Golf-Open `99: `World's best did not work out how to play course'

Debate rages on about the fairness of the course, but it produced a contest of high drama.
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CARNOUSTIE, returning to the Open rota for the first time in 24 years, certainly made a memorable comeback. The 128th Open would have been notable for the amount of wailing from the leading players even before Jean Van de Velde's French farce on the 72nd hole and Paul Lawrie's victory in the four-hole play-off.

In Lawrie, Carnoustie delivered a champion who grew up playing links golf on the windy east coast of Scotland. "The wind never bothered me," he said.

The rest of the world's best players were blown away and, when the play- off started late on Sunday evening, there was a two in three chance that the victor would have been a player ranked lower than 150th in the world and who was not among the 100 or so players exempt from qualifying. The odd man out was Justin Leonard, the Open champion from two years ago at Troon.

Does such an unsung champion devalue the Open? Hugh Campbell, chairman of the Royal and Ancient's championship committee, was asked. "I don't have a problem with that," Campbell responded.

"Paul Lawrie was a champion who knew Carnoustie and knew how to play it. The best players in the world did not work out how to play the course. The people who worked it out were those in the play-off. Carnoustie will find out anybody not at the top of their game. If there is a flaw, this course will find it."

A score of six over par made the play-off. It sounds bad but the par was reduced from 72 to 71 despite the course measuring a monster 7,361 yards. The actual total of 290 was only one worse than the 289 posted by Ian Woosnam when he won the Scottish Open in 1996 when all concerned said the course was easier although there was one day with bad conditions.

But the argument will go on as to whether the players did not rise to the challenge of Carnoustie or whether they were prohibited from showing off their best skills by a course that was too narrow and lined with rough that had grown alarmingly in the last six weeks. And then, of course, there was the wind.

Even the officers of the R and A seemed to contradict themselves on the subject. "It was not the modern set-up of a course," said Campbell, "where you could hit the ball 300 yards off the tee and then start thinking about what you were going to do. The thinking had to be done on the tee."

But Sir Michael Bonallack, who has just completed his 16th Open before retiring as secretary of the R and A, thought some of the players were too defensive in leaving their drivers in the bag. "When Tiger [Woods] played all those irons off the tees, he gave up his advantage in length."

Nature, then, produced a course where great shots, not just good ones, were required. Lawrie played the best golf when it mattered, in his closing 67 and to birdie the last two holes of the play-off, but he would not claim to be the best player in the world. The set-up was extreme and thank goodness the wind did not get to gale force. Not all Opens should be like this but only last year Royal Birkdale offered a balanced challenge while the Old Course at St Andrews will be different again next year.

With all the traffic and train arrangements working well, the Open is set to return to Carnoustie sooner in future, next time towards the end of the next decade.

So will the players return? "If I'd had a bad week on the golf course, I'd be saying I wouldn't come back either," Campbell said. "But if you challenge a good player and he isn't successful the first time, he'll come back."

It surely could not be as bizarre again, however. Campbell summarised thus: "Every Open Championship has a bit of everything. This one was no different. There was triumph, tragedy, romance, farce, pathos and controversy."