There is something special about Opens staged at Carnoustie, which is why I’m so looking forward to this month’s championship on the Angus links. This is the course that is regarded as the toughest on the Open rota and it always seems to serve up golf in its most dramatic form.
Inevitably we think of Jean Van de Velde’s amazing final hole collapse in 1999 but consider also the victories of Padraig Harrington (2007) and Tom Watson in 1975. All three sit among the top table of memorable Opens and all three required playoffs to determine the winner. Not that it seemed likely a shoot out would be required when Van de Velde stood on the 72nd tee needing only a double-bogey six or better to win his first major title. What subsequently played out is the stuff of golfing legend. The genial Frenchman flirted with the burn with his drive and hit his second onto the grandstand. His ball cannoned back into thick rough. From there he made the key mistake of trying to advance it to the green, only to dump it into the water in front of the putting surface. In scenes of French farce he rolled up his trouser-legs and entered the water to contemplate playing his ball as it lay. Only the rising tide around his exposed ankles convinced him of the folly of such a move. Instead he took a penalty drop, pitched from the rough to a greenside bunker before bravely getting up and down for a seven that put him into a playoff with Justin Leonard and the eventual winner Paul Lawrie. The Scottish champion had fired a brilliant 67 on that brutally difficult course, coming from ten shots behind to land the Claret Jug. Eight years later it was Harrington’s turn as he contrived to take six on the last - thanks only to a brilliant up and down - to seemingly blow his chances of victory.
I remember commentating on Sergio Garcia as his highly promising putt for victory inexplicably slid past the edge of the hole. The Spaniard was then unfortunate when his tee shot cannoned off the flag at the sixteenth - the second of the four playoff holes. It helped put Harrington in charge and he calmly holed out after what he describes as the best pre-shot routine of his career on the final hole. He certainly was much calmer than I was, my heart thumping as we stood perilously close by to commentate on the putt that made him a major winner for the first time.
Back in 1975 I was watching on our brand new colour TV at home and was just starting to fall in love with golf. Watson’s playoff win over the Aussie Jack Newton massively helped me, then only 10 years old, in that process. The American champion was playing his maiden Open and was on his first visit to Scotland. By his own admission, he had little time for links golf but fought his way around this magnificent course. Watson holed a twenty footer for birdie to force the playoff. In those days the final round was on the Saturday and any decider was played the following day over eighteen rather than the four holes of today. It was a cold, breezy Sunday shoot out, but my recollection is that the blond haired Newton (who I was rooting for) chose to wear only a bright yellow short-sleeved shirt to battle the elements and the brutal course. They were dismantling the tournament infrastructure while the title was being decided and it developed into an epic contest with never more than a single stroke between them. It was decided when Watson made a regulation par at the last and the unlucky Newton could not get up and down from a greenside bunker on the ninetieth hole of that extraordinary Open. Watson had secured the first of five Claret Jugs and, of course, came so close to a sixth aged 59 when he was runner up to Stewart Cink at Turnberry in 2009. So what does Carnoustie hold in store this time around? The ingredients are there for another epic Open with a thrilling set of stars at the top of the game at the moment.
World number three Justin Rose leads the UK charge with Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood (the Carnoustie course record holder) but the American challenge looks immense. It is headlined by Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and defending champion Jordan Spieth but do not forget the likes of Masters winner Patrick Reed, two-times US Open titleholder Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler - who is a formidable Open talent. That said Carnoustie likes its European winners - Lawrie and Harrington, of course, but also Henry Cotton and the Scot Tommy Armour back in the 1930’s.And, surely, it is about time the US stranglehold on the majors is ended. I can’t help feeling Carnoustie owes one to Garcia. Spain to reign? Maybe, after all this was the course where the great Seve Ballesteros announced his retirement. What is more certain, though, is the potential for extreme excitement and drama amid the crowning of the next Open champion.