Golf: Carnoustie is up to scratch

THE BRAND, spanking new 85-bedroom luxury Carnoustie Golf Hotel, opened only last week, was not the only incongruous sight in an otherwise small, bleak town on the east coast of Scotland. There was also the yellow Bentley parked by the main entrance with the number plate "Mike J".

Like the hotel, it belongs to Michael Johnston, a local property developer. Johnston first arrived 18 months ago when the project to get a suitable hotel ready in time for this July's 128th Open Championship was the last cog in a chain that will see the game's oldest and grandest event return to the fabled Carnoustie links for the first time in 24 years.

The hotel was designed by the former Scottish rugby international David Leslie and is positioned right behind the first tee and the 18th green. If opinions differ on its architectural merits, there is no disputing the improvement on the building it replaced, a concrete monstrosity of a club-house that was a disservice to public conveniences throughout the land.

Nothing could provide a better illustration of how important money has become in golf, something Sir Michael Bonallack, the retiring secretary of the Royal and Ancient, is concerned will go too far.

"We have got some way to go yet but the game is in danger of burning itself out with the escalation of high prizes," he said. "Other sports, like tennis, have gone the same way and it has not done them any good. With the players earning more and more, they will play less and less, but the sponsors will only provide the big purses if all the top players are playing."

This year's Open champion will receive pounds 320,000, less than half the $1m on offer to the winners of the three World Championship events. But Bonallack is not concerned about the majors losing their place in the game.

"They will always have a place," he said. "Money is not the reason the players want to play in a major. When I first became secretary in 1983, we had to go out and ask players if they were coming to the Open. Now they come to us."

Among those who have already posted their entries is the 1968 winner at Carnoustie, Gary Player, former champions Nick Faldo, Tony Jacklin, Sandy Lyle and Seve Ballesteros, plus Lee Westwood, Tiger Woods and Justin Rose, who finished fourth as an amateur last year.

Bonallack was also an amateur in 1968 when he was two strokes off the lead with nine holes to play but came home in 45. "It was a nightmare," he said.

"The last nine holes are as testing as anywhere in the world. The transformation here in the last 20 years is unbelievable. The Open had moved on after 1975 and Carnoustie did not meet the standards required but now it exceeds them. You have one of the world's premier courses with all the facilities you would expect."

Tom Watson, the winner in the last Carnoustie Open in 1975, has been made an honorary member of the Royal and Ancient. The five-times champion joins a list of 11 others, which includes Peter Thomson, who also won five titles, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gene Sarazen, the Dukes of Edinburgh, York and Kent, as well as the former US President George Bush.