Date: July 18, 2018
Author: Mike Clayton

CLAYTON: Carnoustie brown, bouncy and brutal

Burned off and crispy brown is the state of British golf this summer, whether it be the best of the inland courses or the coastal links.

The conditions promise a fascinating Open Championship this week at Carnoustie – a bleak and difficult course, and one extraordinarily efficient at finding a golfer’s weakness.

The ball will bounce all over the place and where the tee shots land will be far from where they finish up. The force and trajectory of all the shots will be critical and reasonably wide fairways will play much narrower, suggesting a lot of irons from the tees. Either that or "bombs away" with the driver and take your chances on finding a decent lie in the rough.

The last truly "brown" Open was in 2006 at Hoylake where Tiger Woods put on one of the great performances on a course where long driving was largely unimportant. Woods, determined to stay on the short grass and out of the fairway bunkers, hit only one driver all week – a first round snap-hook off the 16th – to beat the others with a Ben Hogan-like display from the tee and into the greens with the middle irons.

"Right now," Woods said after an early Carnoustie reconnaissance mission, "the fairways are faster than the greens".

Woods added he assumed they would speed the greens up a little, but so slow were the greens at Carnoustie in the famous 1953 Open that Hogan told the hosts: "I’ve got a lawn mover back in Texas. I’ll send it over."

Carnoustie fell out of favour after Hogan’s Open, returning in 1968 and then 1975 but not again until the debacle of 1999 when the fairways were lined with brutally thick, green rough and the winning score was six over par. Sixteen over was good enough to made the top 30.

The score, though, was of less relevance than the miserable golf the players were asked to play on a course deserving of more than the penal nature of that week’s test.

More important for the game worldwide is the chance for a browned-off golf course to blunt the notion that green is the "proper" colour of golf. We all marvel at the beauty and "perfection" of Augusta National, but it is allied with an unlimited budget and suggests to many it’s the ideal form of the game.

The Scots in contrast adopted the principle of the weather being the determinant of how the course would look and play and they saw no particular virtue in either "perfection" or green.

"If we never had a bad lie," wrote the Scottish architect Alister MacKenzie, "we are not likely to appreciate a good one, and moreover, the ability to play from a bad lie differentiates between a good player and a bad one."

The best of Scottish golf harks back to a time before machines had the power to push aside earth to make holes most golfers would now regard as "fair", predictable and consistent, golf free of quirk or features many would describe as silly or "unfair".

The 5th hole at Prestwick – the Himalayas – is a wild, blind par three over a massive sand dune with a couple of rocks in its face as an aiming guide. North Berwick’s 13th has the green on one side of a stone wall and the fairway on the other and its 16th is one of the game's wildest greens. The Old Course at St Andrews is littered with bunkers in the middle of the fairways and 14 of its 18 greens are shared.

Golf eventually moved inland and then to all parts of the world and golfers developed a more conventional view of what essentially constituted "fair" and, one of those notions, inspired by the advent of colour television, was that green was the game's ideal shade.

It’s not that green is bad, but a reverence for it is not necessarily good, nor is the excess use of water in order to achieve it.

Carnoustie is a course with little of the quirk of North Berwick, Prestwick or The Old Course. Rather it is a difficult test with the toughest quartet of finishing holes in the game, holes which have decided the winner of every Open championship since Hogan’s 65 years ago.