CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — “Drive safely,” read the signs as you enter this seaside town, which made me think twice as I arrived on Thursday for another British Open.
“Drive safely” has been particularly difficult advice to heed at Carnoustie when the pressure is on and the claret jug is at stake.
This is only the third British Open to be staged here in the last 42 years, and each previous occasion featured a final-round implosion by the leader on the 18th hole.
The first came from Jean Van de Velde, who ended up in the water once in 1999, his pants rolled up and a wedge in his hands. The second came from Padraig Harrington, who ended up in the water twice in 2007.
Only Harrington managed to emerge with the trophy and all of his dignity. But Van de Velde emerged with a special place in his sport’s history and in many of our memories.
It was improbable that the little-known French qualifier was in a winning position at all, implausible that it all went up in smoke with the clubhouse in plain sight, unlikely, too, that he could handle the disappointment of blowing a three-shot lead and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with such class.
He was gallant. He was droll. But he was also very human, cracking jokes at his own expense and shaking the hands of his rivals before repairing to the privacy of the scorer’s hut, where he buried his face in his hands and cried as an official patted him gently on the back.
Make no mistake, Carnoustie can bite — even if its year-round caretakers do not like the term “Carnasty.” It was coined in 1999, when the course setup was widely criticized by the players as too close to sadistic. There were no such complaints in 2007, as the Open organizers had made changes to ensure there would be no such complaints.
“Look, it was Carnasty for one week,” said Colin Sinclair, the head professional at Carnoustie Golf Links. “The weather can be nasty but the golf course itself is not.”
Thursday’s weather was anything but brutal. It felt more like Scottsdale than Scotland as the sun beamed down and the wind blew lightly, if at all.
“Just a wee zephyr,” Sinclair said. “This is as easy as you will ever get it here.”
And yet the world’s best players did not run rampant, and Carnoustie’s closing holes, widely considered the toughest test on the 10-course Open rotation, were still a conundrum, in part because of the pin positions and the browned-out fairways — which, with the greens still green, made the course look as if it had been decked out in camouflage.
“You drop the ball, and you can hear it,” said Bernhard Langer, the 60-year-old German playing in his 31st British Open. “It’s hard to get the tee in the ground. It really is.”
The 16th was statistically the toughest hole on Thursday; the 17th was third-toughest. The 18th, the hardest hole in 2007, was the fourth-toughest despite being played with a southwesterly wind that allowed players to drive with the breeze at their backs.
They still came to grief. There were 16 birdies, 94 pars, 33 bogeys, 8 double bogeys, 4 triple bogeys and a quadruple bogey — from Nicolas Colsaerts, the former European Ryder Cup player from Belgium.
Thirteen men ended up hitting into the Barry Burn, the winding trench that guards the 18th like a python and the place that trapped Van de Velde in 1999.
Among its victims on Thursday: the reigning Masters champion, Patrick Reed, and the reigning British Open champion, Jordan Spieth, who hit a drive off the tee far right and into the Burn.
“Eighteen was just a really bad miss, but every other driver I hit ended up in a really good spot,” said Spieth, who ended up with a bogey on 18 and an one-over-par 72 after being as low as three under earlier in the round.
Others who found the water on 18 included three former British Open champions: Darren Clarke, David Duval and Harrington, who hit his tee shot left into the Burn — after driving one right into the Burn in 2007, his ball bouncing along on a footbridge before it got wet.
On Thursday, Harrington ended up with double-bogey 6 on 18 to finish with a five-over 76.
“I don’t think you’ll find a tougher last hole in any tournament than here,” said Harrington, who was among the golfers who named Carnoustie’s No. 18 as the toughest hole at any British Open. They responded to an informal BBC poll at last week’s Scottish Open.
“Out of bounds left off the tee, water left, water right, water short, bunkers straight in front of you,” Harrington said. “The second shot, you can hit the green and go out of bounds.
He sounded haunted — and played haunted on Thursday — but Harrington, now 46, is the one who escaped relatively unscathed.
He lost his lead in 2007 on 18 but got a reprieve when Sergio García lipped out a 10-foot putt that would have won the Open. Harrington then defeated García in a playoff to become the first Irish winner of a major championship since Fred Daly at the 1947 British Open.
“If I lost, I don’t know what I’d think about playing golf again,” Harrington said at the time.
He did not have to find out, and he came back in 2008 to win the Open again.
Van de Velde, here doing commentary for French television, has experienced the trauma of 18 at Carnoustie without the satisfaction of getting his name etched on the claret jug.
But he has made another kind of lasting impression.
“We get significantly more questions from visitors here about Jean than we do about Padraig, definitely,” Sinclair said.
The visitors, most of them American, want to see where Van de Velde hit his errant drive, where he knocked his second shot off a grandstand and into the rough, where he dumped his third shot into the Burn and where he rolled up his pants and removed his shoes and descended into the shallow water before changing his mind and taking a penalty drop.
He is also the only non-champion at Carnoustie to have a junior suite named in his honor at the Carnoustie Golf Hotel & Spa.
The Van de Velde Suite is next to the Paul Lawrie Suite. Lawrie was the Scottish golfer who started that final Sunday 10 shots back and won, shooting a 67 and then beating Van de Velde and the American Justin Leonard in a playoff.
In any other circumstances, that final-round comeback would have made Lawrie, not Van de Velde, the unbeatable story from 1999.
“I would have liked to have seen a little bit more of ‘Jean Van de Velde blew the Open, but, by God, Paul Lawrie shot a 67 to win the tournament by two shots by hitting the best shot anyone has ever seen down the last hole,’” Lawrie once said. “But that didn’t happen very often.”
Driving safely — as it turns out — is not the best route to lasting fame at Carnoustie.
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