If an Australian is to win at The Open at Carnoustie this week he will have to defy 87 years of heart-breaking history on the Scottish Links.
Australia’s golfing links with Carnoustie – a small seaside town on Scotland’s east coast – date back nearly 120 years when the pioneers of the professional game arrived in our country from the Home of Golf.
Men like Dan Soutar and Carnegie Clark, who grew up playing the Carnoustie links created by Old Tom Morris in the early 1870s, established themselves as the leading players in Australia in the first few years of the 20th century. They won four Australian Opens and three Australian PGA Championships between them before exerting their influence on the game through course design, club-making and administration.
Given the ties that bind, an Aussie winning at Carnoustie would not only be an extraordinary feat, it would, in many respects, bring Australian professional golf full circle.
Carnoustie has not been kind to Australians at The Open. In fact, it has offered nothing but near misses and heartbreak since it hosted its first Open Championship in 1931. In that year, Joe Kirkwood was well in contention to become Australia’s first Open Champion but crumbled to a closing round 81 to finish 12 strokes behind the winner Tommy Armour.
When the Open made its third trip to Carnoustie in 1953 it was Ben Hogan the victor in his one and only Open Championship. Hogan claimed the jug by four strokes from four players, including a young Peter Thomson, after shooting a course record 68 in the final round.
The headlines read THOMSON UNLUCKY, HOGAN BEST, after Thomson finished runner up for the second consecutive year having lost by a stroke to Bobby Locke in 1952. One of Australia’s greats Norman Von Nida was quick to tell the press at the time: “One day he (Thomson) will not only be the best in Australia, but also tops in the world.” Of course, Thomson won the first of his five Open Championships the following year at Royal Birkdale and would ultimately fulfil Von Nida’s prophetic claim.
"With so many near misses across this links, the laws of probability suggest the tide must turn at some stage ..."
As Von Nida played mentor to Thomson, Thomson played adviser to a young Bruce Devlin, who had his chances at Carnoustie in 1968 but eventually finished T10, some eight strokes behind South African Gary Player.
When the Open returned in 1975, a new wave of young Australians were making their way onto the world stage. One of those players was Jack Newton and has been closer than any other Aussie to hoisting the Claret Jug at Carnoustie. Newton had a 20-foot putt on the 72nd hole to win but missed and he tied Tom Watson. The pair returned the following day for an 18-hole play-off and it was the American who prevailed 71-72, with Newton bogeying the final hole when he bunkered his approach and failed to get up-and-down.
It was another 24 years before the Open was contested at Carnoustie and it would become one of the most controversial championships in its history. The 1999 Open will be best remembered for the farcical set-up of the course with thick knee high rough, narrow fairways and wind causing havoc for four days. Queensland’s Rod Pampling set the standard on the opening day with a 71 but a second round 86 saw him miss the cut. Six Aussies did make the cut with Craig Parry and Greg Norman getting into the thick of the action on the final day.
Norman’s Sunday 72 saw him creep up the leaderboard, which was headed by Parry at various stages during the afternoon. A double and triple-bogey on Sunday never ends well but a holed bunker shot on the 72 hole saw him finish on 291 and a single shot out of the three-man play-off that was the result of Jean Van de Velde’s final hole meltdown. As the three-man four-hole play-off unfolded outside, a red-eyed and emotional Parry told reporters: “Don’t feel for me. I finished fourth in the Open. Next time maybe I’ll finish it off.” Sadly, it would be Parry’s best finish out of his 18 Open appearances.
Eight years later, Richard Green finished fourth in the Open but with a very different final round. The Victorian started the final round 11 shots behind 54-hole leader Sergio Garcia but a scorching 64 that included six birdies and an eagle had him sitting on the clubhouse lead. If not for a bogey on the tough par-4 18th, Green would have joined the ranks of the elite to have carded a 63 in a major. In the end, he finished two shots out of the play-off between Garcia and eventual winner Padraig Harrington.
RIGHT: Adam Scott has appointed Nick Faldo’s former looper, Fanny Sunesson, for the week. PHOTO: Getty Images.
With so many near misses across this links, the laws of probability suggest the tide must turn at some stage and the eight Australians teeing up in The Open this week offer perhaps the best chance of re-writing history.
Adam Scott, who has four top-10s in his past six Open starts including his runner-up finish to Ernie Els in 2012, was one of the first to arrive in Carnoustie and he’s already had several practice rounds on the hard, fast-running course. The firmness of the layout, baked hard by warmer than usual temperatures in Scotland and little rain during the past month, will play into the hands of the ball-strikers like Scott.
The last Open to feature such firm playing surfaces was at Muirfield in 2013 when Scott surged to the top of the leaderboard on the final day only to conjure up four back nine bogies, which was the same number of strokes he finished behind winner Phil Mickelson. That said, for 68 holes of that championship the Queenslander proved more than capable of handling the conditions.
The precise ball-striking that will be needed to win this week also suits Marc Leishman. And if the wind picks up, as predicted for the weekend rounds, he will be well placed as he has been with three top-six finishes in his past four Open starts. The firmness of the par-71 will also allow him to play for position with fairway woods and irons rather than using driver, which has been his weakest link in terms of accuracy in 2018.
RIGHT: Jason Day’s high ball flight leaves him exposed when the wind blows, but he is more than capable of adapting his trajectory to suit. PHOTO: Getty Images.
Australia’s highest ranked player, Jason Day, has not played competitively since the Travelers Championship three weeks ago, where he fired four rounds in the 60s to finish T12. Carnoustie is no TPC River Highlands and how he will perform in the conditions here remains to be seen. His high ball flight leaves him exposed when the wind blows, but he’s more than capable of adapting his trajectory to suit but the question remains has he played enough golf leading into this week to be a contender?
The remaining five Aussies – Lucas Herbert, Matt Jones, Brett Rumford, Cameron Davis and Cameron Smith – are at long odds but they have a shot at winning their first major and joining the elite club of Australian winners of The Open and the first at Carnoustie.