Golf: The beast is back meaner than ever

The Open: All but lost to years of neglect, the new Carnoustie will test the players' character as well as their power
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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY WAS one of those not infrequent days on the Angus Coast when the haar clings to shore. To shroud the town of Carnoustie in an enveloping mist is no bad thing, some might say. When the sun finally comes out, the place is hardly revealed as a thing of beauty.

What it has is a beast of a golf course and for the first time in 24 years the best players in the world are about to find out just how fearsome it can be.

For more than 400 years, golf, or an ancient form of it, has been played on the foreshore opposite the Bay of St Andrews. Less refined than St Andrews, with its university and the Royal and Ancient, Carnoustie has always been a golfing town.

From this small Angus town on the east coast of Scotland, hundreds of professionals set sail for other parts of the world, so much so that it is reckoned every State title in America has been won by a son of Carnoustie.

The Smith brothers, Willie and Alex, both won the US Open at the turn of the century - Alex beating a third brother, Macdonald, in a play-off - while Stewart Maiden was the pro at East Lake in Atlanta when a young lad called Bobby Jones was learning his golf.

After James Braid had refined the course to its present layout, the Open first visited in 1931. The roll of honour tells its own tale. Tommy Armour, the Edinburgh-born but naturalised American nicknamed the "Silver Scot", won the first to be followed by Henry Cotton, breaking a decade of US domination of the Open in 1937, Ben Hogan in 1953, Gary Player in 1968 and Tom Watson in 1975.

But that was it. The world's hardest course, as it was dubbed by such authorities as Player, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, disappeared from the Open rota. Not only that, it was also lost to the neglect of the Angus District Council who looked after what is know locally as the Medal Course as well as the Burnside and the Buddon layouts.

Eleven staff looked after the three courses but "they were gardeners rather than greenkeepers," according to Earle Smith, secretary of the Links Management Committee who took over from the council in 1980. The LMC was a collection of the clubs that use the Barry links: the Carnoustie club, the Dalhousie, the Mercantile, the Caledonian and Carnoustie Ladies.

But like any committee, there had to be a figurehead to get things done and that man was the late Jock Calder, the LMC chairman for over a decade. In 1995, when the Scottish Open was played at Carnoustie, Calder was able to look back on a crucial decision made 10 years earlier.

"We decided we had to get the course back in good condition and we brought in John Philp, who was then No 2 to Walter Woods at St Andrews, to be the head greenkeeper," Calder said four years ago. "John's interview was a three-hour walk around the course and another hour in the clubhouse. He said then that it would take him five years to get the course back and it took all of that, and perhaps six to get it as it is now. Fortunately, he is a workaholic."

"When you have a reputation, you can't sit on it," said Philp. "That's what I said to the management committee and they have backed me to the hilt. It was always a great test of golf.

"All we have tried to do is what James Braid would have done if he was with us today when you look at what the modern players are doing to other championship courses around the globe. Players are more athletic and the equipment is so much better, courses are becoming obsolete."

With the return of the Open, for its 128th edition, there is no chance of Carnoustie being deemed obsolete. A number of new tees have extended the course to a monstrous 7,361 yards, the longest in Open history, but against a par of only 71, while bunkers have been moved or rebuilt.

The rough has been encouraged on the basis that it could always be cut back but is so thick the Royal and Ancient had to widen some of the fairways in the spring and have recently tried to grow the semi-rough to stop a few balls reaching the really tangly stuff. Philp is unrepentant.

"The American style of golf course design has got a lot of players expecting uniformity," Philp said. "They have to learn to cope with adversity. Part of golf is this business of the character of the player being able to stand up to these problems."

As a town with a population of only 10,000 and some of the narrowest streets in the country, whether Carnoustie could handle a modern Open was another question. Since the Bruce Hotel was turned into flats in 1981, there was no focal hotel to house the top players and dignitaries. Eventually, planning permission was granted for the horrendous concrete box of a clubhouse behind the 18th green to be demolished and replaced by an 80-bedroom hotel.

Even then the project floundered until Michael Johnston, a local property developer, stepped in. The Carnoustie Golf Hotel opened in the nick of time in May. "The transformation in the last 20 years is unbelievable," said Sir Michael Bonallack, the retiring secretary of the Royal and Ancient.

"The golf course had gone downhill but when it was pulled around we could start thinking about bringing back the Open. When the hotel was built, it became a certainty we would come back.

"It is now one of the premier golf courses in the world with all the facilities you would expect. The Open had moved on from 1975 with worldwide television and in the high expectations of the players. Then Carnoustie was not up to those expectations, but now it exceeds them."

Whatever happens this week, the Open is bound to return again and again to Carnoustie. The other certainty is that the wind will blow and when it gets to its mightiest a local will claim it's "only a wee breeze". Some things here never change.