Carnoustie – A links paradise

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Carnoustie's Championship Course is one of the UK's best and most challenging links, and the Burnside and Buddon courses are pretty impressive too.

On the east coast of Scotland you’re seldom more than a couple of well-struck 3-woods away from a top quality links golf course. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but from my house in Aberdeenshire I reckon I can reach almost 50 links courses in less than two hours of driving, some lesser known, others world-famous.

A course falling squarely into the latter category can be found on the Angus coast, on the edge of a small town called Carnoustie.

I’ve had a great affinity with the Championship course at Carnoustie since I was a junior. I was taken to play there by a friend’s father when I was a teenager. It was far too difficult for me at that time, but I remember being bowled over by the first truly great course I’d ever struck a shot on. In 1995, I was in the galleries as Colin Montgomerie fired an incredible opening round of 64 in the Scottish Open. In 1999, when I was working in the pro-shop at Banchory, I watched Paul Lawrie win the Claret Jug at Carnoustie on a grainy screened portable telly in the back room of the shop where the Aberdonian began his professional career. Then in 2007 at Carnoustie I attended my first Open working for Golf Monthly, and what a belter it was!

I now take every opportunity I can to play the Championship course at Carnoustie, partly because it holds such great memories for me, but mainly because I believe it to be the greatest test of golf anywhere in the UK. No other course I’ve played demands such intense concentration from start to finish. Every element of your game must be firing on all cylinders if you’re to return a good score here. And, for me, a clear sign of its greatness is that, even when I’ve played terribly around Carnoustie, I’ve always walked off feeling positive about the experience. Those who know my game will recognise that is rare indeed!

This week I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of days in Carnoustie, to compete over the Championship Course for the inaugural Media Cup and to see the changes that have been made to the Buddon Course.

Let’s start with the Championship course. The layout is over a simply perfect stretch of links land. The turf is firm and naturally populated by bent and fescue grasses. The terrain is beautifully undulating, creating natural run-offs and allowing the bunkers to gather balls heading in their general direction. Those bunkers are perfectly placed on every hole. If you drive off and have a hint of a thought you might be heading towards a bunker, you’ll be in one. If you get through a full round without finding the sand you’ve either been supremely accurate or extremely lucky.

Ditches thread their way through the course and out of bounds provides an intimidation factor on a number of shots. There are some truly magnificent holes on this course. The first is well bunkered with out of bounds on the left – Tiger Woods knows all about that. But, relatively speaking, it’s a straightforward opening, enough to lull the unsuspecting into a false sense of security. The second will bring the overconfident back to earth with a bang though. It’s 435 yards and generally plays into the breeze. There’s a plethora of bunkers to avoid from the tee, with thick rough waiting beyond them. The approach is to a narrow, and extremely long green. When we played the sign at the tee told us the pin was “51 yards on.” That’s daunting enough but when you consider the putting surface is probably only seven or eight yards wide at the back and out-of-bounds lurks three yards behind the green, you start to get some sort of idea about the challenge you’re going to face out there.

Every hole is uniquely memorable, but I’m always taken aback by just how great the par-5 sixth is. From the tee, bunkers protect the right side and out of bounds the left – the boldest can attempt to thread it between the two, down “Hogan’s Alley,” so named because the Texan did exactly this in all four rounds en-route to his Open victory in 1953. If you negotiate the tee shot the difficulty is far from over though. You then have to avoid the stream that snakes through the fairway before dealing with the severely sloping green, protected by cavernous bunkers. This is as good as golf holes get.

When we played, the wind was largely helping on the front nine, although each hole travels in a slightly different direction, meaning the wind is always coming at you from a different angle. This meant that the run for home was rather brutal, particularly as the heavens opened when we were on the 12th hole and didn’t let up until the final putts had been sunk (or given,) on the 18th green.

The 14th, playing as a par four of 459 yards from the yellows was almost unreachable in two and the 15th, at 437 yards, wasn’t an awful lot easier.

It really is the most incredible finishing stretch of holes here. The par-3 16th, at 240 yards into the wind, was a brute and on the 18th, despite the fact we were off a very generous tee, I hit my Sunday best drive and a drilled 3-iron and only cleared the Barry Burn by a matter of feet.

After the game, although soaked through and chilled to the bone, our group discussed just how much we’d enjoyed the round. The rain didn’t matter and the scores were irrelevant (clearly none of us were winners of the inaugural Media Cup,) we were all buzzing about just what an amazing layout this is and how immaculately the course was presented. It’s early April and the track was in absolutely perfect shape, I can’t even imagine how good it’s going to be by summer.

The previous day, we had enjoyed a round on the Buddon Course. Traditionally thought of as the third of Carnoustie’s three courses, the Buddon has been recently re-vamped, its length increased from 5,420 yards to 6,088 yards and the par changed from 65 to 68. Mackenzie and Ebert course architects oversaw a £600,000 re-design that has included the addition of two new par 4s at the far end of the course.

I’d never played the Buddon Course so was very interested to see how it would compare to the Championship and Burnside courses and to see how the new holes would play.

First thing to note is the condition of the layout. Just like the Championship course, the Buddon is presented immaculately. The greens were super-smooth and a lovely pace. That’s something fantastic at Carnoustie – the putting surfaces across all three courses are consistent. If you get the pace on one track, then go to play one of the others the following day, the pace will be the same. The fairways on the Buddon offered the same, tight links lies and a goodly amount of spring and run.

The Buddon may not be that long, but it demands a high degree of accuracy. A number of holes are tree-lined and others have streams or ponds bounding them. I found out, to my cost, that straying from the fairway generally results in trouble and, with hindsight, there are a number of tee shots where driver is not the prudent play.

The new holes provide an excellent new dimension to this course. The 11th “The Hook,” fittingly, turns to the left with water all down the right side, then the 12th “St Valery” turns in the other direction with trouble, once again, lurking all down the right.

All the holes on the course are named after famous battles and by the time I came to the 18th, “Rhine,” I felt I’d been in one myself. It may not look it on paper, but the Buddon presents a formidable test of accuracy and strategy.

With the new-look Buddon, the excellent Burnside and the revered Championship course, Carnoustie is a fabulous venue for a short golfing break, particularly so because of the excellent hotel right behind the 18th green of the Championship course.

Managed by Bespoke hotels, the Carnoustie Golf Hotel and Spa has 75 luxurious bedrooms, many with views out over the links. There’s a fully kitted gym and salubrious spa, there’s a superb restaurant and Calder’s Bar provides the perfect venue to deconstruct your game over a pint or three.

All this year, Carnoustie Golf Links is offering visitors a combination ticket to play the Championship, Burnside and Buddon courses over a three-day period for just £180. I can’t think of many better golfing deals than that anywhere in the UK. Play an Open venue and one of the world’s great courses, plus two more brilliant, wonderfully maintained, links for £180. Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly. 

Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?