Carnoustie plays host to the 147th Open Championship this week for what will be the 8th time in the tournament’s history and the first time since Padraig Harrington grabbed the Claret Jug in 2007 when he held off Sergio Garcia in a play-off. Garcia’s 8-foot putt for par on the 72nd hole in regulation play lipped out which presented the Irishman with a lifeline after he’d made double bogey at the last – the rest, as they say, is history. More famous than that finish though was the incredible drama we saw in 1999 when Jean Van de Velde famously relinquished a 3-shot lead standing on the 18th tee which left a jubilant Paul Lawrie to pick up the pieces in a 3-way play-off which also featured Justin Leonard. Whether this year’s event can match either of those two renewals for sheer drama remains to be seen, however we live in hope that the 2018 renewal of golf’s oldest Major will be memorable from both a viewing and punting perspective.
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As has become the norm in Majors in recent times, the odds compilers are struggling to separate the elite players at the top of the market with World No.1 Dustin Johnson rating as the clear favourite with most firms at around 12/1. Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy follow a short way behind DJ at around the 16/1 mark, however with the likes of Tommy Fleetwood, Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Henrik Stenson and Tiger Woods all available at around the 20/1 to 25/1 mark, this is another truly open Major Championship.
Carnoustie Golf Links – Championship Course, Carnoustie, Fife: Designer: Tom Morris, Alan Robertson, James Braid, 1931, renovation pre-2007 Open; Course Type: Technical, Coastal, Links; Par: 71; Length: 7,402 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 5; Fairways: Fescue, Bentgrass and Ryegrass; Rough: Fescue, with Wavy Hair grass 3.5″; Greens: Bentgrass (50%), Fescue (30%), Annual Meadow grass (20%).
2012 Open Champion Ernie Els has seen all of the event’s venues over his long and very successful career and had this to say about Carnoustie back in 2007, “I think Carnoustie is the toughest of the whole lot. It’s got length. It’s got great bunkering. You’ve really got to have your wits with you to play this golf course. It’s probably the best bunkered course that you’ll ever find anywhere in the world.“
The Championship Course at Carnoustie has very much evolved over time. Old Tom Morris set out the course on the North Sea coastline in 1867 and this is still very much the footprint for the test we see today. James Braid made significant alterations to the course prior to the 1931 Open, which was the first to be hosted at the venue. The course we see today is effectively the same as we saw in 2007 when Padraig Harrington won his first Major Championship. At over 7,400 yards it’s the longest of the Open rota courses and that’s one of the core constituents of its difficulty. Dependant on wind direction, plenty of the holes play into the wind – or even worse, if a cross-wind plays across the course it becomes a very stern test indeed.
We’re in a privileged position this year as Carnoustie will play pretty much as it did back in 2007. At 7,402 yards this is a long golf course, especially as the par 71 only has two par-5s on the card. The Championship course also features one of the toughest closing stretches in professional golf. The 248 yard, par-3 16th named ‘Barry Burn’ is a flexible and particularly difficult 3-shotter as this video highlights brilliantly. The par-4 17th, named ‘Island’, is stretching at 461 yards with the Barry Burn in play. But it’s the signature closing 18th hole, named ‘Home’, which sticks long in the memory. The Barry Burn is very much in play across both the drive and the approach shot to the green. At a fraction under 500 yards in length, it’s a beast of a closer and naturally both 1999 and 2007 Open Championships turned amazingly for Van De Velde, Lawrie, Garcia and Harrington on this hole.
The course itself is on flat topography similar in that respect to St Andrews; fairways are much tighter though at 22 yards to 26 yards in width. A number of holes have out-of-bounds which encroach tightly to fairways and if you miss fairways by a significant amount, thick gorse and unmown ‘Wavy Hair’ grass up to 2 feet high comes into play. The course though is also defended by deep, well-positioned pot bunkers that encroach on fairway landing areas. Wind strength and direction often dictates strategy off the tee and whether they can be taken out of play by the longer hitters. Find a number of them and the only option is to play out sideways.
A rare par-71 format which features 13 par-4s and only 2 par-5s, the famous par-5 6th hole, named ‘Hogan’s Alley’, features a very close out-of-bounds down the left of the hole. At 578 yards it’s reachable in 2 shots downwind, but with a headwind it’s a wedge 3rd shot approach for all. The other par-5 14th, named ‘Spectacles’, gives some respite at a little over 500 yards from the back tees. However the ingrained difficulty of the Championship course is inherent with the fact that 7 of the 13 par-4s measure over 450 yards, with 6 of them at circa 470 yards or more. In windy conditions, this can turn Carnoustie into an absolute monster.
In general, green complexes themselves, which feature a Bentgrass/Fescue grass mix, aren’t the most undulating on the Open course rota. A number of them do repel approach shots with contouring channelling balls away from the centre of the green. However others are quite flat and more than receptive if soft. Another feature of Carnoustie is that most holes have plenty of room around the greens with surrounds that are extremely tightly mown, taking approaches into collection areas. Those with an excellent short chipping game have a huge advantage as they can scramble pars.
In all, you get the feeling that if conditions were like-for-like with Birkdale last year, Carnoustie would be a tougher golf course. It’s certainly all in front of the players, but its sheer length, bunkering and the Barry Burn, which always features heavily, are quite considerable defences. This is undoubtedly a genuine links test that can be played on the ground on many holes which don’t feature bunkers at the front of green complexes. And as with all links golf courses, it will play as difficult as turf conditions and the weather dictate. Tommy Fleetwood is the course record holder with a -8/63, but that was in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship which features amateur-friendly pin positions. Sergio Garcia’s opening -5/66 from 2007 does show that even with an Open-tough setup, the Championship Course does yield birdies – but don’t expect the 2018 Open Championship to be a low-scoring affair.
Below are some revealing comments about the course in 2007 from the players:
Padraig Harrington: “There’s no question playing last week (at the Irish PGA Championship as opposed to the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond), just getting used to the fact that you could hit 7-iron into the wind and it’s only going to go 125 yards. That just doesn’t happen in our regular golf. We’re used to hitting a 7-iron 180 yards into a slight breeze because it’s warm. All of a sudden you go to a links course and that same little breeze is taking 20, 30 yards off the shot. A good example, like I had 162 to the pin on the first playoff hole. And like I know -I’ve got 7-iron in my hand and I know because of the temperature and it’s only – there’s hardly a breeze out there, but I know I’m probably going to hit my 7-iron 180 yards. But I know in these conditions I’m doing well, I hit that well to get to pin-high. Just playing last week, definitely you have to spend time to getting used to the different conditions. And obviously chipping and putting, similar sort of thing. I had great pace this week. I had no fear standing over 25-yard, 30-yard, 40-yard putts from off the green. I had no fear. I rolled them up stone dead. Like I had a great week of rolling putts up like on 16 up that bank. I was confident I was going to put that in.“
Sergio Garcia (Round 1): “It was possible to shoot a 65 (-6). More than anything because it rained. The course is – I said it yesterday, I think, I think it’s the best shaped links course I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a links course where the fairways are so pure and the greens are so good. It’s definitely – if you get going and there’s not much wind, like it was today, there was a little bit of a breeze and it was a little cool so that didn’t make it easier. But at least it felt like it was playable. You could hit a 5-iron and it wasn’t going to release 15 yards or something like that, so you could stop it somewhere around the hole. You still have to hit a lot of good shots because there’s a lot of good holes on the back nine, 10, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18. So you still have to hit a lot of good shots. But there were some birdie chances out there. I managed to hit some good shots and hole some putts.“
Sergio Garcia (Round 3): “15 I hit driver on Thursday and 3-wood yesterday, yeah. 18, I’ve been hitting driver every day. But the wind was different. The wind was from the left, it was an uncomfortable wind, it wasn’t hurting as much. I knew I could rely on my iron play. I could rely on a good, solid 2-iron off the tee and leave myself a 4- or 5-iron to the green, hit a solid shot. Even if I don’t hit the green, hit it around the right bunker or maybe in the left trap, and from there I can make four, five at the worst. What you don’t want to do is start hitting to these bunkers and get in trouble. So I was very much relying on that. And I don’t have any complaints about it.“
Tiger Woods: “Well, I’ve never heard anyone say Carnoustie is easy, even the times I played the Scottish Open here it was more benign than this, and the scores really weren’t that low. There are so many holes where you’re forced to hit long irons into the greens. Obviously if you miss the ball in any of the pot bunkers off the tee you have to go sideways, if you can. You can’t advance it forward. I think that’s probably a misconception. If you watch guys play practice rounds you’re going to see them hit a lot of long clubs. Granted there are some short holes. It depends on the finish. If the wind is into you coming home, it’s all you want on the golf course. Yes, it’s extremely fair. It’s not like it was in ’99. It’s probably a little more difficult than it was in the Scottish Opens I played. So it’s roughly right in between. And if we have wind like yesterday morning, conditions like that, or any kind of wind on this golf course, it just becomes a lot more difficult than you think. You really do have to hit the ball well here. The greens are extremely subtle, just like all links courses, they’re hard to read.“
Phil Mickelson: “There certainly are some courses that set up differently than others, even though they might look similar. I really like this golf course or I feel comfortable on this course because of the way a lot of the holes are set up and some of the shot values that we have into the greens. I like a lot of the holes that have bunkers 30 yards short of the green downwind. It’s a challenge to carry over them and get the ball stopped on the green. 16 is an example. 15 is another example, and probably the best one is 12. Those are holes where you have to carry the ball and still get it in soft. Even though you’re playing a crosswind or downwind you want to bring the ball in high and soft, which is a lot like the shots we hit back in the States. The holes that tend to play into the wind, there seems to be enough room to keep the driver in the fairway and attack some of the greens. What I really like about this course is how much room around the green there is to hit shots and hit chip shots and have a chance to let your short game make pars for you. I think that’s my favourite thing about Carnoustie.“
Justin Rose: “The third hole was an interesting hole with the wind hard off to the left. They’re trying to make you hit it down the left side which brings the creek or the burn into play down the left. With the wind off the left today it was a very interesting hole. It was hard to keep it down the left, and it was bringing those two right-hand bunkers into play. You have to get it close to the bunkers to carry the rough and the moguls in the middle of the fairway. It began to be a tricky hole, what used to be quite a straight forward hole. 6 is a classic – it’s a great links par-5, downwind is straight forward. Downwind the landing area becomes much wider. It’s a legitimate birdie chance. Into the wind you’ve got to play it as a three-shot hole. If you hit one bad shot, it’s like a chain reaction hole. If you put it out of position on the tee you’re looking at six, or have a bad layup you’re looking at six, so it’s really a par-5.
On 17 and 18 that’s the main holes where I think the back tee on 18 the Barry Burn just cuts in a little bit on the right side, probably about say 260. So into the wind, which on Monday was into the wind, that burn is going to cut in more so than it has in the previous years where you’ve been driving it down to where the bunkers are. 17, it’s an interesting hole because whether it’s into the wind or downwind you’re placing your drive in a very similar situation, in a similar spot on the fairway. Because the burn cuts across the fairway. So it really – it limits the way you can play the 17th hole in my mind, which is a good thing. It’s a good strategic hole. There’s no way to get it out without dropping it.“
Ernie Els: “I think Carnoustie is the toughest of the whole lot. It’s got length. It’s got great bunkering. You’ve really got to have your wits with you to play this golf course. It’s probably the best bunkered course that you’ll ever find anywhere in the world. I think this one and Lytham are really well bunkered, but this golf course has the length, as I say. And it seems like the wind always blows here. I’m staying at St. Andrews this week, I was at St. Andrews this morning, and the flags were — there was no wind. You come out here and it’s blowing. So it seems like this course, with the weather conditions and the way that the layout is, it’s a very demanding layout. You’ve got to play every shot in the bag. Every links shot you can think of you get tested here. It’s got everything.“
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2017: Jordan Spieth, 16/1; 2016: Henrik Stenson, 33/1; 2015: Zach Johnson, 110/1; 2014: Rory McIlroy, 18/1; 2013, Phil Mickelson, 20/1; 2012: Ernie Els, 45/1; 2011: Darren Clarke, 200/1; 2010: Louis Oosthuizen, 250/1.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the area is here. After a prolonged period of dry weather in the UK for a number of weeks now, very little is likely to change over the course of this year’s tournament which means we’re in for firm and fast conditions. Any brief showers are unlikely to amount to anything much and with wind speeds of 10-15mph expected, it will be those conditions and how the course plays on the ground which will present players with the biggest challenge.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Let’s take the final skill statistics from Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia, Andres Romero, Ernie Els and Richard Green from the latest 2007 Open Championship held at Carnoustie. This gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
- 1st, Padraig Harrington (-7). 297 yards (12th), 61.7% fairways (38th), 65.3% greens in regulation (14th), 75.6% scrambling (1st), 1.71 putts per GIR (34th).
- 2nd, Sergio Garcia (-7). 308 yards (1st), 71.7% fairways (9th), 70.8% greens in regulation (4th), 67.1% scrambling (6th), 1.71 putts per GIR (32nd).
- 3rd, Andres Romero (-6) . 301 yards (4th), 53.3% fairways (63rd), 61.1% greens in regulation (31st), 55.8% scrambling (16th), 1.59 putts per GIR (5th).
- 4th, Ernie Els (-5) . 291 yards (22nd), 51.7% fairways (64th), 61.1% greens in regulation (31st), 73.4% scrambling (3rd), 1.65 putts per GIR (13th).
- 4th, Richard Green (-5). 269 yards (64th), 63.3% fairways (34th), 66.7% greens in regulation (9th), 53.2% scrambling (23rd), 1.67 putts per GIR (17th).
Naturally these statistics have to be taken in the context that the 2007 event was played in relatively soft conditions and scoring was good; balance that with the fact that Paul Lawrie won at +6 in 1999 and it’s clear that the conditions very much dictate how difficult Carnoustie plays.
One consistent factor that stands out in both the 1999 and 2007 renewals is the requirement for the ability to scramble. Top 5 finishers in 1999 Lawrie, Leonard, Van de Velde, Cabrera and Parry ranked 6th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st and 12th respectively for scrambling on the week which, if anything, is even more pronounced than the numbers above. To back this point up, 2 Senior Opens have been played at Carnoustie since Harrington’s triumph and the top-6 finishers in 2010 ranked 2nd, 4th, 10th, 6th, 1st and 6th for scrambling; likewise in 2016 the top-6 ranked 5th, 3rd, 6th, 42nd, 1st and 28th for getting the ball up and down. In short, to compete here a player needs to bring a very sharp short game.
There are a number of identifiable trends from the past few Open Championship winners that are worth considering this week:
Recent Wins: In terms of recent winning form, 12 Open Champions from the last 18 renewals (67%) had won a tournament in the same season prior to triumphing at The Open. Tiger Woods (00, 05, 06), Ernie Els (02), Todd Hamilton (04), Padraig Harrington (07), Louis Oosthuizen (10), Darren Clarke (11), Phil Mickelson (13), Rory McIlroy (14), Henrik Stenson (16) and Jordan Spieth had all won in the same season prior to lifting the Claret Jug.
In terms of ‘non-winners’, David Duval had 3 Top-10 finishes and had finished 2nd at Augusta at the Masters prior to his triumph Royal Lytham in 2001. 2008 saw Padraig Harrington accumulate 4 Top-10s prior to winning by 3 shots at Royal Birkdale and the following year saw Stewart Cink arrive at Turnberry with 2 Top-10s including a 3rd at the World Match Play. Zach Johnson may have arrived as a 110/1 shot in 2015, however with 7 top-10 finishes in the season to date and incoming form of 6/3 over his previous two events, he was clearly in decent nick. Only Ben Curtis at Royal St Georges in 2003 came from way off the page: in his rookie season on the PGA Tour he’d managed a 13th at the Western Open 2 weeks prior to The Open before beating Bjorn, Singh, Love III and Woods to take the coveted Claret Jug back home to Ohio.
Jordan Spieth’s incredible putting performance and eventual victory over Matt Kuchar last year adds even more gravitas to the fact that in-form players are the guys to follow at the Open Championship. It makes sense that those who are struggling with their games are unlikely to find them on a tough links course and in the last 6 champions we can see a pattern that’s easy to extrapolate:
- 2017: Jordan Spieth flew into the northwest of England fully fresh and rested his 10th PGA Tour victory which he’d racked-up at TPC River Highlands when clinching the Travelers Championship in a spectacular play-off victory over Daniel Berger 4 weeks prior. In Strokes Gained parlance he was 7th for Approach, 2nd for Around The Green and 1st for Tee to Green, whilst he wasn’t bad with the putter finishing 3rd for Putts per GIR.
- 2016: Henrik arrived in Ayrshire fresh from a free-wheeling 13th at the Scottish Open played at Caste Stuart. 76 in Round 1 was then followed by rounds of 69-66-70. However a fortnight prior to the Scottish Open, Stenson had won the BMW International Open at Gut Larchenhof with a -17/271 total. His performance in Germany and his 3-shot winning margin was made even more impressive by the fact that he topped Driving Accuracy, Total Driving, Greens in Regulation and All-Round categories. He was also 2nd for Scrambling. Henrik had also finished 4th at Bro Hoff Slot in June as well as 3rd at Bay Hill and 2nd in Houston earlier in the season on the PGA Tour.
- 2015: Zach arrived at Edinburgh airport on the charter flight direct from Silvis, Illinois where he’d just finished a single shot behind Jordan Spieth at the John Deere Classic. 5th at Las Colinas and 6th at TPC River Highlands in preceding PGA Tour outings highlighted a player at the top of his game – even now the fact that he was available at 110/1 to win at St Andrews is jaw-dropping!
- 2014: Rory had won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May, a track which had always been his nemesis until his closing 66 destroyed the field. He then limbered up with a free-rolling 14th at Royal Aberdeen the week before triumphing in Cheshire, where a horrible 78 on Friday was surrounded by rounds of 64, 67 and 68. Rory was 18/1 second favourite prior to the tournament.
- 2013: Phil Mickelson had already won at TPC Scottsdale and finished 2nd on the tough tests of Merion (US Open) and TPC Southwind before he touched down in Scotland. Arriving at Castle Stuart the week before The Open, Phil was a 20/1 shot to win the Scottish Open, which he duly did before travelling down the east coast to Muirfield where he shot an incredible 66 on Sunday to win by 3 shots from Henrik Stenson again at 20/1.
- 2012: Ernie Els was available at 45/1 prior to Royal Lytham in 2012. With 4 Top-5 finishes (Fancourt, Copperhead, Bay Hill and New Orleans) plus a 7th at Wentworth and 9th at the US Open just prior to the Open, he had huge momentum and was in the right place at the right time when Adam Scott collapsed over the closing 4 holes. It’s fact that Ernie was the latest in a long line of form players to triumph at the Open Championship.
Last 10 event form of Open Championship winners since 2010 reads as follows:
- 2017, Jordan Spieth: 12/30/MC/11/MC/MC/2/13/35/1 (Most recent result last)
- 2016, Henrik Stenson: 11/3/2/24/MC/MC/4/WD/1/13
- 2015, Zach Zohnson: 20/9/MC/17/13/19/5/72/6/3
- 2014: Rory McIlroy: 25/7/8/8/6/1/15/23/MC/14
- 2013: Phil Mickelson: 3/MC/16/54/3/MC/2/2/MC/1
- 2012: Ernie Els: 4/12/MC/2/MC/41/7/58/9/52
- 2011: Darren Clarke: 12/48/MC/77/1/45/63/46/MC/66
- 2010: Louis Oosthuizen: 3/44/2/1/MC/MC/21/20/MC/MC
Open Championship Record: Positive previous Open Championship performances have also been a factor when you look through the history of the most recent winners of golf’s oldest Major. 12 of the last 13 Open Champions had all previously secured at least a top-10 in this event in their careers – the exception to that rule being Louis Oosthuizen’s win at St Andrews in 2010.
- 2017, Jordan Spieth: 44/36/4/30 (Most recent result last)
- 2016, Henrik Stenson: MC/34/48/MC/3/13/3/68/2/39/40
- 2015, Zach Zohnson: MC/MC/MC/20/51/47/76/16/9/6/47
- 2014: Rory McIlroy: 42/47/3/25/60/MC
- 2013: Phil Mickelson: 41/24/76/MC/11/30/66/59/3/60/22/MC/19/48/2/MC
- 2012: Ernie Els: 2/10/28/24/2/3/1/18/2/34/3/4/7/8/MC/MC
- 2011: Darren Clarke: 11/2/MC/30/7/3/37/59/11/15/MC/MC/52/44
- 2010: Louis Oosthuizen: MC/MC/MC
Scottish Open Attendance: Jordan Spieth’s win last year at Birkdale blew a few theories about having to be game-sharp out of the water as he’d not teed it up competitively since winning the Travelers Championship 4 weeks before. Prior to that, with the exception of Zach Johnson who was playing in the United States, 6 of the previous 7 winners of the Open Championship all played the week before at the Scottish Open. Fortunes varied considerably with Oosthuizen missing the cut in 2010; Clarke finished 66th in 2011; Els finished 52nd in 2012; Mickelson won in 2013; McIlroy finished 14th in 2014 and Stenson finished 13th before lifting the Claret Jug in 2016.
It’s also interesting to note that only two players since 2000 have won The Open whilst ranking outside of the world’s top-55 when entering this week – Ben Curtis in 2003 and Darren Clarke in 2011 were the two to achieve this. In general, an in-form player with some relevant results from previous Open Championships and/or links/coastal events has triumphed in this event and I’d be surprised if the player who lifts the Claret Jug on Sunday deviates from this a great deal.
In summary, Carnoustie quite rightly has a reputation as a fierce test of golf. The challenge from off the tee in terms of the requirement for length and accuracy is clear to see, however those who’ve excelled here in recent times have supplemented their ball-striking performances with an excellent game around the greens. With just two par-5s and three par-3s, taming Carnoustie comes down to how players perform on the par-4s and with a series of long, testing holes this layout on the Angus coast can quickly wear players down. The pot bunkers are virtually a penalty stroke when found from off the tee with chipping out sideways often the only option and with fairways angled to encourage balls to find the traps it can quickly become a grind for those who aren’t at the top of their game.
Dry weather in the area has baked the fairways which in my view will put more emphasis on accuracy from off the tee this week. The cream is likely to rise to the top and the eventual winner will need every facet of their game to be firing if they’re going to triumph.
My selections are as follows: