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SPORTS EXTRA / SPECIAL SECTION: British Open

At Carnoustie, Only the Best Survive

Course: Even former champions call the treacherous layout the world's most punitive test in links golf.

July 15, 1999|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — When he was a young man, Gary Player's father suggested that he acquire a "look" to be different, so Player chose an all-black ensemble modeled after the Paladin character played by Richard Boone in the old television series "Have Gun Will Travel."

As far as appearances go, Player's was sort of, well, sinister . . . also foreboding, scary and mysterious.

Player didn't know it at the time, but his adopted style would blend in perfectly with his British Open experience at sinister, foreboding (you know the rest) Carnoustie, where Player won the Open Championship in 1968.

"It's the most demanding and punitive test of links golf in the world," Player said.

Tom Watson, who won at Carnoustie in 1975, doesn't share Player's taste for black clothes, but he has something in common with Player--his opinion about Carnoustie.

"I have to agree with him," Watson said.

The list of British Open champions who won at Carnoustie is impressive--Tommy Armour in 1931, Henry Cotton in 1937, Ben Hogan in 1953, Player in 1968 and Watson in 1975.

Great players win at Carnoustie, so does that make it a great course? Maybe, but it's clearly a difficult one.

In 1996, the Scottish Open was played at Carnoustie the week before the British Open at Royal Lytham. On a cold, wet and windy final day, 24 players failed to break 80 and Ian Woosnam won with a one-over total.

Actor Danny Kaye played the course once and described his experience with one word in the visitor's book: "Murder."

Well, it may be that, all right. It is flat, barren, has a railway running along one boundary, the twisting, treacherous Barry Burn and Jockie's Burn (brooks) and bunkers so deep you need a ladder to get out of them.

Then there is the length--7,361 yards--making Carnoustie the longest of the eight courses used in the British Open. Oh, and did we mention that par is 71?

The last two holes are especially dangerous when the wind is blowing. The 17th is a 459-yard par four menaced by the Barry Burn, which cuts across the hole twice. At No. 18, the players are faced with a 487-yard par four with the Barry Burn lurking in front of the green.

Since Watson's victory in 1975, no Open Championship has been staged at Carnoustie, basically because it was not cared for and was judged inadequate for an event the magnitude of the British Open.

In 1968, Player found himself in a two-player duel with Jack Nicklaus.

At No. 14, a par five famous for the yawning bunkers in the fairway called the Spectacles, Nicklaus drove in the rough, but reached the green from there. Player had a blind shot from the fairway and needed a three-wood to carry the Spectacles. His shot landed two feet from the pin.

Player made an eagle and beat Nicklaus by two shots.

Watson's victory required an extra day. At 25, Watson was regarded as a supreme choker, but he said goodbye to that unwanted distinction when he made a 25-footer for a birdie to get ahead of Nicklaus and Johnny Miller and tie Jack Newton, then slipped past Newton by one shot in an 18-hole playoff.

It was the first of Watson's five British Open triumphs.

"Whoever wins this year will be a major champion in every sense of the term," Watson said.

No one is going to argue that, either.

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