20 Links Parade,
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12 miles E of Dundee
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Seven times an Open Championship venue, Carnoustie was the penultimate Scottish golf course added to the Open Championship rotation – Turnberry was the last.
Carnoustie is a big natural seaside links and is widely considered to be one of the world's most difficult golf courses. In fact, according to the results of a Top 100 survey, Carnoustie is the toughest golf course in Britain & Ireland.
The first record of golf being played across this links land dates back to 1527; a 10-hole course was laid out in 1842 by Allan Robertson. Fifteen years later, in 1857, an 18-hole course was fashioned by Old Tom Morris. James Braid extended the course in 1926 and it has hardly changed since.
The main A930 road passes through the town in an east-west direction, running parallel to the railway line as it approaches the town centre. Shortly after turning off the main drag, the road narrows considerably and you’ll cross under a litle railway bridge, allowing you to reach Links Parade and the car parks next to the hotel at the back of the 18th green on the Championship course.
Much has been written about Carnoustie over the years. The finishing holes are especially brutal at this eight-time Open Championship venue and many consider that it has one of the greatest back nines in championship golf. Others will recall John Van de Velde’s barefoot paddle in the Barry Burn at the 18th hole during the 1999 Open Championship. Bernard Darwin perhaps had Van de Velde in his mind when, in 1910, he wrote in his book The Golf Courses of the British Isles: “he had got burns badly on his nerves… there really is some justification for the nervous golfer who has water on the brain after a round at Carnoustie.” You have to cross the snaking burn no less than five times whilst playing the closing two holes. We mustn’t forget to mention wee Jockie’s Burn—the young son of Barry—he comes in to catch your approach shot to the 3rd green.
In addition to burns, Carnoustie has some of the most formidable bunkers to contend with. There’s a plethora of them and some are alarmingly cavernous. The par five 6th measures 520 yards from the white tees and is regarded as one of the world’s best holes. Named, “Hogan’s Alley”, after the immortal Ben Hogan who won the Open Championship in 1953. Two fearsome looking bunkers lie waiting in the middle of the fairway and a third bunker to the right hand side ensures that the tee shot is daunting.
The 15th, 16th and 17th are considered the world over to be three of golf’s very best closing holes. “Lucky Slap”, the 15th, is a 460-yard par four, where the fairway slopes from left to right into the path of two waiting bunkers and the approach shot must avoid a cluster of three bunkers sited to the right of the green. “Hardest par three in golf; downwind it is difficult, into an easterly wind it is practically impossible”, according to the yardage guide. We won’t argue because the 16th, called “Barry Burn”, measures 245 yards from the white tees; for the ladies it’s a short par four measuring 212 yards. The 17th is a complete conundrum, called “Island” because the Barry Burn snakes in front of the tee and then loops back, cutting across the fairway. Into the prevailing wind, it is tough to know what to do on this brutal 400-yard-plus par four.
After winning at St Andrews and Royal Liverpool in 2005 and 2006 respectively, Tiger Woods was chasing a rare treble. He tried to emulate Peter Thomson (1954-1956) by winning a third consecutive Open at Carnoustie however Padraig Harrington had different ideas, claiming his first Major title, pushing Woods back to 12th place in the 2007 championship.
Carnoustie isn’t the most scenic golf course—rarely do you catch sea glimpses—but it is incredibly tough, even from the forward tees. Bring your “A” game here and pray for the weather to be kind. But be aware that should you plan to play Carnoustie in the winter (Nov-Mar), mats are required on the fairways and the first cut of rough.
Architect Martin Ebert kindly supplied the following update at the start of 2017:
Mackenzie & Ebert made recent changes to the 3rd hole on the course, where we have created fairway to the right of reconfigured central bunkers to tempt golfers into being more aggressive from the tee. Previously, the only option was really a 6-iron shot to the corner and then a pitch to the green in stroke play though a few players tried to drive the green recently in The Amateur match play stages.
On my whistle-stop tour of Scotland, Carnoustie was the centerpiece, the culmination of months of planning and not insignificant expense. My approach to the course then comes from that perspective: I'm not reviewing Carnoustie as a course to slowly reveal its many nuances over time and extensive replay but as one of the top rated courses in the world (listed by most here as worthy of a flight in or a week of travel). Under those conditions, was it worth it? With time for thought and reconsideration, I'm skeptical.
As a preface, Carnoustie does many things excellently. The 17th is the single finest hole I played on the trip (Castle Stuart/Cabot Highlands, Carnoustie, Cullen, Dunbar, the Machrie, and Musselburgh Old). Its tee shot is endlessly fascinating and, played into the prevailing breeze, challenging with the fairway overlaid with the serpentine Barry Burn. Lay back too far and the approach iron must be played to perfection. Overcook a draw or bail out left, and you're dead in the bunker if you even find it. Puff out a high fade? Wind will kill it. However, the perfect drive will be rewarded with a wedge into the green. 17 is as classic a risk-reward hole as can be created, and the only threat that will ever face is the neverending march of technology.
There are other great holes: the opening stretch to 6, 14-15, and the 18th with the grand hotel lurking in the background. The turf is immaculate, the greens can be clever, the subtle humps and mounds of certain fairways can play havoc on the unprepared and, for watching a professional tournament, the challenge is appreciable.
However, now is where I break with consensus. At a start, it's not scenic. Well, what's the problem you may ask? You're there for the course, not the views. Yes, but unfortunately the golf turns a bit repetitive. Carnoustie, like many old links, is exceedingly consumed with one simple question: can you carry it X distance? From 4 on, basically every hole asks this question (even the ones I like!). Bunkers are placed to the front or front-side and the long miss is lightly punished by a relatively benign surround (oftentimes the next tee or a walkway). As a constant of links golf, this isn't a bad question per se because the inability to hold a green on Carnoustie's famously bouncy grass adds a complication that invites the adventurous golfer to play risky and shorter into the green. Yet, when it appears to be about the only defining feature (especially on the run from 7 to 13), this becomes monotonous.
Furthermore, playing off the yellow tees (warned vociferously by the starter to take no greater challenge) as a 7 handicap with solid but far from professional distance, I found that I could consistently ignore the front bunkering because I was far too often playing a short iron or lofted wedge. Thus, the challenge of holding the green was greatly diminished and Carnoustie's core challenge (even in a stiff breeze) made relatively uneventful.
There is a notable exception to this problem on 16, which I played with a heavy crosswind off the left, but it isn't for the better. The hole is extensively bunkered short with five deep traps spread to prevent approach from all angles up to a distance of some 235 yards for the furthest bunker on the right. Playing to a front or back pin on its minute tabletop green, there is little reason to not just smash it over the back, take the bunkers out of play, and chip back to the hole. The shot dispersion for basically ever golfer will find that more rewarding: the ball will roll out to the lower front tier without rolling off and it's a much simpler shot for the back tier while for either it negates the risk of the bunker's lip. Even for the pros, a par is a good score, so playing it with caution is really the only choice. So, 16 repeats the same question as most of the others but with very little reward for even attempting to risk the short play. As a championship hole, I understand that it is difficult. Architects could design every par 3 to play as an island green at 240 yards if that was what made good golf. For me, it's simply redundant.
Returning to the problem with the tees, the issues with the yellow were further compounded by making moot much of Carnoustie's famous fairway bunkering. Played into Carnoustie's prevailing wind, there was no question of laying up short and, with the exception of the brilliantly enticing 5th, downwind was a simple choice of the driver. The complexity of decision making was oftentimes reduced to extreme simplicity by simply knowing which direction we were pointing.
As a treasured, century old course, Carnoustie is obviously a treat, and its history with the Open is legendary. I have no doubt that repeated play would enlighten some nuances, as it clearly has for many here. However, while there is greatness at the course, I have little drive to play it again in the near future. For someone who still has many great links of GB&I to play, I'd much rather see the rest of what's on offer than invest that time (and money) to develop the necessary understanding of Carnoustie. Thus, by the grading standards of this site, I was underwhelmed and rated it accordingly.
a brute in the wind but amazing
Much has been written on the merits of Carnoustie and my first time on the course dates back to 1975 when the club hosted The Open which Tom Watson won.
The singular word that best encapsulates the course is EXPOSURE. If you fail to play the shots correctly and with a keen sense of proper positioning, you will be EXPOSED.
Far too many people evaluate side issues of a course -- the off-course surroundings, the kind of welcome received, the quality of the practice balls and was the food delicious, et al. Carnoustie is an internal experience where the chief consideration falls upon the needed excellence one must demonstrably show.
How fascinating that the lone Open victory for Ben Hogan came at Carnoustie. The Hawk was the master of securing the optimum angles when playing and his victory there was a final exclamation point on his stature in the game. Interesting how two of Hogan's majors came at "monster-like" courses -- OH / South in the '51 US Open and in 1953 at The Open at Carnoustie.
The recent work by Martin Ebert has fine-tuned the totality of what it means to play this exquisite layout. Most importantly, having total command of one's drive is a central feature when playing. If you can't combine appropriate distance with proper positioning, then your time at Carnoustie will be a long and difficult day.
The list of champions is also top shelf - although I remember being on-hand for the '99 event and the layout was permitted to go way over-the-top in terms of narrowness and length of grass. Ultimately, that championship became noted for the inane play of Van de Velde at the final hole. How prophetic.
On the flip side the way the course played for the '18 event when Molinari was victorious was sensational. I can remember being on hand and seeing the lighting fast fairways mandate total concentration on what happens when the ball does hit the turf.
If Carnoustie had all the bells and whistles one often sees with many facilities at the elite level, it's fair to say the overall viewpoint would rise. As a comparison I often see Bethpage Black as the USA equivalent to what Carnoustie is about.
For me -- I judge a course in one simple way -- what exists when I reach the 1st tee to the time I putt out on the 18th. All the rest is sideshows to the main event.
Carnoustie reminds me of one of those George Romeo zombie flicks. Like the zombies, Carnourstie just keeps coming and coming. Be armed for battle because the slightest miscalculations will ultimately have you eaten alive. Not a pleasant thought indeed -- but ever so accurate.
One final postscript -- the ending run of holes is truly outstanding. and no lead is ever safe till the last putt is holed.
My red eye landed at 8am and by 11 I was teeing off on one of the hardest golf courses I and many others will ever play… perhaps that is why I required a box of golf balls to finish the round. Still, Carnoustie was something special - while it might not be the most photogenic or awe inspiring course, the architecture and routing are world class. Few courses best Carnoustie in using the hand of God to protect par, and certainly none have done it more times to the very best in the world. CarNASTY is a moniker well earned.
Each time we play golf in Scotland it feels as if we are playing a game of Russian Roulette with the weather. To date, we’ve been for the most part, lucky. At Carnoustie the gun finally went off and shot us point-blank between the waterproofs. This is already an uninspiring location but at least the horrible weather wasn’t ruining any beautiful views (I like to think my glass of rainwater is half full). And the setting does allow you to focus on the golfing challenge in front of you (by now said glass was full of rainwater).
On the first tee we were paired up with 2 young French lads. At Carnoustie. I couldn’t believe my luck. The opening drive is nothing special, but your second shot blind down into the hidden green is an early & unexpected introduction of mild quirkiness. As I walked to my ball I couldn’t help think what touring pros make of it. After enjoying another nice green complex on the second, the drive on hole 3 was another early highlight. Here you decide which central bunkers to take on/avoid. Left proved ideal for the preferred angle on the next shot (I went right), but there’s also water protecting that side.
Carnoustie continues in this vein - engaging shots and quality green complexes - until you reach the 6th. This hole was right up my alley - with staggered fairway bunkering & out of bounds all the way up the left side liable to leave you flustered with indecision. I Gareth Baled out (i.e. my ball disappeared - albeit by choice, I’ll have you know), But a decent hybrid back into play from a friendly lie, followed by average short iron into the green, and then a satisfying long 2-putt for my first par of the day almost removed the fire hose soaked grimace from my face. History does prime your senses when a playing “famous” hole, but this is a clearly a good one.
One side note to what is potentially already a side note: Regardless of the extraordinary feats of Bionic Ben in the Open of 1953, my thoughts briefly turned closer to home. I do not come from (anything approaching) a golfing family, yet there is one obscure exception. My Grandad’s Uncle - the fantastically named Bill Branch - played with Hogan on property here during Open qualifying on the Burnside that week. Unfortunately it didn’t work out for him on that occasion, but he had at least finished 13th in the 1937 Carnoustie Open. Amazing what the family tree can throw up. I found walking in these footsteps more poignant than those of anyone else who may have navigated Carnoustie - Ben, Jack, or Tiger (may the Greek goddess of Victory forgive me). I guess no one is immune in seeking out historical connections with this game. Next up will be a photo on the “Bill Branch Bench” at Ganton…
Carnoustie then continues on in the vein of this start, with quality & engaging hole after hole. A stoic beauty that the torrential rain was doing it’s best to obscure. The conditioning was & remained great throughout, with the greens in particular running beautifully. They were also noticeably quicker than the Old Course where we’d played a few days earlier. Not quite how quick because we’d left the Stimpmeter back in our hotel room (the night before we’d been been measuring the distance which Tunnock’s Teacakes would roll across our carpeted room).
The Gallic Golfers making up our flight had insisted on playing the back tees, so we were spending more time getting wet than absolutely necessary. Their self-flagellating approach searching for lost balls in the rough did allow me to take a few photos and start with the Jean van de Velde comments a little earlier than anticipated. I managed to mention the 1999 Open meltdown on every hole from the second onwards. As for this famed difficulty, I came within a whisker of breaking 90 whilst playing in scuba gear. Nevertheless, choosing the right tee boxes is even more important when the heavens remain open for 4 hours.
The finish at Carnoustie was magnificent. Holes 13-18 are tremendous in their variety, challenge, & perhaps notoriety. Still not a view in sight but a memorable closing stretch demanding full focus. The setting is dour (and the weather still dire), but the holes were so enjoyable. And anyway, what kind of golfer wants to be looking at the mantelpiece when there’s a fire to be poked? On the 18th I made an admirable attempt to convince our French companions into an impromptu photo shoot in the Barry Burn, but unfortunately they declined. Probably for the best because on this day it was a literal raging torrent that may have carried them all the way home. As we finished up on the golfing icon that is the final green - my own playing partner securing a memorable birdie - I began to collect my thoughts on the course.
Rating courses is one thing, but I don’t envy those at Top 100 who need to put them all into an actual ranked order. That is often comparing apples & pears, elevators & stairs, tables & chairs, skinny jeans & flares. If you rank Dornoch or Turnberry ahead of Carnoustie because of the respective settings, I can understand this. But the quality of this course surely stands shoulder to shoulder amongst the creme de menthe of links greats? Carnoustie is probably more of a Portmarnock Pomme than a Ballybunion Poire, but no less worthy for this. Many of us have our bucket full of water lists and are always excited to see the next course. The Madness Gene is after all what got our forefathers out of Africa to fulfill our species’s evolutionary destiny of inventing golf in the first place. But despite this human longing for new experiences, Carnoustie joins a very select backlog of courses that I would prefer to play again in lieu of risk-chasing new experiences.
A friend asked me just yesterday for my top 5 courses played, in ranked order. This is like asking which child you prefer, so I gave him an unranked squad of 11. Carnoustie makes the cut. This course was simply brilliant and even the worst weather Scotland could throw at us did not put a dampener on things.
Great review really enjoyed reading that
Brilliant opening to the review, so true, although having played here for so many years in the Tassie I still think I have been sun burnt as many times as soaked
Carnoustie could perhaps be the world’s best tournament course and may well be the most deserving of all of the courses currently on the Open rota. It’s a course that provides the best and fairest challenge of the professionals, particularly in testing their nerve as they come down the infamous closing stretch. There’s also a tonne of strategy off the tee with narrow fairways and precisely placed bunkers to test your guile that makes this a beautifully designed course over what is otherwise a flat piece of ground. Carnoustie is a course that’s ultimately going to appeal more to the scratch golfer than the mid-handicap hack.
I thought the opening three holes had a lovely variety whilst the 14th, Spectacles, might be one of my favourite par fives I’ve played. I did enjoy others too, but some of the oddities or charm that I search for from a GB&I top ten ranked course perhaps weren’t quite there across the middle segment of the course for me to rank Carnoustie amongst this esteemed company. That being said, to walk the same footsteps and test yourself across the same piece of property that has created more stories per inch than most of its peers is something every amateur should make the effort to experience. And if you manage to plot your way around whilst successfully avoiding the Barry Burn, then you’re a far more skilful golfer than I will ever hope to be.
My son and I have just finished a 7 day tour of Angus, Fife and Lothian. The courses we played in order were: Old Course St. Andrews, Elie, Carnoustie, Dumbarnie, Kingsbarns, North Berwick and Muirfield.
I'll use the same preface and tour summary within each respective course review. Hopefully, our informal ranking(s) might provide some comparative context and help in deciding where to play.
So to Carnoustie - my late father's favourite course so a bit of a pilgrimage for my son and I.
The shortened version - my son thought the course was outstanding.
We started the first in full wet weather gear and the rain abated by the 4th fairway. The wind was behind on the 6th which was reachable with two good blows and avoiding the bunkers.
I've never liked the Par 3 seventh - out of bounds too close for comfort on the left with a right to left wind.
And the 9th always feels like it could be at home on any heath land course.
My son loved the 10th - possibly because the heavens opened again and flooded the green - and wanted "Carnasty" and all that the heavens could through at us.
Time to regroup at the halfway house for a pie and drink and some relief from the rain. 10 minutes later, the rain had gone and the greens and fairways drained of any evidence of inclement weather.
And the wind had completely switched so that by the time we played 14, 15 and 16, it was helping.
With natures help, I managed what Tom Watson hadn't on 16 when he won in '75.
However, the par 4 17th was played dead against the wind.
A good driver just made it over the Barry Burn, followed by a well struck 2 hybrid and a low punched 6 iron from 100 yds into the green.
By comparison, my son hit driver and 60 degree wedge on the down-wind 18th. What Jean Van-de-Velde would have given for that finish!
Carnousite, despite the weather, was in superb condition (this round took place on 29th October). The run-offs surrounding the greens were as quick and good as any greens we played at other courses at this time of year.
And the greens were firm true and fast. A real pleasure.
With Carnoustie - you get what you pay for. It is a superb quality championship layout in fantastic condition. It is also a fair but hard test of golf and not for the faint-hearted. There's a reason it was my Dad's favourite and it's quickly become my son's too.
Not quite the setting or scenery for 6 balls.
But a solid and enjoyable 5 and a half.
I said I'd provide a ranking from our 7 day tour as a comparison guide. My son and I had a lot of fun talking about various criteria for what "best" was.
In the end, I have settled on 2 rankings: "most fun & visually inspiring" and "most keen to make a score on". These probably equate to those who are playing the game as a game and want to take time to smell the roses, and those who take it a bit more seriously where it's the satisfaction of attaining a score on a quality course.
My "most fun & visually inspiring" ranking from our little 7 day tour was:
1. North Berwick (1st, 2nd, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th ...you get the idea)
2. Elie (10th, 11th, 12th, 13th)
3. Dumbarnie (stunning panaromic views across the course and to the shore)
4. St. Andrews Old Course (just the atmosphere and the courses hsitory and locale within the town)
5. Carnoustie (6th, 10th, 13th, 16th, 17th, 18th)
6. Muirfield (solid golf hole after golf hole)
7. Kingsbarns (hampered by atrocious weather)
The courses I'd "most like to make a score on" ranking was:
3. North Berwick
4. Old course, St Andrews
If I had just one course to play - North Berwick - it's just a great walk.
If I had just 3 courses to play - North Berwick, Carnoustie, St. Andrews (looks, quality, history)
I hope my totally subjective reviews give others some insight.
It was a memorable tour, and the list of quality courses in the area we didn't play (Leven, Lundin, Crail, Scottscraig, Castle, New, Jubilee, Panmure, Montrose, Gullane etc etc) serve to show what a fantastic region of Scotland this is to play golf.
What to say about Carnoustie. Well, after a pedestrian start, the third hole is excellent. A short par 4 with bunkers down the middle and a burn down the left and in front of the green leaves you with a decision. Lay up short of the bunkers or take them on leaving a short pitch onto the green.
After that the course idles on by until you get to Hogan's Alley. And again the course just idles on until you get to the finish and those last 4-5 holes are brutal. 459yd par 4, 437yd par 4 235yd par 3, 421yd par 4, 421yd par 4 (yellow tees). Oh and there are excellently placed bunkers on all of them, with the burn being in play on 17 & 18 too. When you get off the course you feel like you've fought through 18 holes of golf.
Hole interest beside, the course was running hard and fast when I played it which meant hitting the tight fairways was a challenge and although the rough had been cut right back, made it a lot more challenging to stop the ball on the greens either, forcing you to run the ball on.
All in all, it was an enjoyable if challenging round, the starter was excellent and gave me the history of Carnoustie as well as a few pointers, but I don't think the course justifies it's 10th place ranking. It's a good course and if you are in the area definitely worth a round, but I personally won't be seeking it out again.
Simply the best best course for me. Brutal in the wind, brutal when not in the wind, it really lives up to the hype of being the toughest around.
The golf centre is kitted out as a championship course should, you could spend hours in there before your round. Stepping into the first fee where legends of the past have been is quite a feeling, Hogan, Watson, Woods, now you.
The bunkers, fairways and greens throughout are immaculate. Best holes for me are 18, 17, 15, 6, 2, 10.... I could go on, every hole is a delight to play. side note, I have in the last aces 13! Playing the final hole with the hotel framing in the background is however a special feeling.
Get yourself to the Caledonia or Carnoustie club after for a pint, you'll have earned it by the end.
Played the Championship course last year, in 30 mile per hour winds. What is considered as the toughest track in the UK, was made even more so with the weather. That said, we loved every minute - especially the closing three holes, which are iconic in the world of golf. The Barry Burn gobbled up two of my balls on the 17th, and unfortunately, the 18th tight in front of the green. Going back next year to have another crack at it. Can't wait!