Mention Carnoustie to most golfers, and they think “Carnasty,” the nickname given to this famously difficult links on the east coast of Scotland. Now that I’ve had a chance to play Carnoustie, I’ll confirm what we already know–the course is bloody hard!
But the “Carnasty” moniker doesn’t do the course justice because it causes golfers to overlook the fact that Carnoustie, while incredibly challenging, is also a wonderful course. Carnoustie’s layout is great, even borderline genius. The course has more history than just about any other course in the world save for the Old Course at St. Andrews. And, despite being challenging, the course is 100 percent fair. Good shots are rewarded, but bad shots are severely penalized.
Carnoustie is an absolute must play on any golf trip to Scotland. Here are my thoughts about the course, concluding with why I am giving Carnoustie my first ever A+ rating.
Carnoustie is in the middle of Scotland’s east coast, somewhere in between Edinburgh and Aberdeen. There are actually three courses at Carnoustie: the Championship Course, which this post is about, and also the Burnside and Buddon Links, which I have not played, though I have heard from multiple sources that they are fine courses.
The Championship Course at Carnoustie has hosted seven British Opens, most recently in 2007 when Padraig Harrington was victorious. Other past champions include Gary Player, Tom Watson, and Ben Hogan. But perhaps most famously, Carnoustie is known for Jean van de Velde’s epic meltdown during the 1999 Open.
Unlike many courses in the Open rota, Carnousite is completely open to the public, and it’s not hard to get a tee time if you book a little ways in advance. It’s 165 pounds (roughly 215 dollars as of the day of this post) for a round. That’s a lot of money but, just for some perspective, is over 50 pounds less than a round at Royal Troon, another Open rota course. Plus, at Carnoustie, for 185 pounds you can play the Championship Course and one of the other courses, and for 200 pounds, you can play all three Carnoustie courses, which is a great deal if you have the time.
What makes Carnoustie hard?
Everyone has heard that Carnoustie is one of the world’s toughest courses, but until I played it, I didn’t know exactly why it was so tough. Here’s what I learned:
Bunkers and hazards: The most obvious challenge posed by Carnoustie are the dozens of pot bunkers scattered around the course. The bunkers always seem to be in the way, and just a quick glance at my pictures reveals how penal they are; they are deep with steep faces and leave golfers with many awkward lies. In addition to the bunkers, there are the two burns that weave through the course–Jockey’s Burn and the Barry Burn–which come into play on several holes.
Little margin for error: Wayward tee shots are bad news at Carnoustie. The fairways are narrow, and the bunkers I just talked about are always lurking. And even if you avoid a bunker, you’ll probably be in some long fescue or some other patch of Scottish bush. But what really makes Carnoustie tough is that even borderline good/bad shots can be punished. There were three or four holes where I hit what I thought was a decent tee shot that just missed the fairway to the right, like by a yard or two. And each time I was left with an awful angle to the green. I was forced to choose between carrying a greenside bunker from a lie I could get no spin from, or playing away from the pin to avoid the bunkers.
Weather: No one expects good weather in Scotland when golfing. But Carnoustie is notorious for nasty winds, even by Scotland’s standards. I played in a “gentle” 15 mph wind. When it starts blowing in the 30s, a round at Carnoustie is a battle for survival.
So, what makes Carnoustie great?
It’s fair: There’s no quirks at Carnoustie, like goofy bounces or blind shots. Almost everything is in front of you. Good shots are rewarded, and bad shots are penalized. It’s a great championship course.
The layout is amazing: I cannot praise the layout of Carnoustie enough. The terrain at Carnoustie looks grim, like it used to be a battlefield in the Great War. It’s just barren. But despite the terrain, the layout is spectacular. The holes zigzag throughout the property, unlike a traditional out-and-back links. I don’t think there are more than two consecutive holes that run in the same direction. And there is a good mix of holes, some shorter par-3s and par-4s, and then some absolute monsters that make you understand where the “Carnasty” name comes from.
History: Ben Hogan, Gary Player, and Tom Watson have won Opens at Carnoustie. And perhaps the course’s most famous moment was poor Jean van de Velde’s incredible collapse at the 1999 Open. It was the most compelling golf I have ever seen.
Here are some holes to note. I’ve provided yardages from the championship tees used at the Open, which measure well over 7,000 yards, and also the 6,600 yard yellow tees, which they made me play.
Second hole (“Gulley”), 463 / 407 yards (not pictured): Braid’s bunker (named after course designer James Braid) sits smack in the middle of this long par-4, which doglegs to the right. Most players can carry Braid’s bunker, but there’s four more fairway bunkers farther down that will come into play. After that, there’s five more bunkers surrounding the massive green, which is about 60 yards long. Make sure you’ve got the yardage dialed in on the approach shot.
Sixth hole (“Hogan’s Alley”), 578 / 500 yards: The par-5 sixth is famously referred to as Hogan’s Alley because in all four rounds at the 1953 Open, the great Ben Hogan was able to thread his drive between the bunkers in the middle of the fairway and the out of bounds line on the left. With the tees up and a favorable wind, the two bunkers in the fairway can be carried. But here’s the thing…even if you can carry those bunkers, it is still best to be as close to the out of bounds line on the left as possible to have a good angle into the green. I know this first hand. I ripped my drive down safely down the right side of the fairway, but with the back-right pin location, I had a difficult downwind approach shot over some greenside bunkers. I played it safe to the left but was left with a long and undulating putt. A three-put followed.
9th hole (“Railway”), 478 / 416 yards: The ninth hole isn’t the most exciting at Carnoustie. It’s a straightway par-4 with bunkers on both sides of the fairway and both sides of the green. But the ninth has something rarely seen on a classic links course…TREES! Lots of trees, which surround the left side of the hole. The railway is just behind the green, giving the hole it’s name. I would have named the hole “Trees.”
10th hole, (“South America”), 466 / 417 yards: The 10th is a golfer’s first encounter with the famous Barry Burn (not counting the minimal carry over the burn on the first tee). The burn cuts across the fairway at about 50 yards from the green. It shouldn’t come into play with a decent drive. The best drive favors the right side for a good angle on the approach. Behind the green is Carnoustie’s famous halfway house. Pro tip: get a mac-n-cheese pie.
13th hole (“Whins”), 176 / 141 yards: The par-3 13th is one of the toughest short par-3s you will ever play. The green is long and hourglass shaped, and there are bunkers on all sides, including a massive heart-shaped one in front of the green. When the hole plays downwind, it’s very hard to hold this green.
15th hole (“Lucky Slap”), 472 yards / 437 yards (not pictured): The final four holes at Carnoustie are straight-up hard, starting with the par-4 15th. According to Carnoustie’s yardage book, the 15th is “as hard a par 4 as can be found anywhere in golf.” I’ll agree. It’s long and was into the wind when I played it. The drive is one of the tightest on the course, with fairway bunkers on the right and waste-type areas on the left that sit well below the fairway. Near the green, there are several more bunkers, including two deep ones about 40 yards short of the green that will suck up a poorly struck approach. My approach shot on the 15th was one of the best shots I hit all day. I was about 185 yards out and hit a five iron so pure that my caddie could only describe it in x-rated terms. I just missed the green to the right, but was able to get a pretty easy par
16th hole (“Barry Burn”), 248 yards / 235 yards: One of the hardest par-4s in the world is followed by one of the hardest par-3s, the monster 16th hole. It’s long and the green falls off on all sides. There’s also a few bunkers short of the green. Into the wind, most amateur golfers won’t be able to reach the green, and from 248 yards, some professionals might even have to hit driver if they are facing a stiff breeze. It’s not a bad option to play short and left of the green, then try to get up and down for par. PS – I am not sure why the “Barry Burn” nickname was given to this hole. The Barry Burn is way off to the left and doesn’t really come into play. The next two holes on the other hand…
17th hole (“Island”), 461 / 421 yards: The 17th is an incredible hole. The Barry Burn runs in front of the tee, then along the left side of the fairway, then cuts back to the right across the fairway at about 270 yards from the tee, dividing the fairway into two parts. Most players will be smart to layup on the nearer half of the fairway (the “island”), though doing so will leave a long second shot. Whatever route you choose off the tee, it’s best to favor the left side for a good look into the green, which angles from front-left to back-right and is protected by a cluster of bunkers on the right side. Favoring the left side, of course, means flirting with the burn before it cuts across to the right. What a hole.
18th hole (“Home”) 499 / 421 yards: Were you able to handle the Barry Burn on the 17th? Mazel Tov! Now you’ll have to deal with it again on the long par-4 18th. The burn loops in from the right side of the hole, snakes in front of the tee, the runs along part of the left side of the hole. There is also out-of-bounds to the left. You’ll also have to watch out for Johnny Miller’s bunker on the right side of the fairway, so named because Johnny Miller took two shots to get out of it at the 1975 Open, costing him the tournament. The Barry Burn comes into play one last time on the approach shot as it cuts in front of the green. If you can escape with par on this hole, it’s a great finish.
Miscellaneous thoughts – my experience on the 18th hole
Like I said before, Jean van de Velde’s unfortunate collapse during the 1999 Open on the 18th hole was the most mesmerizing golf I have ever seen. So naturally, I had been looking forward to playing the 18th hole all day. So how did I fare? Not good. I hit an awful drive way to the right, then hit my second shot into the Barry Burn. I took a drop, pitched onto the green, and two putted for a double bogey six. I wasn’t pleased, although I did one shot better than van de Velde on the hole (nevermind that he played it from 50 yards farther back).
I love Carnoustie, it’s just about a perfect golf course. I feel like I could play it 100 times and not get sick of it. I can’t wait to get back.
Design: A+. An amazing layout, especially considering the barren landscape.
Condition: A. Perfect for a links course.
Enjoyability: A+. Awesome experience.
Value: A-. Expensive, but still on the cheaper end for elite courses in the UK.
Overall grade: A+.