Golf: Carnoustie the crucible for the game's best

The Championship has been restored to the grand stage. By Bruce Critchley
NOW THAT THE OPEN is back at Carnoustie one can only wonder why it took so long, though to be fair the Royal & Ancient have always been aware of Carnoustie's special qualities. Access and accommodation have been the problem, access under or over the railway line that pins the course hard against the North Sea and accommodation suitable for today's stars.

What has never been in question is Carnoustie's stature as an 18-hole test of golf. Indeed with other courses on the championship rota increasingly under attack from the ever-growing talent of the world's best, Carnoustie's return to the fold had become imperative. The R & A have, in the main, resisted the dreaded combination of narrow fairways and knee-high rough, preferring to put their trust in the innate cunning of an old links and a decent blow at some point during the championship. Recently, however, particularly with the Old Course at St Andrews, it has looked as though the top players can now bludgeon their way through a course's subtleties and only a stiff breeze keeps embarrassingly low scores at bay.

With Carnoustie there are no such concerns. A variety of punishments await the errant shot, steep-faced bunkers, grassy hollows and, over the closing holes, the serpentine charms of Barry Burn. There has also been room to extend holes where necessary to keep the hazards in play as the ball is hit ever further.

Now 7,361 yards, it is as long as any championship lay-out on either side of the Atlantic. Although the wet spring has put paid to the hopes of the organisers for it to be firm and running, which would have put a premium on imagination, the rough is thicker than normal to compensate. A couple of players have had an early glimpse and their first comments were critical - fairways too narrow and rough too dense - although a good yardstick is that if players are mildly carping then the course is probably about right. After all you can always cut the rough in the last few days, but you cannot grow it.

Carnoustie's strength is that every shot needs careful planning. The player who can dictate which side of the fairway he drives to will have an advantage over those struggling just to keep the ball in play. The greens have their own quirky character, especially as there are plenty of awkward pin positions. Most of the greens are long but narrow, which puts the emphasis on straight approaches and club selection.

Above all Carnoustie never lets up. You start with a handful of tough par fours, the most dangerous of which could easily be the third, just 342 yards long but with a pulpit green which slopes sharply to a burn at the front. Just when you need a breather you come to the sixth, the first of two par fives, but which could easily play the hardest hole all week, particularly if the wind comes in from the south-west.

At 578 yards, this hole was made famous in 1953 when Ben Hogan chose to drive left of the two bunkers which are intended to push the tee shot away right. The gap between them and the out of bounds is only 30 yards but in calm conditions it affords the best line to the green, and Hogan twice made four on his way to victory in the only Open he ever played in.

The one significant alteration to the course for this championship has been to put a new bunker beyond those two. Tiger Woods cleared them during the 1996 Scottish Open and others might now do the same with a following wind.

The predominant winds are from the north-east and south-west and you either play into them going out or coming home. Being on the east coast, Carnoustie is generally less draughty than Turnberry or Troon but it doesn't need much to make it a monster.

If you want to find fault with Carnoustie some point to the closing holes. The 16th is as long as a par three can be, yet the green is a narrow saddle and from the tee would look little wider than a gymnast's vaulting horse, and the 18th has never really known whether it should be a par four or five.

These, though, are small defects amid the general magnificence of the place. Each time the championship has come here it has produced a winner of the highest calibre and it would take a brave man to bet that this year will be any different.