The 1999 Open has been written into the championship’s folklore for Jean Van de Velde’s 72nd hole meltdown. But for the 156 players who teed up at Carnoustie, it is the difficulty of the course in the first round they’ll remember above all else.
It was the toughest opening round to an Open Championship anyone could recall.
No player finished under par after 18 holes. Queenslander Rod Pampling, in the second group out, shot an even par 71 and led. The first round scoring average was 78.3 and nearly a third of the field signed for a score in the 80s. Two players – Thailand’s Prayad Marksaeng and American Tom Gillis – carded 91 and 90 respectively. Gillis promptly withdrew, while Marksaeng returned for day two and finished 12 shots better.
The world’s best golfers had rarely had a tougher day at the office. “If the average player had to play out there, he'd probably quit the game – a lot of pros, too,'' said then World No.2, David Duval, who shot an eight-over-par 79.
The pre-tournament discussion about Carnoustie being one of the world's most difficult courses played out on day one, like a series of car accidents scattered across the 7,361-yard (6,730-metre) bunker-laden layout.
There was plenty of criticism levelled at the R&A for toughening up the great course when it was difficult enough in the first place. Fairways were narrowed – some to a ridiculous 15 to 20 yards wide – and, combined with their slight tilt one way or another, they were nigh on impossible to hit. All of the fairways were framed by thick, wet, knee-high rough, where many balls disappeared. Some players who did find their ball had airswings or, worse, grabbed at their twinging wrists as they tried in vain to put their ball back into play. Then there was the wind, which gusted to 35 mph and was sometimes accompanied by heavy rain. Horrible doesn’t begin to describe the course and weather conditions.
And that’s exactly how Sergio Garcia is likely to remember that day … his first in a major championship as a professional. The smiles and confidence shown walking to the 1st tee were replaced by tears nearly five hours later when he walked off the last green and signed for an 18-over-par 89.
“I couldn't do anything, I felt I couldn't swing the club. Today everything came out the wrong way." - Sergio Garcia.
The then 19-year-old, who won the Irish Open two weeks earlier in just his sixth pro start, opened his campaign at Carnoustie with a triple bogey seven. Pars at the 2nd and 3rd holes followed, before seeking out – and finding – a collection of Carnoustie’s brutish bunkers across the front nine.
Having turned in 44, Garcia looked all at sea as he dropped five shots across the first three holes of the inward half. He stopped the bleeding of shots at the par-3 13th with a par and claimed his first birdie at the par-5 14th before giving that gained shot straight back at the next.
Three more shots were lost on the 16th and 17th holes. The poor kid was heartbroken by the time he dragged himself off the 18th green. His caddie Jerry Higginbotham, who caddied for 1998 Open Champion Mark O’Meara, knew his man was hurting and put an arm around his shoulders.
“I tried to cheer him up, told him there would be a lot more majors," he said. “Told him to stay positive … at least he broke 90.”
RIGHT: Caddie Jerry Higginbotham comforts Sergio after his horror round. PHOTO: Getty Images.
Garcia signed for 89 and promptly left the course, as one might expect. But, to his credit, he returned two hours later to face questions from the media.
“Yes, I was suffering," he said. “I couldn't do anything, I felt I couldn't swing the club. Today everything came out the wrong way.
"I don't think there is too much I can take from this except possibly patience. The Open is always difficult but this year is too tough.”
Higginbotham added: “When you start with a triple bogey in a major you are in major trouble.”
“The wind was affecting everyone, and when it blows like that it's hard to put your finger on what's going wrong technically. We got no good bounces, no good breaks and the bunkers were like magnets.”