CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Few golfers in America will have the privilege to play Winged Foot in New York, site of last year's U.S. Open and Phil Mickelson's epic double bogey that cost him the title. The golf club is exclusively private and open only to its few members and their guests.
But anyone willing to travel to Scotland can play the famous 18th hole at Carnoustie Championship Links, the golf course that hosted the 1999 British Open and Jean Van de Velde's embarrassing triple bogey that found him ankle-deep in a burn as the world watched dumbfounded.
Carnoustie, like any Open venue, immortalizes its champions: Cotton, Armour, Hogan, Player, Watson and Lawrie are all enshrined in clubhouse paintings and mementos. As the Open returned last week, an Irishman's name was added to this illustrious list — Padraig Harrington, who captured the prize in a four-hole playoff against Sergio Garcia.
But present fame belongs not to these champions, but the infamous failure of Van de Velde. In glossy Scotland tourism magazines, Carnoustie's current full-page advertisement features a photo of Van de Velde's moment of anguish on 18. Without fail, as foursomes approach the famous burn on the 17th and 18th holes, discussion turns at least once to who is going to roll their pants up, jump in after their ball and try to play it.
But once you play the wicked back nine of the Championship Links, if anything, you'll sympathize with the Frenchman. Scoring a seven or higher on any of the final stretch of long par 4s is a very real possibility. Mentally, the round can be draining, with large, contoured greens and bunkers everywhere.
Several changes have been made to the course since the 1999 Open, and these changes will affect most amateurs as well. The short par-4 third hole has been tricked up, as players will now have a patch of rough on the right about 230 yards out to make them decide whether to lay up or not. Rough has been added in the middle of the fairway in front of the green as well.
On No. 6, an additional bunker was added behind the cluster in the middle so players will have to carry 310 yards to fly it. Contours have also been added to the right of the 17th, making a bail-out shot right less of an option to an already incredibly penal tee shot.
Carnoustie isn't the most scenic of the Scottish links courses. That title may belong to Ailsaat Turnberry in South Ayrshire or the rugged Cruden Baynorth of Aberdeen. Instead, Carnoustie's devilish beauty comes in the James Braid signature bunkering: big, nasty and often clustered in fairways and around the green.
"I've never seen bunkers like that," said Garreth Shaw, visiting the course for the first time from England. "I had to chip out backwards on one, and it rolled into a burn."
The first four holes at Carnoustie are relatively tame, until the par-5 fifth, "Hogan's Alley", named for Ben Hogan's daring line of flight he took in the 1953 Open, aiming just between the fairway bunkers and out-of-bounds fence on the left. It's a good strategy — if you can hit a straight tee ball, considering if you aim down the middle with a driver, you'll undoubtedly find sand with deep sod faces.
The back nine is the toughest stretch of golf in Scotland, if not the world and begins with a 440-yard par 4 and is something you get used to around here. Like 18, a burn runs across the fairway about 30 yards in front of the green, making bump and runs or lay-ups all that more challenging.
From the men's tees, there is slight relief but not much. If the tricky 17th, "Island" doesn't get you, the 18th probably will. "Island" is called so because a burn runs through the fairway twice, making a landing zone that requires a specific length. The burn runs at an angle, coming into play closer on the left. Hooked shots are likely toast, but the right isn't exactly safe, with heavy rough and mounds.
Avoiding a big number on the entire back nine, considered by some as the toughest stretch in golf, could be one of the greatest feats you experience in the game.
Carnoustie: The verdict
The Carnoustie Championship Links is one of the Open Championship's most difficult venues. For the amateur, it's still got plenty of teeth, and shooting your handicap here is quite a feat.
Try and get out of the gate well — the front nine is significantly easier than the backside. But you need to hit precise shots and get a little lucky to score well here, and just about every shot faces potential for disaster, a la Van de Velde.
Bunkers are at every turn, and are usually deep enough to force a simple pitch out sideways or even behind you. You'll be tempted to hit driver on a lot of long par 4s in order to have a chance at a green in regulation, but in many instances you're better off playing it safe as a par 5. Bogey is a very good score at Carnoustie.
There's no better place to stay in this storied golf town than the four-star Carnoustie Hotel & Spa itself which opened in 1999 coinciding with their last Open Championship.
The Club Carnoustie spa features a pool, steam room, sauna, hot tub and more. A variety of massages and other treatments are also available, as well as a gym.
Don't even think about booking a room for the 2007 Open here. The hotel becomes R&A headquarters for three weeks.
If you'd rather stay in nearby St. Andrews, stay at the Macdonald Rusacks Hotel overlooking the 18th green of the Old Course.
Carnoustie dining options
Aside from the casual bar overlooking the 18th, fine dining awaits at Dalhousie, featuring award-winning chef Paul Whitecross and fine wines from their Devon Valley estate.
The Championship Links is one of three golf courses at Carnoustie and obviously overshadows its neighbors Buddon and Burnside.
Burnside's 17th tries to be more difficult than the Championship's: a par 4 playing 475 yards, but the 18th is more of a gimmie at 305 yards. The shorter Buddon course is the newbie, opened in 1978. It's a bit shorter than the Burnside and has just one par 5.
Either course is a recommended warm-up to the Championship, and both are much cheaper. Consider a combination ticket, which lets you play all three courses for just £20 more (£135) than it would to play just the Championship Links alone in the high season.