They’ve called it challenging, they’ve called it fiery, they’ve called it bouncy and they’ve called it rock-hard.
But nobody has called it what it really is - brown. Really brown.
The Carnoustie Golf Links has been scorched by an unseasonably warm summer and it is dry and firm. “I’ve seen balls bouncing 100 yards at least,” said Butch Harmon, the Sky Sports analyst licking his lips on the eve of the 147th Open Championship, a tournament where the wild conditions mean nobody can confidently pick a winner.
The day before The Open gets underway, all the talk is of how the course is not so much fast as turbo-charged, with fairways so hard that Carnoustie would double up as a handy skate park. “This is going to be one of the most fascinating Opens to watch because there are four or five ways to play each hole,” Harmon says. “I’ve never seen it play so fast and hard, which I think is going to make it very exciting.”
Much of the talk around the course is that conditions might end up splitting the field into two camps - boomers and strokers. The former are those who will look to aggressively attack a course that may bite them back and the latter are those looking to finesse their way to victory with fine iron play and leaving their drivers in the clubhouse.
By the time you read this on Thursday morning it will probably already be clear which of the two main camps have chosen correctly.
Should it be the boomers then Dustin Johnson will have a great chance of victory.
“If I can hit driver and take the bunkers out of play, I’m absolutely going to do that,” Johnson said. “You know, this week, the bunkers, if you hit it in, it’s a penalty shot. … If I can carry all the bunkers and keep it out of them, I’m going to hit a driver.”
Some forecast rain may make the greens more forgiving but it is unlikely to make much of a difference to the rest of this corner of Angus, with some players driving the ball 450 yards on the 18th hole in practice rounds.
Johnson’s class of boomer will be looking to front up to the course, stare into its eyes and smash past the deep bunkers that look like small entrances to a sandy hell. The camp that will aim to finesse their way around Carnoustie, stroking ‘The Beast’ in a bid to tame it, are likely to be headed by Justin Thomas, who expects to “hit a lotta irons” and Tiger Woods, who might just have his best chance of ending his decade-long major drought.
Four of the last seven Open winners have been in their 40s, as the fully-recovered Woods is now after completing his return from spinal fusion surgery. Having got back up to speed this season, Woods has already been in contention at plenty of events in 2018 but faced with a course that may prove an immense test of a golfer’s craft, this could be a great opportunity to show that he is truly returning to the top of the sport.
His first Open win came on a firm, fast track at St Andrew’s in 2000, and most recently at Hoylake when conditions were similarly roasting hot and played long. So many players, including Tiger himself, have spent the week talking about leaving their drivers in the bag and his play with the irons this season has been almost back to vintage Tiger levels. Getting up close and personal to watch Woods will be one of the must-see attractions as the throngs descend on the small town of Carnoustie.
Of the home favourites, Rory McIlroy is always popular but has previously enjoyed most success at softer, longer courses while this could be the complete opposite. Should the greens become receptive his chances improve but should they be as fast as the fairways it could be difficult for the Northern Irishman.
Two decades on from Justin Rose exploding onto the scene as a teenager in The Open at Royal Birkdale, holing from the rough to finish tied for fourth, the Englishman is determined to go one better and clinch the major he wants the most. He admitted earlier in the week that he is yet to decide on a gameplan but said he expects patience to be the ultimate virtue.
“I think that’s the beauty of [the Open].
“It’s going to favour a patient player for sure because even if you play this golf course aggressively, you’re going to have ups and downs during the week. You’re going to have bad lies. You’re going to have shots that do end up in bunkers. You’re going to have breaks and bounces that go against you.
“So I think accepting that is probably the biggest, wide sweeping statement that the player who wins is going to have to be patient.”
For a competition where nobody can agree on the right strategy or who is even most likely to win, at least everyone can agree that the course will be feisty, it’ll spit, it’ll fight back and it’ll play long. Oh, and it will be brown.
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