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Carnoustie Golf Course

"The toughest golf course in the world" - Gary Player after winning the 1968 Open Championship at Carnoustie.

The Links Club do regular golf tours to Carnoustie. We hope you enjoy this colourful precis, of Carnoustie Golf Course, Scotland, UK, by John Huggan.

Don't be fooled.

If your first exposure to the stark old links of Carnoustie was watching the world's best players hack and slash their way round what seemed to be an impossibly difficult test of golf during the 1999 Open Championship, some explanation is required.

Yes, Carnoustie is the most difficult course on what the Royal & Ancient Golf Club so quaintly dub their "championship rota."

Yes, the wind does tend to blow a bit on this exposed corner of Scotland's Eastern coastline.

Yes, your scores will likely be five to ten shots higher than normal on a links measuring well over 7,000 yards.

But no, the at times ridiculous rough which drove the likes of Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros mad during that '99 Open is not - thankfully - a permanent fixture.

How hard is Carnoustie? One look at the list of men who have won Opens there is proof enough of its quality. If we discount the victory of Paul Lawrie (courtesy of the unfortunate Jean Van de Velde) over a course that was sadly not the "real" Carnoustie, only genuinely world-class golfers have lifted the Old Claret Jug at the most northerly major championship venue on the planet.

Tommy Armour (1931). Henry Cotton (1937). Ben Hogan (1953). Gary Player (1968). Tom Watson (1975). Five Carnoustie champions, a total of 31 major victories.

The most famous of those five Carnoustie wins, of course, is Hogan's triumph in '53. Even today he has not been forgotten. At the long 6th hole the narrow gap between bunkers and out of bounds on the left side is known as "Hogan's Alley."

During his long life - he died in 1997 at the age of 84 - Hogan spent only 18 days in Scotland, yet in that short space of time he managed to leave perhaps his most indelible mark on the game many feel he came closest to perfecting. Of the six tournaments he competed in during '53, the Texan won five and was third in the other.

Uniquely, three of his five victories came in major championships - the Masters, the US Open and, at the first and only time of asking, the Open Championship at Carnoustie. Prior to 1953 Hogan had felt no need to venture across the Atlantic. There was little or no money involved; first prize was a mere L500. Then there were Hogan's injuries from his near-fatal 1949 car crash. The long journey might be more than he could physically handle.

Four years on, though, Hogan, at age 40, was under pressure to play in an Open, if only to cement his legend. So go he did. Even before he won his fourth US Open title at Oakmont, Hogan filed his entry. Not that he told anyone other than his wife Valerie. "Several friends wanted Ben to go, even before he won the US Open," she said, just prior to her death in 1999. "He kept joking that they wanted him to go over and get beat! But it was a big deal for him to go so far after the accident. The journey was sure to take a lot out of him."

Such was the enormous anticipation caused by Hogan's visit, crowds began gathering at the Burnside course 45 minutes before he was due to tee off with Yorkshireman Bill Branch in his first qualifying round. On the 1st tee, "just to make sure," Hogan enquired about ball-lifting procedure on greens. He finished in 70. One day later Hogan's 75 on the Medal course saw him qualify comfortably.

But he wasn't happy with his play. Hogan was either long or short with several approach shots. "To misjudge distance is as bad as missing the ball," he said. Off at 1.16, Hogan played the first round of the championship proper with Italian Ugo Grappasonni. Again, Hogan's play was scrappy and he struggled to a 73. Stranahan led with a 70.

The next day Hogan, who would shoot 71 to lie two off the lead, had some support from home. Frank Sinatra, playing along the road at the Caird Hall in Dundee, followed him round. Like Hogan, Sinatra wasn't keen to sign autographs. "I'm not supposed to," he told those who asked.

Such was the level of interest in Hogan's progress, 100 people travelled all night by train from London (paying £8 15 shillings each) to see the great man play the final two rounds. Playing alongside Scotsman Hector Thomson, Hogan shot a morning 70 and was tied for the lead alongside Roberto de Vicenzo. Twelve holes into his final round, Hogan was ahead for good and in what the Americans call "the zone." He won by four strokes. His only lapse came at the long 14th, where he three-putted.

Hogan received the champion's gold medal and L500 from Carnoustie Provost William McLaughlan. In his speech he said he didn't know when he would be back but would "try to make it next year." Of course, he never did return. "Coming back would have been too much for him," said Mrs. Hogan. "He would have loved to but he just wasn't up to it."

But enough of Hogan. Long before the "wee ice man" made his lone visit to the home of golf, the people of Carnoustie were doing more than their bit to spread the word of golf worldwide. Indeed, around the turn of the century, some 270 sons of Carnoustie made their way to the New World to teach and play Scotland's game.

The impact of men such as the three Smith brothers - Willie and Alex were both US Open champions, while Macdonald came close on several occasions - and the Maidens - Allan, James and Stewart - cannot be underestimated. It can be argued, in fact, that the most far-reaching influence was that achieved by Stewart Maiden. No great player himself, he gained ever-lasting fame as a teacher, his most famous pupil a young man from Atlanta by the name of Bobby Jones.

Of course, none of this is any surprise. All of those young men grew up in a town steeped in golf. And all of the above mentioned grew up playing one of the most stringent tests of golf in the world. Is it any wonder that they were successful wherever they went?

The first ten holes at Carnoustie were laid out by St. Andrews professional Alan Robertson in 1850 before another St. Andrean, Old Tom Morris, expanded the layout to 18 holes over the next quarter century.

It wasn't until 1926 - when Open champion James Braid oversaw a major revamping of the links - that the Carnoustie you see today truly evolved. Braid produced a series of memorable holes, as well as what is surely the most difficult finish in all of major championship golf. While the first 13 holes are memorable enough, there is little question that the closing five really stick in the memory.

The 14th is the "spectacles" after the two bunkers sitting in the hillside 50 yards short of the hidden green. It was there in '68 where Player clinched his victory, his 3-wood approach finishing three feet from the cup. The 15th is the least famous of the closing holes, but none the less difficult for all that. The drive must be shaped right-to-left to hold the left-to-right sloping fairway, before a long, semi-blind approach to what is a deceptively difficult green. It was here in '37 that Cotton missed from a yard in the final round.

In 1975 - Watson's year - the then young American played the 245-yard par-3 16th five times. Not once did he make a par. How hard is it? All you need to do is hit a driver dead straight…simple!

Named "Island" for a reason, the 17th is the most famous hole on Carnoustie. Twice the player must cross the snake-like Barry Burn en route to yet another semi-blind green. Even Hogan made a double bogey here during his peerless performance in '53.

Then there is the last, where again the Barry Burn - ask Van de Velde - comes into play. Unless the wind is helping, play it as a par-5.

So there you have Carnoustie. Austere. Bleak. Barren. Desolate. Forbidding.

But one awesome test of golf.