The focal point of the trip was of course the main championship course, a notoriously testing links that has hosted The Open Championship on seven occasions and will do so again in 2018, however, as I was to discover the two supporting courses shouldn’t be overlooked on a visit here either.
In terms of value for my £200 I would say this is a reasonably priced package deal and I certainly won’t be asking for my money back in exchange for the experience of playing across one of the most famed golfing grounds in world golf along with two other genuine links. That said, it didn’t overly exceed expectations and there are a couple of things that niggled me which I need to get off my chest before I start to talk about the course.
Firstly, the condition of the greens was not at all good on my visit which was well into the golfing season, just a few days short of June. The putting surfaces were slow, bumpy, wobbly and didn’t run anywhere near as true as you would expect for any decent course let alone an Open venue. I realise the conditions of the day can be hit and miss and the course is holding the Senior Open Championship in a few months time so maybe there was some aggressive maintenance practice going on ahead of this and if that’s the case then this is more understandable. However, what cannot be forgiven is the quality of the hole cutting that we were confronted with. I’m not sure how many days it was since the cups had been moved (I noted they were newly cut the following day) but the edges were shoddy, overgrown and frankly unacceptable for a course of this ilk. On a trip of eight golf courses in Scotland the greens on the Championship were by far the worst we putted on. In the spirit of fairness it should be noted at this point that the putting surfaces on the Burnside were good although the Buddon were bobbly too (except two new greens).
My second main gripe is that you are not allowed to play from tees suitable for your ability on the main layout. Everybody, regardless of whether you’re a scratch golfer or a 28 handicapper, must play from the yellow tees. I appreciate the Trust have a difficult task in this regard and need to ensure golfers get around the course in a timely fashion but I personally came away not fully appreciating the links because of this rule. In fact it got to a point where I simply started hitting irons off the tee because it was just too easy to bomb a driver over fairway bunkers that are clearly strategically placed at optimum driving distances. I could see the strategy of each hole with my eyes but failed to experience it and I fear others will find themselves in the same boat too. As much as I would have loved to give it a go from the very back Open tees I realise this is never going to happen but to play from the yellows was deflating. I’m not sure what the exact cut-off point should be, because there’s no doubt this isn’t an issue for the vast majority of visitors, but my gut feel is that category one golfers (maybe slightly lower, ie: 3/4 handicaps) should at least be given the option of playing the course longer than the 6,595 daily tees; for the record the whites are 6,948 yards and would have sufficed. I know myself and a fellow one-handicap colleague didn’t feel we got the true Carnoustie experience on our visit because of this.
That said the links itself is unquestionably a brilliant golf course. The opening six holes is exactly my type of golf and it sings a wonderful tune with just the right amount of natural land movement. And in conjunction with the correct balance of demanding and daring shots it hits the perfect notes from the off. The opening hole is superb in every sense as is the difficult second with an amazingly long green. The third gives options from the tee and the putting surface at the fifth is unbelievably good. Then you have the famous sixth hole "Hogan’s Alley" with out-of-bounds tight left and bunkering to die for; just a shame they weren’t really in play for us!
The same can be said of the wonderful closing stretch from the 13th onwards which is simply a fantastic succession of classic holes. As you would expect the robust championship demands are a little bit more dominant and these are gradually ramped up to a blistering crescendo. The two brawny closing holes at Carnoustie are etched into golfing history and require no further explanation except to say the use of the Barry Burn is as fantastic as it is daunting. You are continually dicing with disaster but despite the unceasing interrogation there's an absolute fairness to it all.
I can’t quite wax as lyrical about the middle part of the course. Things start to go gradually off the boil from the seventh and between this hole and the 12th there’s nothing that really sparkles nor anything that I haven’t seen on any number of other top links courses but it remains a stringent test. That’s not to say the centre third is poor or weak, far from it, it’s just that the start and end is so good that in relative terms this section of the course does feel as though you’re going through a bit of a lull in proceedings. The best two holes in this section are the short eighth, with a slightly upturned green, and the 10th where again the burn features prominently.
One day I hope to write my first experience of Carnoustie to the history books and right the wrongs but for now I'll still savour fond memories of this honest links even if it is with a tinge of regret.
I suspect that many golfers will dismiss the other two courses at Carnoustie in favour of just playing the main attraction. That would be a mistake because both, especially the Burnside, offer some really good golf.
If it wasn’t for a particularly lacklustre run of holes between two and five on the Burnside I would place this course in a similar bracket to many other distinguished and notable links venues in Scotland.
The opening hole on this par 68 layout (5,972 yards) is a nice way to start the round with decisions to be made from the tee and a tricky green complex to contend with. However, the next four holes did very little for me and walking off the fifth green I felt particularly flat.
What follows over the next 12 holes though (the last is a nondescript finisher) is a remarkable transformation from what has gone before. We now enjoy a run of holes that is of such a high standard it’s impossible not to be impressed. The natural movement in the land is excellent, the bunkering is very good, the green complexes are in a different class and the use of angles is very clever. The holes are more visually appealing, they are strategically superior and simply require the golfer to hit better shots.
All the par fours ask varying questions of the golfer and the 497-yard 15th is excellent, however, it is the one-shotters at nine and 14 that steal the show. The first of these plays 163-yards to a significantly raised green that is trapped on both sides and has steep run-offs which are shaved bare. The second is a thing of pure beauty and plays 228-yards to a green angled in the dunes that asks you to either carry gorse and sandhills towards the front left or shape your ball in from the right and up the line of the green; either option must contend with a steep slope at the front-right that will sweep anything not executed perfectly down and away.
There is also one final sting in the tail and this comes at the imperious 17th. There are similarities to the closing two holes on the championship course as the Barry Burn comes into play on both drive and second shot. Judging the tee-shot is paramount to being able to strike for the green in two at this hopscotch 461-yard par four which will strike terror into anyone on a good score.
It’s a shame the opening holes on the Burnside don’t match the quality of the rest of the course but if you can forgive it a slow start then you will love it.
Meanwhile, the Buddon Links is not without merit either and boasts an impressive collection of one-shotters. The par 68 course (5,921 yards) has a gentle, yet lovely, opening stretch before it enters the trees for a few holes at the narrow sixth. The holes amongst the woodland lose their links feel but are very good regardless.
After playing two new holes at 11 and 12 we return to the original course and play what is a fine final third. The gradually rising par-five 16th wouldn’t be out of place on either of the other two courses at Carnoustie whilst the short 17th is a real gem and the green complex at the final hole, where two deep bunkers pinch the centre of the narrow green, is a pleasing way to complete the round.
At Carnoustie, if the Championship course can be labeled great, and I think it can, and the Burnside classed as very good then the Buddon is probably about mediocre. However, my round on their third course will not be remembered for the golf rather the company it was played in.
Whilst I don’t particularly like it I’ve absolutely no problem with Carnoustie pairing up two-balls into a four on the championship course – we were joined by a very nice father and son enjoying a family holiday - but I was a little surprised to discover that we were joining another couple for our round on the quieter Buddon. On arrival at the clubhouse the pro-shop politely informed us that we would be joined by a husband and wife from France. Not ideal but no big deal in the grand scheme of things.
Now, generally speaking I’m a big fan of the French, particularly their wine, but on this occasion things didn’t quite go to plan. The hire clubs should have provided us with a clue and, as lovely as this couple were, in all truth they shouldn’t have been anywhere near a golf course, especially one described by Carnoustie themselves as “very testing”.
Anyway, cleary intimidated, after we'd striped a couple of drives down the middle and following a 45 second pre-shot routine on the first tee, the gentleman clean topped his tee shot into the burn directly in front of the tee. Let’s face it we all suffer from first tee nerves though so no cause for concern. However, the two provisional balls were never to be seen again either and if he scored less than 20 on the opening hole I’d be very surprised. The lady on the other hand did clear the burn, was able to gradually advance the ball up onto the green and seven putts later it was crystal clear that she was the golfer of the two. Sacré bleu.
More of the same followed over the front nine, some shots lost à la droite and other shots lost à la gauche, until monsieur had completely run out of balls and had to start borrowing from madame.
The pièce de résistance of the round actually arrived on the tenth when after a rare good drive he fresh-aired twice before shanking into the lake with his third attempt. We’re all familiar with a French golfing disaster at Carnoustie but Van de Velde had nothing on this guy.
I’m not sure if it was coincidence but on the very next hole a couple of swans, who had watched us play the previous hole, rapidly moved from the centre of the lake into the middle of the fairway as we teed-off.
By this time the fourball in front of us had quickly disappeared into the distance whilst the group behind stood on each tee with hands on hips. 4 ½ hours later we finally said au revoir and wished them a bon voyage for the rest of their trip.
All of the above is 100% true and in the end it all became quite amusing for us but neither pair will have enjoyed the round as much as they should have. We are far from professional golfers but I think they were a little bit nervous playing with two relatively competent players and we were simply after a brisk morning knock. Maybe this is an isolated case and I appreciate they will want to maximise the number of tee slots they can sell but the point of the story is that maybe Carnoustie should look at their policy of pairing up golfers on the Buddon and Burnside courses or at least review the criteria under which they do so.
Eyemouth is an easy-going, golf course with many different sections but mostly plays along the clifftops of the beautiful coastline close to the England-Scotland border.
There is something about Elie that puts you under a spell. It is a truly magical links that, after just one round, has won a place in my heart and mind forever.