Behind the architectural curtain - Carnoustie hosts 147th Open

147th Open Championship - Carnoustie Golf Links

Behind the architectural curtain

by M. James Ward

The most demanding of links – Carnoustie – returns for the 8th time in hosting this week's 147th Open Championship. The Angus links is an equal storyline in once again demanding the very best from the world's top golfers. The last time the event was held at "Carnasty," so named because of its relentless demands, most notably with the final four holes having a major collective impact. Who will ever forget the unbelievable meltdown of Frenchman Jean Van de Velde in 1999 when needing only a closing double-bogey to secure the title? His decision making, albeit lack thereof, is forever etched into golf's history books.

Eleven years ago Carnoustie hosted its most recent Open – the 136th – with Irishman Padraig Harrington claiming the Claret Jug in a playoff over Spain's Sergio Garcia.

To better understand the fascinating elements that Carnoustie provides, four architects weigh in with their overall estimation of the course and what viewers should keep a keen eye on when observing this year's third major championship and the eventual announcement of who will be identified as the "champion golfer of the year."

What was your initial impression of Carnoustie when you first saw the course?

Carnoustie 6th holeTom Marzolf: Initial Impressions: Should you lay up off the tee or attempt to hit past the trouble all day long? The wind keeps changing. It is starting to rain! The out of bounds fence, the water winding across the fairway at the 17th, the well placed bunkers blocking the views. A great example of golf architecture elements, placed in the way to make you pause -- think and dare you to hit a bold shot.

Robin Hiseman: Surprise at just how compact the final three holes are and just how close the 16th green is to the 18th fairway, with the 17th tee wedged in between. It also looked a lot more inland in style than I was expecting, with all the dark fir tree plantations. They’re gone now.

Greg Norman: Very non-traditional links golf – Carnoustie’s layout is like a bowl of spaghetti. Holes go in every direction with only two holes playing the same wind direction. A masterpiece in design..

Ally McIntosh: Well, I first played the course when I was 13 and at that age, the overall perception was one of length and difficulty. Naively, we begged for – and were granted – the opportunity to play off the “Tiger” tees. At that time, Carnoustie played a full 300 yards longer than any of the other Open rota courses which were still averaging around the 6,900-yard mark. In the mid-eighties, my taste in architecture had a long way to develop and so it was the interaction with the streams and burns that most enthralled me. This seemed distinctly different to the norm: we had very few water hazards on any courses in Scotland at the time, even inland. I do remember getting excited by the strategy of Hogan's Alley on the 6th hole. My love of centreline hazards has clearly been there from early on.


Course preparation came to the forefront during the recent US Open at Shinnecock Hills. What distinguishes how the R&A prepares a course when compared to the USGA?

Ally McIntosh: There’s no doubt that the R&A arrange and present The Open in a thoroughly professional manner. Focus appears to be less on “set-up” than it does with the US Open. This is a good thing. It means that the course can talk for itself. Both organisations do seem too instrumental in driving design changes on the run-up to their respective championships: there is too much tinkering based on wrong assumptions. Slowly but surely, these changes promote homogenisation as notional ideals of what is needed to challenge the best in the world are repeated at every venue, often by the same architects. We should be celebrating the differences at each of the courses rather than seeking the same outcome every time.

Greg Norman: Watching the US Open I thought the course setup was excellent, just a few hole locations on Saturday caused discontent amongst some of the players. The weather will be the deciding factor on how the R&A will setup Carnoustie. It is exposed to the nasty elements rolling in from the North Sea..

Tom Marzolf: The R&A provides expansive seating space to enjoy the 18th hole. The Open now has the feeling of a “golf stadium” with the high grandstands flanking the finish. The windy UK links land has taught the R&A to cut the cups to get thru the day -- without drawing attention to the flagstick location. Unfortunately, our generation in the States witnessed an occasional odd Hole Location, brown grass, turning off the irrigation, and lowering the greens mower,….. which at times, harmed the host courses, perhaps more than the damage to the Association and Fox. Somebody is trying too hard.

Robin Hiseman: The R&A is more consistent with their set up than the USGA, but then again, they are always dealing with links conditions, so it is easier to follow a standard procedure. I applaud the USGA for their variety in venues in recent years and the widely differing course preparations. Personally, I thought Chambers Bay was the most enjoyable major to watch in many years and the problems posed by Shinnecock on Saturday were fair enough for one day only.


The most underrated hole at Carnoustie is?

Carnoustie 16th holeRobin Hiseman: Carnoustie is so consistent that it's hard to pick one out that sneaks under the radar. I really like the Par 4 5th. It’s got a great green, very long and set on an angle with a big change in level, protected by bunkers on the left. If you drive to the right to line up with the long axis of the green, you have a rather obstructed view over two deep cross bunkers. I rather like the counter intuitiveness of this, because it’s not the typical strategic pattern.

Tom Marzolf: The 17th. The most unique use of water off the tee of any golf hole – ever! Hard to know where to hit the ball the first day you play 17.

Greg Norman: Not knowing if there has been any changes done for this year’s Open, it is a tie with the Par 5 6th and the Par 3 16th. Which is one of the toughest if not the toughest par-3 in golf without water.

Ally McIntosh: As a collective with the Open courses, 2nd holes don’t seem to get enough love so I’ll go with it. Braid’s Bunker may no longer be in play for the professionals but it can still cause trouble for us mortals and it sets up the hole aesthetically. The inside bunkers on the dogleg play their part and the long green nestles in attractively and assists in deception for the approach shot.


If you could change one thing at Carnoustie what would you do?

Ally McIntosh: I don’t feel qualified to answer this with Carnoustie. With links courses, you need a real underlying understanding before recommending alterations: Because of the wind and the firmness, you can throw changes based on yardages out with the rulebook as you need to live every shot repeatedly before the nuances reveal themselves. I’ve seen a few errors of judgement on well-known links courses recently, perhaps because the architect didn’t know the course well enough.

Tom Marzolf: No need to change anything really. Just need to stop changing the historic courses, so that each generation can see what the excitement was all about in the first place.

Robin Hiseman: I’d like to experiment with playing 18 as a par-5 again. It could play as long as 560 Yards. The trick will be in setting the length at just the right distance to ensure tee shots can get over the Barry Burn and still encourage an attacking second shot, rather than a cautious, boring lay-up. I would cut the fairway out tight to the burn and the out-of-bounds on the left side and tighten up the right half of the second part of the hole. The lay-up would then be aimed towards the out-of-bounds. Carnoustie doesn’t give too much away and I’d like to see the excitement that would come with the possibility of a closing eagle.

Greg Norman: Nothing. Like Shinnecock, it is one of the toughest fairest golf courses in the world. I would maintain the fairway widths of approximately 28 yards.


Major championship venues are routinely "updated" by architects. How much attention should an architect pay to restoring past design elements versus adding new inclusions?

Tom Marzolf: Restorations of the past are entitled, only when the past is deserving of re instating! If the first design was not remarkable, then move on and make sure your work is truly better.

Robin Hiseman: One would have to evaluate why a past design feature was eliminated and ascertain whether it would have strategic, aesthetic and logistical relevance if it were to be restored. There is a great satisfaction that comes with resurrecting a ‘lost’ feature and giving it new meaning. They did this well recently with the restoration of the old ‘Sandhills’ bunker on the 10th at Royal Troon. New greens are the hardest to integrate into an existing routing. Consider the trouble that was had with the contouring of the new 17th green at Birkdale. That took a few goes to get it right. It’ll be interesting to see how the two entirely new holes at Portrush sit amongst the classic Harry Colt layout.

Greg Norman: Both. A great architect must remove his ego and balance modern technology with classic links design to finally have a Major Championship venue seamlessly transitioning from tournament play to member and public play.

Ally McIntosh: When deciding what changes are needed, it’s a fine balance between reintroducing features and elements of the course that made it fun and individual and ensuring that it is relevant for the modern-day professional; not that these points should be mutually exclusive. For instance, a cool old school green can be both challenging and fun. The problem is that (in the UK anyway), there is rarely a move to restore old features that don’t directly influence the top-level players, cross bunkers, width and unusual “quirk” for example. Hence the gradual loss of individuality. In the US, you focus much more on architectural heritage, usually for the better although stringent adherence to what has gone before can occasionally stifle creativeness as well.


The final four holes at Carnoustie are often cited as among the most demanding quartet in golf. What defines their strength collectively?

Carnoustie 17th holeRobin Hiseman: I generally think of the final three as being a collective at Carnoustie. There is a sense of entering an arena when you step onto the 16th tee. Their strength is their genre defining penal nature. There are few more nerve shredding closing stretches if you are playing them with something on the line.

Greg Norman: Their meandering direction. Their length testing power accuracy and precision. And finally, their green complexes are shrewdly designed to challenge under any weather condition. Plus, throw in Barry Burn and you have the ingredients for an extremely tough close.

Tom Marzolf: If you are looking for an opportunity to lose, and get out of the winners way, 15 thru 18 can make you look silly. Check out the listing of past champions who have won at Carnoustie. It's a who’s who of strong minded legends who grinded thru the “Carnasty” finish. .

Ally McIntosh: Without meaning to sound obvious, it’s because they are scarily tough as a collective, at least if you are marking your card to par. 16 is long and it’s not an easy green to hold. 18 is as penal as they come. An architect designing an equivalent hole today would get castigated for being one dimensional. There really is no element of strategy with that hole, at least as the golden age guys meant it. Except that with multiple hazards to consider, the 18th brings with it some serious decision-making dilemmas, especially if the golfer is out of position. Perhaps a little more black or white rather than the many shades of grey that a traditional strategic hole would offer; but who can argue against it providing a grandstand finish almost every time.


In the rota of courses used for The Open, what course ranking would you list for Carnoustie? Is it 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc, etc.

Carnoustie 18th holeAlly McIntosh: The Old Course is untouchable. Royal St George’s and Portrush are my favourites because they conjure up the perfect mix of ground contour, interesting greens and elegance in routing. Outside St. Andrews, Muirfield is quite possibly the most strategic due to the hazard placements. I guess that leaves Carnoustie as 5th. But I could change that order dependent on my mood.

Tom Marzolf: St Andrews -#1 for history; Muirfield - #2 for best course design; Turnberry – #3 for best sea side setting; Carnoustie - #4 for hardest golf architecture; Royal St George’s #5 for best greens and approaches; Royal Liverpool – Hoylake – #6 for no driver needed for Tiger; and shout out to Prestwick – bring back persimmon and the British golf ball and let’s try Prestwick again.

Robin Hiseman: I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to list them in order of quality. There are some Open courses which I find more engaging than others. Carnoustie ranks well in that regard, because it has characterful and strategic holes and a belting good finale. Turnberry would probably top that chart if it ever holds an Open again and Portrush will be a brilliant addition to the rota because it is so beautiful and well designed -- especially the green complexes.

Greg Norman: 2nd behind The Old Course at St. Andrews.


Above photo identifications of Carnoustie's Championship course:

*The first photo shows the 6th hole.
*The second photo listed is the 16th hole.
*The third photo listed is the 17th hole.
*The final course photo is the 18th hole.


The participating architects

Robin Hiseman

Robin HisemanA practicing golf course architect since 1991. Has been with European Golf Design for the past 13 years. His newest project, the much anticipated JCB Golf & Country Club, in Staffordshire, England is schedule to open by late summer 2018. Past EGD projects include The Royal Golf Club, in Bahrain; the brand new Montgomerie Rabat in Morocco and the highly regarded Casa Serena, in the Czech Republic. He is a Senior Member of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA).



Ally McIntoshAlly McIntoshA Scotsman who grew up on the links. After relocating to Ireland and graduating through the EIGCA education program, he set up his own golf course design firm in 2010. Has since been fortunate enough to design and work on well-known seaside courses in both his home and adopted countries. He plays most of his golf at Portmarnock in Dublin.



Tom MarzolfTom MarzolfPast President of American Society of Golf Course Architects (2005-06), member since 1990. First ever dual member of EIGCA and ASGCA. Design consultant for 4 US Open, (2006, '07, '13 and '16) and US Women's Opens in 2009, '10 and '17. Working for Tom Fazio for 34 years on going serving as Senior Design Associate.



Greg Norman

Greg NormanArguably the most successful athlete-turned-businessman in the world, Greg Norman is known as much for his entrepreneurial spirit in the boardroom as his dominance on the golf course. The internationally renowned “Great White Shark” won more than 90 tournaments worldwide, including two Open Championships, and he holds the distinction of defending his No. 1 position in the world golf rankings for 331 weeks, the second-longest reign in history. As one of the most prolific players in the game’s history, his career culminated in 2001 when he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame with a higher percentage of votes than any other inductee in history.Greg Norman's internationally recognized brand boasts more than 100 golf course designs across six continents, a global real estate collection, award-winning wine, golf-inspired lifestyle apparel and a diverse investment division.