Rebirth of links with a past

Peter Corrigan assesses the return to centre stage of Carnoustie
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WHEN Tom Watson won The Open in 1975, it was his first and Carnoustie's last. Watson went on to win four Opens but the 300-year-old course on the northern banks of the Tay estuary has thenceforth languished without a big championship - until this week when, after 20 years, Carnoustie will once again feel the footsteps of the famous on its fairways when it stages the Scottish Open.

The welcome restoration of these famous links might mean that even the high-class entry will find itself overshadowed by the host. Certainly, it will be fascinating to see how one of Britain's most renowned courses stands up to examination after a long, frustrating battle to convince the authorities that it didn't deserve to be ignored.

Throughout the long wait, golfing tourists continued to make the pilgrimage to this historic stretch of Angus turf and experts persisted in placing it high in every listing of the world's finest tests of golf. Walter Hagen rated it Britain's best many years ago and in 1993 Golf Monthly put it top of their list, ahead of St Andrews and Muirfield.

But Carnoustie had quietly dropped off the rota of big tournament venues largely because it was the victim of a sporting circus that began to require more than simple greatness from a host course. Ample road access was suddenly vital and so were hundreds upon hundreds of nearby hotel beds.

Carnoustie suffered badly in comparison to rival courses for such facilities and you'd have to be generous or short-sighted, or both, to call it a pretty place. The links are dominated by a clubhouse in which Lenin would feel at home and the town, although enthusiastically devoted to golf, is less than a magnet. In addition, the course's quality fell away following Watson's victory there in a play-off with Jack Newton 20 years ago.

Although Watson went on to accumulate many other glories he has never forgotten the scene of his first major championship which was also marked by being the last time The Open has been won by a player making his debut. Unfortunately, Watson will not be present at Carnoustie's rebirth. He is bringing his two children to Europe for the first time and visits to London and Paris will take up all the time he can spare from the American Tour.

But Watson, along with Gary Player, has been lending his voice to the Carnoustie campaign which began in earnest seven years ago when the locals decided to embark on the long road back to recognition. An amalgamation of the clubs who use the links had taken control from the council and they put the job of getting the course back to tournament fitness to John Philip, who had been No 2 greenkeeper at St Andrews. Philip estimated it would take five years. It took six but the task was fortified by the knowledge that the raw material was unmatchable.

The first references to golf being played there date back to 1560 but an 18-hole course did not appear until old Tom Morris took a hand in 1857. The ubiquitous James Braid added his creative touches in 1926 and for the next 50 years the standard of the course can best be judged from the quality of the winners of the five Opens it staged: Tommy Armour (1931), Henry Cotton ('37), Ben Hogan ('53), Gary Player ('68) and Watson ('75).

The first success of the restored course was to host the 1992 Amateur Championship, the second was to take over this year's Scottish Open from Gleneagles and the third was to be granted the return of The Open in 1999. The flurry has galvanised the area to make more of its golfing attractions and new hotel projects are promised.

It is already a success story and now Carnoustie's supporters will be awaiting the reaction of the top professionals. Not the least of the tests they will face are the notorious finishing holes - the long par-three 16th that Jack Nicklaus once played with a driver and eight-iron and the 17th and l8th fairways through which the Barry Burn snakes. Golf architects throughout the world are continually creating new and more monstrously difficult challenges but they may not compare with that which rises from the grave this week.