Carnoustie Golf Links: The Toughest of All Open Rota Courses?
Before arriving in Scotland, Carnoustie was one of those courses I’d heard extremely mixed reactions about.
On the one hand, it’s held the Open Championship multiple times, including most recently in 2018. John who has played all of the Top 100 Courses in the World ranked it was one of his very favorite courses – noting that it has one of the best finishing stretches in golf, as well as the best greens (alongside Augusta National).
That’s saying something.
Others have referred to it as the most “homely” of all the open courses. I’d heard that it wasn’t scenic, and that the course was just long and boring (it does measure at over 7400 yards when stretched out).
So being totally honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
In the two days before we were staying up near Cruden Bay and Trump International, so we made the two-hour drive down in plenty of time to make our 3:30 tee time.
We pulled up, and it was clear the town of Carnoustie is all about golf. There were golf shops everywhere, and a big hotel right near the pro shop.
Carnoustie has been referred to as the Bethpage of Scotland.
I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. There are multiple public courses, it’s hosted majors, and was relatively low frills by comparison to some of the other clubs in the country.
After checking in we had about 45 minutes and we went out to check out the short “par 3” course which was free to play, but it really is more like a field with a few holes cut into it.
We hit some balls into the nets before heading out to the first tee – as there is no range at the course.
Waiting on the first tee definitely felt a little more momentous than I’d expected it to. You’re directly in front of the clubhouse and the Carnoustie Golf Hotel, and for a few moments you can really imagine what it’s like teeing it up during the Open.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to like Carnoustie. I admittedly enjoy scenic courses, with unique holes, and elevation changes. Carnoustie was supposed to be just another long, championship test.
But I really enjoyed my round there.
I could tell by the time I got to the first green which was slightly sunken and felt a little amphitheater-like, that I was going to enjoy my round much more than I was expecting to.
We played from the standard yellow tees, which measured in at 6,692. This is definitely longer than some of the other Scottish courses we’d played, especially considering that there is only one par 5. Crazy to think the pros play it over 7400 yards…
Carnoustie Golf Links: Just the Facts
- Built-in: 1842, but extended to full 18 holes in 1867
- Designer: Allan Robertson, Old Tom Morris, James Braid
- Rank: #39 in the world (Golf Magazine), #24 in the world (Golf Digest)
- Location: Carnoustie, Angus, Scotland
- Fees: £198-282 depending on time of year
- Website: http://www.carnoustiegolflinks.co.uk
- Slope: 145, Rating: 75.1
A Tour of Carnoustie Golf Links
All distances are from the yellow tees, as that’s where almost all visitors will play.
Hole 1 (Par 4, 391 yards)
Before teeing it up I knew was that the round would be long and difficult.
By the time the first hole was over, I would know a few more things:
Flat lies would be tough to come by. Deep bunkers would be hard to avoid. The burns are a little bit wider and more prevalent than I’d expected.
My first tee shot landed in the right rough, leaving me with a blind approach to the green of about 150 yards.
My caddie said “what’s your 150 yard club?”
“Perfect hit that.”
I connected, but had no idea where I’d end up as I launched it just to the left of a series of two massive pot bunkers.
“You’re gonna like that,” he said.
I ended up in a slightly sunken green about 3 feet from the pin.
And then I missed the putt.
It was an extremely frustrating start to not have made the birdie, but hey, par on the first hole of the toughest Open venue? I’ll take it.
Hole 2 (Par 4, 412 yards)
Off the tee on two you’ve got to hit a solid drive if you want to avoid the 4 bunkers staring you in the face – 2 on the left and two on the right.
The center-left one is deceiving as it’s about 45 yards shorter than the rest – but shouldn’t be an issue with a solid shot.
The others are 213 from the yellow tees that we played. Basically, if you aren’t hitting it in the center of the fairway, there’s a good chance you’re screwed.
On your approach, the dunes shoot up a bit on either side of the fairway adding more visual interest than I was expecting to the course. You’ve got deep ass pot bunkers on both sides of the fairway and then a green that’s literally over 50 yards deep. So depending on the pin you could be hitting a 6 or a 9.
Hole 3 (Par 4, 316 yards)
The third is a short par 4 and one of my favorite holes on the course. My caddie said during the last Open this played as the toughest hole, which is shocking to me, but I couldn’t find the statistics to back that up. So take that for what it is.
Off the tee, you have all kinds of decisions. Do you lay up short of the fairway bunkers and give yourself a longer approach? Do you try and clear them and risk going long into the ditch if you’re too far left? There’s no easy answer.
Your approach isn’t any easier as you’ve got a severely sloped green and Jockie’s Burn directly in front of the green. I dropped it to about 10 feet, made the putt, and was feeling ecstatic considering I was even par through 3 on the course that has foiled some of the best golfers in the world.
Hole 4 (Par 4, 374 yards)
A mid-length par 4 that in true Carnoustie fashion has deep bunkers pretty much everywhere that you might expect to hit it. Luckily for us, the rough was cut way down compared to what you might see during a tournament, so I caught a break when I found myself barely clearing the right fairway bunker with my three wood off the tee.
I ended up hitting the double green (the only one on the course, and shares with hole 14) and made another par.
Hole 5 (Par 4, 375 yards)
The fifth may have my favorite approach shot on the course. You’ve got to clear two “spectacle-esque” bunkers and two more to the left and then hit a green that’s severely sloped from back to front.
I swear as the course goes on the bunkers just keep getting deeper and deeper – culminating in the actual “Spectacles” bunkers on #14.
I laid up short of the burn, flubbed a shot that left me just short of the twin bunkers and then on my approach left myself 30 feet from the pin.
Drained the par putt.
Even though 5. Is this really happening?
Hole #6 (Par 5, 500 yards)
Ah here we are. Hogan’s Alley. One of the most famous holes in all of Scotland – if not the world.
How’d it get it’s name?
In the 1953 Open, Ben Hogan flew his ball way out over the out-of-bounds fence and brought the ball back in to land in the fairway in between the fence and the bunkers. It was the best line to the green, but also the hardest shot to hit.
He did this not one, or two, or even 3 times – but he did it in all 4 rounds and then went on to win the tournament.
The 6th at Carnoustie is the only par 5 on the course
You’ve got just about every possible problem to deal with on this hole. You have out-of-bounds left, deep bunkers in the landing zone of your drive and all around the green – as well as a water hazard that juts out diagonally to the fairway that could prove problematic on your second shot.
I missed the green, but got up and down or another par.
Even though 6. This has gotta end soon. Right?
Hole #7 (Par 4, 373 yards)
Another well-designed hole, where because of the out-of-bounds left, you tend to want to keep the ball right – which puts you directly in danger of two fairway bunkers.
I chose the wrong club on my second shot and ended up on the tee box for 8 well behind the green. I ended up doubling the hole – which I had a sneaking suspicion would be the beginning of the end for my hopes of breaking eighty on this round.
Hole #8 (Par 3, 157 yards)
Carnoustie is a bit unique in that the first par 3 on the course didn’t show up until the 8th hole – and it’s one of only three on the entire course.
The hole looks shorter than it is. Short is fine – it’s left and right that brings the most trouble (as I learned.)
I just missed the green and ended up in the right greenside bunker. Three tries later I’m finally out of the trap and on my way to a solid triple bogey.
I usually don’t write as much about how I scored on a particular course – but this was a pretty unique round in that I was even through 6 on one of the most difficult courses on the planet.
Don’t worry, I’ll save you the suspense now. It didn’t get a whole lot better from here!
Hole #9 (Par 4, 420 yards)
On nine we see something that we hadn’t experienced much on the course to this point: trees.
There are trees all down the left side of the fairway separating it from the Budden Course.
The hole is named “Railway” and as I was standing on the tee we saw a train speed past the back of the green. Makes sense!
There is a regular train that passes by on its way to London from Aberdeen.
My frustration started to get the better of me, which is definitely not something you want to experience on this course. Even the slightest miss could have you in a deep trap, or worse, out of bounds or in a burn.
Hole #10 (Par 4, 425 yards)
At this point I was starting to feel a little disenchanted due to my collapse over the previous 3 holes – luckily I had a pretty epic stretch of golf to look forward to.
The long par 4 10th at Carnoustie is known as “South America”. The rumor is that it got its name from a caddie that was getting ready to move to South America. Right before he was supposed to leave he got really drunk and passed out in the middle of this hole – when he woke up and exclaimed “Am I in South America?”
I can guarantee this hole is better than the vast majority of what you’ll find on that continent though.
It’s a tough two-shotter, with bunkers flanking both sides of the fairway. The approach isn’t any easier with a tree and Barry Burn guarding anything short of the green.
Hole #11 (Par 4, 352 yards)
I really liked this short dogleg right par 4. The fairway bunkers are positioned in a way that depending on your distance could hurt you if you layup with a 3 wood – so you have to decide if you want to bomb it and clear them with your driver giving you a short pitch, or try and layup and contend with them.
Right is better than left, and in keeping with the rest of the round, the bunkers just seem to keep getting scarier and scarier.
Oh, and take advantage of this nice short hole, because you won’t be seeing many more of them during this round..)
Hole #12 (Par 4, 462 yards)
Another long par 4, that while only featuring two fairway bunkers, also has some gorse to contend with on both sides of the fairway. I ended up having a long hybrid approach here, which isn’t exactly what you want, considering it features a wide and shallow green, and bunkers surrounding the front.
You’ll want to get some height on your approach if you want a chance at holding the green.
Hole #13 (Par 3, 141 yards)
While it’s the last short par 3 on the course, that doesn’t mean #13 is what I would call friendly. You’ve got bunkers in the front, left, and right – oh and if you’re long? In the gorse.
Hole #14 (Par 4, 468 yards)
With 14 we begin what is quite possibly the most difficult stretch of closing holes in Open Golf. It certainly took its toll on me, but these 5 holes are strategic, fun, and rewarding.
The extremely long par 4, Spectacles, gets its name from the most famous bunkers on the course. They sit about 3/4 up the hole, and at 10 feet deep block your view of the green, and are one of the most intimidating features at Carnoustie. There are bunkers just about everywhere you might expect to miss – so you know, don’t miss 🙂
Hole 15 (Par 4, 442 yards)
It’s not hard to understand how #15 gets the name of “lucky slap” as it’s going to take a couple of them to make par here. The fairway is relatively narrow, and you’re going to want to keep to the left side of it to have the best angle at the green.
If you’re too far right, you’ll have to knock it directly over 3 bunkers guarding the right half of the green.
My slap on my approach wasn’t so lucky here, but a good chip and one putt left me feeling stoked about my par.
Hole 16 (Par 3, 235 yards)
When you walk up to the tee on 16, the only thing going through your mind is “Really. REALLY?!?”
The green looks like it’s about a mile away, and you’re not sure how this even qualifies as a par 3. Anything short is swallowed by deep bunkers, and to make matters worse, you’ve got Tom Watson’s words ringing in your head proclaiming that this is the “hardest par 3 in golf.”
The tips and the yellow tees we were playing on were only a few yards apart, so I knew I was in for a legit challenge. I can only imagine how bad this would be if the wind were up.
Hole 17 (Par 4, 421 yards)
The 17th has a little bit of everything in it – which makes it one of the most difficult holes on the course.
It’s long, and then you have the Barry Burn winding its way all over the fairway, forcing you to hit a relatively small target off the tee – or to bomb it and clear it…twice.
Then there are bunkers all over the front of the green and deep gorse to the left and behind it. We’ll just say this, #17 didn’t end well for me.
Hole 18 (Par 4, 428 yards)
If you thought the burn winding through 17 twice was scary, here you have to face it three times. You also can’t play this hole without having the memory of one of the most epic collapses in golf history running through the back of your mind.
Jean Van de Velde was one hole away from becoming the dark horse winner of the 1999 Open. All he needed was a double bogey to walk away with the championship.
He went driver off the tee and barely missed the burn in the rough. Then tried to go for the green despite the bad lie, and the shot bounced off the grandstand into more rough. Then he hit it into the burn. Followed by the bunker.
He ended up shooting a triple bogey 7, putting him into a 3-way play off – where he eventually lost.
He came back years later and signed his name at the spot where he went in the burn – which you can still see.
So that pretty much sums up this hole.
On your approach, it’s also a pretty cool feeling to imagine the grandstands everywhere and the stately-looking hotel directly behind the green. I got on in 3 and then made my putt to finish with a solid par and a hell of a memory.
Final Thoughts on Carnoustie Golf Links
After playing Carnoustie once, and re-analyzing it for this recap, it isn’t hard to see why it’s so highly ranked. I also get why it’s considered among the most difficult.
In the end, while my incredible play on the first 6 holes didn’t last, I was pretty excited to finish with an 88. I was told you should double your handicap and then add three to your score here. So considering I was around a 12 at the time, I could have expected to shoot a 97. I’ll take the 88.
Unlike traditional out and back links courses, Carnoustie is constantly changing directions – making it difficult to adjust to the wind and elements.
We had what could only be described as one of the most benign days possible at Carnoustie, but during the times that the wind picked up even a little bit – we started to get a sense of just how scary this beast could get.
The greens are faster than many other links courses (or at least they were in my experience) – so if you couple that with blowing winds, 3 and 4 putts could quickly become the rule rather than the exception.
Would I say Carnoustie is one of my very favorite courses I’ve played?
Probably not. But that’s just personal preference. I’ll usually choose fun and unique over difficult and strategic.
The greens were some of the best in Scotland, the caddies were the absolute best I’ve had anywhere, and while sure, it may not be as scenic as say a Turnberry or Cruden Bay, it does have unique challenges that no other course in Scotland can compare to.
If you told me that Carnoustie was your favorite course in the world?
I’d say, I totally get it, and can see why. It’s a masterpiece of design, an incredible challenge, and a course every golfer should play at least once in their lifetime.
And I know this won’t be the last time I’ll play it 🙂
Great review of this spectacular course. Almost like I was there. Keep it up!
Great review! It brought back grand memories of playing it with my brother Tony in 2005. He shot 85 & beat me by a stroke. Keep these fanastic reviews coming. Thank you
Lucky enough to play it twice….in 1997 before it coming back onto the rota in 1999…..no hotel just and ugly stuck box for a clubhouse. course was in average condition but wow what a layout…..shot 80 with hire clubs and a pair of shoes I bought at one of the shops over the road, green fees were 78 pound……..went back again in 2001, new Hotel built, town looked fresh, and the golf course was manicured to within and inch of its life. Shot 81 with a bit of breeze up…….I’ve been lucky enough to play all current Open Clurse except Murfield, Hoylake, and St George’s (although I went to the Open in 2003 at St Georges), I believe that Carnoustie is the fairest, toughest test of all the course these courses……they are all amazing tracks but there is just something about the whole Carnoustie experience for me that makes it so damn good……it’s a must play for the enthusiast and historian……