In 1010, Scottish King Malcolm II repulsed Danish invaders led by their fearsome general Camus in the bloody Battle of Barry off the Angus coast. Legend has it that the Nordic gods, incensed by the death of their favourite son Camus, put a curse on this land and let loose a thousand crows on the Barry Sands. The area came to be known as Craws Nestie, over time corrupted to its modern name, Carnoustie.
Carnoustie is a singularly unappealing town; dreary, bleak, grey, and gloomy are some of the adjectives that come to mind. As for the Championship Course, Ben Hogan, ever the cheerful diplomat, had this to say about his first impressions. “The course was a drab looking mixture of browns and faded green colors with no trees. They just go out and seed a tee on level ground and then seed a green the same way. In between they mow the grass for a fairway. They put bunkers in like a man throwing rice at a wedding. And that’s the way the course has been for two hundred years, and I suppose will be for two thousand more.” Despite its seaside location, the course has neither the stunning vistas of Turnberry nor the majestic theatre of The Old Course. What looks like council housing borders the entire left side of the impossibly difficult 10th hole, completing the impression of what the Americans might call a “muni”. There is no driving range; you can loosen up by hitting balls into a net, which spits your shiny white Pro V1 back at you with a green discoloration. The weather is invariably ugly, the caddies even uglier. To complete the picture of bizarre eccentricity, an army range – a shooting range, to be clear – is located adjacent to the course: it is perfectly normal to hear the crack of a rifle or even the staccato of a machine gun at the top of your backswing.
As for the playability, the course is every bit the golfer’s graveyard you might expect, well deserving of its moniker “Car-nasty”, the type of place where crows might feed on the carcasses of golfers of bygone years. Following the 1999 Open, the nineteen year old Sergio Garcia – then Europe’s heir apparent to Seve – ran crying into his mother’s arms after a first round 89. In one of the all-time comic highlights of championship golf, Jean van der Velde blew a 3-shot lead coming into the 18th after his flirtations with the cursed Barry Burn. Six over par was the winning score, and this was in July. Closer to home, in 2010 yours truly came into the last three holes needing to play 6-over par to win a three day competition; I shot 7-over and finished second. Scottish historian Gordon Lang coined the term “Carnoustie effect“ in his treatise on 21st century warfare, describing it as “that degree of mental and psychic shock experienced on collision with reality by those whose expectations are founded on false assumption”. In other words, unless you’ve played Carnoustie on a typically nasty blustery Scottish day, you have no fucking idea what golfing challenge is all about. This is the Mount Everest of golf; you play it because it’s there, and once you’ve done it nothing else seems tough anymore.
But there is another dimension to Carnoustie’s history, one that particularly resonates with me. This week was my sixth round at Carnoustie in as many years, and as I strolled up to the first tee – after a typical rush to the pro shop to purchase a much needed fourth layer – our organizer Stuart smiled wryly at me and reminded me that last year, following particularly miserable conditions, I’d sworn never to return. So why was I back? This was an excellent question, and one that made me reflect on why Carnoustie was a pilgrimage more meaningful to me than even the Old Course.
The answer has everything to do with Carnoustie’s eternal association with the icon the locals call the “Wee Ice Mon” – Ben Hogan, a golfer and man I idolize above all others. Hogan analyzed the golf swing with the rigor of a nuclear physicist, and understood cause and effect like no other. An old paperback copy of Hogan’s classic book Five Lessons was the first golf book I ever read, and inspired by his advice (“the answer is in the dirt”) I must have hit countless range balls in my never ending quest for golf’s holy grail that Hogan evidently discovered. Hogan was a man of few words, but nevertheless his quotes are memorable. His fix for a slice was “aiming left”. His solution for problems with long putts was to “hit your irons closer to the pin”. His explanation for a winning streak was “shooting the lowest scores”. But aside from pithy one liners and a relentless thirst for perfection, Hogan’s most admirable quality was his legendary ability to overcome adversity. The story is well documented – as a child he watched his father commit suicide, made a living caddying and delivering newspapers, went broke twice as a pro, and then against all odds made a comeback from a horrific car accident in 1949, after which doctors questioned if he would ever walk again let alone play golf. “People have always been telling me what I cannot do. I guess I have wanted to show them. That’s been one of my driving forces all my life.” And so it was that after having won the Masters and the US Open that year, Hogan came to Scotland in 1953 for his first and only attempt to win The Open Championship. Fittingly for a man looking for that one final exclamation mark to a remarkable life, the venue was the ultimate test of competitive golf – Carnoustie.
The record shows that Hogan won by four shots at Carnoustie in a monumental display of precision golf. His scoring improved with each outing, culminating in a final round of 68. In the days leading up to the tournament, Hogan walked the course every night after dinner, memorizing the position of every bunker. In four rounds of tournament golf, he never once visited the sand, a remarkable feat you have to have played Carnoustie to truly appreciate. But the one spot on the golf course where one must pause to reflect on the majesty of Hogan’s craft is the treacherous par-5 6th hole, renamed Hogan’s Alley in 2003 to mark the 50th anniversary of the great man’s famous victory. This 578-yard par-5 typically plays into the prevailing wind. With out of bounds to the left, and two layers of diabolical pot bunkers to the right, this must surely be one of the toughest tee shots in golf. At this point on the golf course, you just happen to be closest to the army shooting range, the gunfire adding further drama to the occasion. In every one of his four rounds in 1953, Hogan struck his drive with a gentle fade starting in line with the out of bounds area to the left, allowing the ball to curl back into the narrow passage between the fence and the bunkers, giving him the ideal position for his second shot. In those days, the final two rounds were both played on the same day, and his caddy swore that Hogan’s tee shot in the afternoon round landed within six inches of the divot he took while playing his second shot in the morning round. On the tee, a plaque commemorates Hogan’s historic win, ending in a quote from Hogan which says as much about the ethos of Scottish links golf as it does about the man. “I don’t like the glamour, I just like the game”. Hogan never competed in a major championship again; how do you top climbing Everest?
Coming back to Stuart’s question about why I was here again, the answer is straightforward. I get shivers down my spine every time I visit Hogan’s Alley. It’s as if Hogan’s steely eyes peer at me from under the flat woollen cap on his head as I stand on the tee, much as they do from the art print facing the desk in my study. Never mind that on this occasion I blasted my drive straight into one of the pot bunkers on the right. I did not curse my luck, as I normally do, or blame the caddy, as I sometimes do. Instead, an altogether more philosophical Hogan quote came to mind. “As you walk down the fairway of life, remember you only get to play one round”. I reminded myself that I was truly fortunate to be here, played backwards out of the bunker and managed to salvage a bogey.
Sure, there’s nicer places to play golf. But Hogan’s Alley is where you come to learn humility and understand sporting greatness. In the immortal words of another favorite action hero, “I’ll be back”.