Like many people, I watched the Open Championship at Carnoustie and marvelled at how far the ball was running on the fairways. It was great to see, even if it isn’t something you would want to experience every week. It is just too relentless and, at times, flukey. I lost count of how many times players misjudged how far their shots were going to bounce and roll before eventually stopping.
Which is not to say Carnoustie wasn’t a brilliant test and didn’t illustrate all the things that make golf by the seaside so special. I’m betting that a high percentage of the field – and many of the contenders on Sunday – had never before played a course quite like that. But that’s when you find out how good guys really are – when you put them in situations they haven’t seen before. It was fascinating to see who adapted best to this “new” and wonderful form of golf.
Equally, there were some notable failures, players who didn’t find the answers to these new questions. World No.1 Dustin Johnson couldn’t get it done. And neither did No.2 Justin Thomas, which is not so surprising. Carnoustie represented a big adjustment from their “normal” day at the office.
I know Dustin hit a lot of drivers from the tee, as did another pre-championship favourite who missed the cut, Jon Rahm, the World No.5 at the time. They seemed to be taking the attitude that, if such a strategy didn’t work, they were prepared to live with the consequences. That is certainly Dustin’s mentality.
On the PGA Tour, of course, golf is pretty much two-dimensional. If you hit a shot on the line you intend, the ball is going to stop where it lands. So that’s a good shot. Nothing is going to bounce crazily into trouble. But that wasn’t the case at Carnoustie. There, the shape of the shot mattered a lot. Draws were landing and running well to the left. Fades were landing and running away to the right. Low shots were running forever. There were more dimensions to what would turn out to be a good shot.
The hardest part though, was judgement of distance. Every time it blows your mind how far the ball can run on a links course. ‘Wow, I just hit a 7-iron 240-yards. And a 3-iron 350.’ When that is going on, guys get surprised. And those who adapt are the ones who do best.
It was interesting to hear that the eventual champion, Francesco Molinari, was working on shaping his shots more than normal so that he could aim down the edges of the fairways and have the full width to work with. That was good thinking, even if I’m sure he ran out of room on occasion. When a shot is running almost 100-yards, it is almost impossible to calculate precisely where it is going to stop.
All of the above adds more nuance to a player’s thinking and execution. When that is the case, the more talented individuals have more chance to shine. The real talent in the field gets a chance to exhibit its supremacy. On a “normal” course that doesn’t happen. But when The Open is as bouncy and fiery the cream truly does rise to the top. Whoever is playing the best will win.
Another aspect of the play I enjoyed was how playing from the fairway wasn’t always the best option. On a links, the angle into the flag is invariably more beneficial than a good lie. Angle is always more important than lie. Again, that’s not the case on the PGA Tour. On a soft course, the lie of the ball is way more important than the angle. So, at Carnoustie, if the best line into the flag meant hitting into the left rough, that’s where you had to go in order to make the next shot that much easier. The guys with the most imagination pick up on that stuff quite quickly.
Easier said than done, of course. The first time I played a course running like Carnoustie it freaked me out. I found it nearly impossible to control the ball. So it was hard to make confident swings. I had no idea where or when the ball was going to stop. Even after growing up in Melbourne, that sort of thing was new to me. Even on the Sandbelt I hadn’t seen fairways running that fast.
Let me repeat though. Carnoustie was fantastic. Jordan Spieth driving the 1st green on Saturday afternoon summed up how terrific it was. A great player made a great decision and hit a great shot. And was rewarded for it. Guys with great ability who are brave and have vision create opportunities. And that makes for more interesting golf.
Given that fact, it was no surprise to see Tiger Woods playing so well. Tiger is actually having a great year. If he was any kind of regular tour player coming back from multiple back surgeries, we would consider his season a complete success. I mean, he was tied for the lead in The Open with a few holes to play, which is a massive achievement.
“Francesco would have been good in any era, using any equipment and on any course. He is just solid.”
To me, Tiger’s swing looks better every week he plays. He seems more comfortable. A few years ago he was in the midst of a comeback and got himself into contention in a few majors. But he didn’t have good weekends. This time he did. So I see Carnoustie as significant progress for him. By any measure – apart from against himself – he is going great. He is exceeding everyone’s expectations. And he can win any one of the four majors. Look out for him in the US Open at Pebble Beach next year.
My lasting impression of the week, however, is that the Carnoustie we saw this year represents the only defence courses now have against the distances top players hit the ball. Generally speaking, the guys who tried to take the course on with drivers failed. That just didn’t work, which is not to say there is anything new in really good players missing the cut at a major.
Which brings me to the new “Champion Golfer of the Year.” I’d be surprised if anyone on tour who has played with Francesco was surprised that he has broken through and won a major. He is a really, really good player – and has been for a long time. He is almost everyone’s ball-striking hero. He is so sound mechanically. His swing is so simple looking. And he hits the ball far enough without trying to hit it too far.
The more difficult conditions get, the better Francesco seems to be. For long enough, the only thing missing from his armoury was his putting. It was always decent, but only rarely outstanding. But when you hit the ball as well as he does, it can appear as if you are missing a lot of putts. He has always given himself a lot of birdie opportunities, which puts to bed the silly notion that you cannot compete at the highest level unless you are a “bomber” off the tee. That’s rubbish.
Look at Francesco or Spieth. They are both “normal” tour golfers as far as power is concerned. Almost anyone can aspire to hit their drives as far as they do. Bombers don’t win every week. Francesco would have been good in any era, using any equipment and on any course. He is just solid.
Plus, Francesco was the form horse coming into The Open. He ran away from the field at the Quicken Loans event in Washington. And he had won at Wentworth on the European Tour not long before that. He’s a lovely guy, too. Be pleased for him. I know I am.