’ll detail later. My son Bobby and I followed in Van de Velde’s missteps as we were fortunate to include Carnoustie in our Scotland golf tour itinerary.
We got there by driving north from St. Andrews over the Firth of Tay bridge, through the good-sized town of Dundee then due east to the coast. The traffic and the roundabouts slowed us so much we nearly missed our early afternoon tee time. By the time I rushed into the pro shop, the starter said, ‘you two are up next.”
With no time for practice swings, we were off. All during my walk to my opening drive I looked over at the parallel 18th and tried to imagine Van de Velde’s travails. It looked totally different than what we all see on TV. Without the grandstands surrounding the hole, it was ominously benign.
We would find out if this was going to be Carnastie or nice. Certainly, we didn’t have any problem with the weather. As was the case for our entire trip, we were bathing in sunshine and 70 degrees. There was no trace of the nasty gales that notoriously rush off the water.
It couldn’t have been more perfect – until I lost my mind on the second hole. My own little Van de Velde moment.
Maybe it’s the vibes seeping from the soil, but I just couldn’t help myself. I completely lost it, and in a perverse way that allowed me to identify with Van de Velde’s thought processes.
On my second shot at the 435-yard, par-4 second, I rolled the ball into a pot bunker about 35 yards from the back pin position. It was a long bunker shot so I eschewed by sand wedge in favor of a pitching wedge. I believed that I could get the distance I needed and still clear a rather steep wall.
My first shot hit the top of the wall and bounced back in the same spot. My thought was, that was a mistake. I needed more loft. No panic. No need to change tactics, as I was stubbornly unwilling to switch to a 60-degree. It was completely against my better judgment yet I couldn’t surrender and go laterally.
The next attempt hit the same spot and bounced back. OK, now I’m fire. I knew my score was in serious jeopardy but that just compelled me to be a hero and get this ball tight to the hole. Once again into the breech. At that moment I was as stubborn as I was irrational.
One more futile attempt resulted in the same result, the definition of insanity. Finally, I hit the ball sideways and settled for a nine. I ended up with a 90 on this difficult course so that Tin Cup flash cost me the chance at mid-80s.
One of the hardest and most illustrious holes here is the par-5, 512-yard sixth. There’s a long fence along the left side. Over it is out of bounds. There’s a series of bunkers around your landing area – on both sides – as well as a nasty rough to the right.
This is called Hogan’s Alley because Ben Hogan successfully threaded this hole all four rounds in 1953 to win the Open title in his one and only appearance.
Bobby pulled his drive over the fence and finished with a 7 to my 6.
Carnoustie is a well-designed course with all the characteristics of the preeminent designers, particularly the placement and depth of the bunkers. Three of the era’s greatest Scottish course architects, Alan Robertson, Old Tom Morris and James Braid, took turns reshaping the course.
Play at this site can be traced back to the 1500s but the course didn’t come into shape until the mid-19th Century when Robertson, the groundskeeper at St. Andrews, worked on it.
His understudy, Morris, redesigned the course in 1870, enhancing it and extending it to 18 holes. In 1926, Braid, the designer of more than 250 courses in the United Kingdom, extensively altered the layout to make it stand up to the Open challenges.
Just before the 1937 Open, the final three holes – known as the Sting in the Tail – were redesigned by local course designer James Wright. It has been hailed as one of the toughest finishing stretches in golf.
My son and I both parred the 413-yard, par-4 ninth to both finish with 47s on the front. Tradition at this point had been to get a bite at the 10th tee food hut then tack your bag tag on the wall among the thousands of others. However, that hut was torn down a year ago, replaced by a nondescript brick one. Tradition now lies under a pile of rubble.
A most appealing hole is the par-5, 476-yard 14th, famous for its huge side-by-side bunkers on a slope known as The Spectacles. It was here that South African Gary Player broke from a tight leaderboard in the final round to hit the ‘wonder shot’ of the 1968 Open. His three-wood approach to the green settled two feet from the pin and he dropped it in for an eagle-3. He won the Open by two shots over Jack Nicklaus and Bob Charles.
Then came the final three holes, all with the Barry Burn meandering through the fairways. Your tee shot on the par-4, 421-yard 17th is the most challenging. You have to decide if you can clear the Barry Burn. It’s shorter if you take the drive left but a difficult angle in. If you go straight at the pin, you have to carry about 230 yards.
We both hit short but Bobby had a wonderful drive and approach to par it.
Finally, we swung back around for the 18th, heading toward the hotel, which was built for the 1999 Open. Our intention was simply to beat Van de Velde’s score, although he hit from about 20 yards further back.
Like Van de Velde, I used a driver and hit my tee shot to the right, a little shorter but in Van de Velde’s fateful vicinity near the 17th tee box. But there were no grandstands in my way and the rough was not nearly as high.
From there, Van de Velde hit the railing of the grandstands and settled into the deep rough. He then hit his third shot into the Barry Burn, took a penalty, dropped in the rough and followed with a splash into the sand to the right of the green. He got up and down for a seven.
Paul Lawrie, 10 shots behind in the final round, eventually won in a three-way playoff with Van de Velde and Justin Leonard. It was the first win by a Scot on home soil since Willie Auchterlonie in 1893.
If Van de Velde had my second shot, he might have won. It settled just on the second cut, 90 yards from the pin. I wedged the approach about 18 feet past, missed the putt and finished with a 5, two better than the hapless one.
Bobby wasn’t so fortunate. He didn’t quite clear the Barry Burn protecting the 18th green and Van de Velded.
He took a penalty and finished with a 7. Yet that finish won’t haunt him nearly as long as the woebegone Frenchman.
PART SEVEN: Old Course Dream