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  • Neil White


Updated: May 3

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The Barry Burn laid in wait, just as it had for Jean Van De Velde on that infamous day 25 years ago.

The stream is wider and the water is much deeper than I had imagined from the Frenchman’s implosion on Carnoustie’s 18th hole in the 1999 Open.

He needed a six to win, while I needed a five to avoid defeat against Mrs W, whose ball was sitting safely in the middle of the green.

I was 175 yards from the pin. The wind was up, and I reached for my five-iron. I struck a low stinger, and the ball BOUNCED over the stream. kept on running and rested 15 feet from the flag.

The match seemed less likely to be saved after I skied my drive, which ricocheted off the walls of the burn into the centre of the 17th fairway, but my three-wood recovery had given me a chance.

Thus, we both two-putted in front of one of the most famous backdrops in world golf and accepted an honourable draw.

We were very fortunate to be invited to the Championship Links by a member of the Carnoustie Golf Club, one of seven associations with access.

He was a fount of knowledge, enlightening us of with the links’ rich history, punctuated by descriptions of his successes and failures on one of the most notorious tracks in golf.

Luckily, for our visit, the rough was nowhere near as penal as during the Open or the many other important competitions played here. Thus, I walked off with the same ball in my hand on the opening tee.

Situated between the Budden and Burnside, the Championship links were in amazing condition, with no signs of the recent rainfall that left some holes underwater.

The fairway turf is so good that it is difficult to spot where the greens begin and end, while the tee boxes are pristine.

There is minimal elevation save for a few mounds… “So, what is its defence?” I asked our host. “The bunkers”, he replied with a smile. 

“I have been a member here 20 years and I can count on my two hands how many times I have witnessed a round without the ball going in one.”

He had not realised it but he had set me on a mission.

The first hole at Carnoustie has three features that recur regularly: out-of-bounds on the left, the Barry Burn in front, menacing sand traps, a huge, undulating green, and a cool, fresh breeze.

I suspect I would not be the only amateur who would be tentative and, consequently, pulled my drive but remained in play. 

My second shot found gnarly rough and my clip into the mound-protected target was not aggressive enough. It is a hole that I need to play again.

For me, the champagne moment came as early as the second hole, a testing par-four that turns between bunkers and alongside a ridge of rough to the right. 

Having nailed my drive, I struck a three-wood and watched the ball keep going until the front of the green before hitting two putts to claim an unlikely par.

Carnoustie has a lovely variety of holes, and the third is a short, bending par-four that Mrs W looked set to conquer until her ball skipped into the devilish pot bunker, which seemed to invade the green from the right.

After a quick lesson from our benevolent host, she made a spectacular exit to eight feet.

The tales of Opens past begin in earnest on the par-five sixth hole: Hogan’s Alley in commemoration of his birdie on his way to winning the Open in 1953.

This must be one of the most intimidating holes in the world – with out-of-bounds tight on the left and bunkers everywhere on the right. I have never been more thrilled to hit a drive down the middle.

The second shot is equally challenging because of the stream down the right, which I narrowly avoided. I completed the hole in six, and it felt like an eagle.

The sixth begins a stretch of four holes, which run consecutively with the out-of-bounds hugging the left-hand side.

“I’m surprised at how well I am doing,” were my famous last words before we embarked upon the short, stroke-index 18, eighth.

Inevitably, my cockiness was accompanied by a pulled tee shot which flew over the fence and white posts. It was the day’s first Stableford blob.

It was a pleasure to watch our compadre emulate Tiger Woods on the ninth, a par-four with a narrow, bunker-straddled fairway that seems to go on forever. 

His massive drive was followed by a stunning approach to the centre of the green. I was mightily content with a five.

The par-four 10th is one of Carnoustie’s most memorable holes and begins a fabulous backward nine.

A drive must avoid five bunkers on the right while keeping away from trees on the left. Barry Burn snakes across the fairway, 40 yards in front of the green.

I opted for safety by laying up in front of the water and settling for a five. Mrs W went for the big heave and saw her ball go over the burn’s bridge but filter down into the depths.

The friendly greeting in the halfway hut was consistent with the entire team at Carnoustie. We felt that they wanted us to enjoy ourselves and, boy, we did.

After a couple of tricky holes, come the final six – surely, a contender for the best run-in in the world.

The 13th is surrounded by fiendish bunkers and the yellow gorse bush to its rear is eye-catching but dangerous. 

With the wind blowing, I dithered over club selection, eventually over-hitting towards the 14th tee.

It is followed by the famous deep Spectacles bunkers on the 14th (a very long par-four off the yellows), the hole that ended my hopes for a sand-free round.

Thankfully, I wasn’t sunk into the aforementioned traps but in one on the side of a green which leans from left to right. Pleasingly, my only bunker shot of the day exited with panache.

“Aim at the tree,” suggested our host, indicating an oak so far in the distance that I could have done with binoculars.

No wonder that Carnoustie’s Facebook page claims the 15th – also known as Lucky Slap – is “as hard a par four as can be found anywhere in golf!”

If you have the muscle of our compadre, you will still be left with a long approach to a swirling putting surface that runs apace from front to back.

Could Mrs W and I score par on what has been described as the hardest par-three in golf? In a word, no.

Even off the yellows, the 16th is 235 yards and, on the day we played it, we faced a strong cross wind. Even with driver, I was well short and happy with a four.

The hits keep coming with the fantastic 17th island hole, where the Barry Burn snakes in front of the tee, down the left-hand side of the fairway.

The stream is then back in play for the approach to a flag defended by gorse on both sides, a formidable quartet of bunkers and a wildly undulating green.

It was a perfect lead into the 18th, a hole that will live in my memory throughout our travels.

We completed our day over the road from the links at the Carnoustie Golf Club’s headquarters – a combination of modern community bar and homage to history.

Its Scotch pies took us back to Mrs W’s mum’s tradition of cooking them on New Year’s Day.

It was a lovely finale to a day that met expectations in every way.

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