CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – We’re talking about course setup. At Carnoustie. It’s a combination that’s instantly reminiscent of the 1999 Open Championship, a horror show defined and tarnished by the long, dense, and suspiciously green grass that nearly covered the old compounds. That all sounds nice from a distance. But it wasn’t very close.
Sergio Garcia left the course in tears after shooting 89 on the opening lap. The Australian Rod Pampling led the field after day 1 – and missed the cut 24 hours later. Then there was Greg Norman. After missing the 17th fairway by less than a meter, one of the strongest players the game has ever seen could only move his ball a few meters with a thoroughbred swing.
The climax was of course anything but incredible. Nobody who has witnessed it will surely forget Jean Van de Velde’s triple bogey 7, which he pitifully posted on the 72nd hole. It was a tough, if fascinating, watch. A 6 would have won the Frenchman the wine-red mug that Paul Lawrie finally claimed.
However, things are different now. After this much maligned championship, the R&A officials took control of the sometimes dark art that the course design represented. There is a lot of thought these days about a) creating a good challenge for the best players (male or female) in the world, and b) ensuring that the characteristics of a course – fairway bunkers and greenside slopes and waves for example – are brought into play .
“Our goal is to create a reasonably balanced setup over four championship days that offers a comfortable feeling of variability over the course of each round,” said Grant Moir, Director of Rules at R&A, who heads the course setup team for this week’s AIG Women’s Britsh Open in Carnoustie.
Which begs an obvious question: What adjustments, if any, may need to be made to the course’s decor if the leading women of the game hit golf balls differently than their male counterparts?
“We’re not really trying to get the women to hit the same clubs as the men on the greens,” says Moir. “It is possible. But it would likely require a more downward adjustment in mileage than we are ready to make. Or want to do. Also, the games are a little different. Even if one of the women hits two more clubs with an iron, they can be just as accurate. “
The biggest gender difference is that women are able to create less twist in their approach strokes. This in turn affects the pen positions. For example, if the vast majority of players are playing with a 4-iron, there is no point sticking a flagstick just ten feet above a bunker. That would be silly, as well as too quickly laying out areas in a place with the wind potential of Carnoustie.
“We want to be able to use as many green spaces as possible,” says Moir. “Excessive speed only reduces our options. We tend to work at 10 feet on the stimpmeter. It’s a nice middle ground. From there we can adjust downwards or upwards. “
In a way, Moir is more fun setting up a class for women. With most t-shirts you don’t have to worry too much, take them back as far as you can. But there is more leeway for women. Every tee shot on the course is in play, although Moir seeks the tees that best bring in the hazards and features of each hole.
“I usually look for fairway bunkers that are placed around the 260, 265 yard range,” he says. “That’s the number in my head. But it’s just a starting point. “
Speaking of which, what about the rough that hit the ’99 Open so badly? How intimidating are the links that many consider to be the toughest in the open rota that will look from the tee?
The answer can be summed up as “no more than normal,” which is still pretty scary in some places. There will be three rough cuts for the Women’s Open. The first is your classic “semi-rough”. It will be quite short and primarily designed to take the spin off of the ball. Playable, but can lead to loss of control.
Then there is a second cut. It is either pruned a little higher or pruned and then allowed to grow naturally throughout the week. Either way, the idea is to create indecision. Moir wants players to be unsure of what exactly they are getting, which compliments the inherent randomness of links golf well.
In addition, there will be what R&A calls “unmanaged rough”. That is basically left to nature.
With so much going on in the run-up to a championship (course visits typically start up to two years in advance), communication is vital. Players need to know what R&A officials are doing with the course and why they are doing what they are doing. That is why every player receives an information sheet upon arrival. This includes details on the course structure. For example, when different teas are involved. Heavily stressed is any gamer’s ability to raise concerns about anything they see. It could be a lack of sand in a bunker. Or a run-off zone damaged during training. However, players are given numbers to call and names to contact.
“We also go out during the training days to deal with them and the caddies, just to get general feedback,” says Moir. “If there are general concerns from multiple players, we hear about them pretty quickly. This is important. When we keep things to ourselves, people inevitably make assumptions that may not be factual. “
Okay, some specifics. Are there holes at Carnoustie where Moir can have fun with the setup?
“When speaking about the setup, the focus tends to be on par 3s. I enjoy the ability to move tees on these holes. I’m a big fan of the eighth hole here, with the perimeter fence on the left and the bunkers on the right. It’s a challenging hole, especially when the ground is solid. There are some pin positions I would only use if we were to move the tee up a bit. So we probably will, depending on the weather conditions.
“The 11th hole is one that we’ll consider a drivable par 4,” he continues. “There is a discount before the incineration there. I like the way the hole is set up for those who want to try from the tee. There is potential for an eagle if the drive is long and straight. But it’s also easy for me to place the pin in a place where the player who doesn’t “take over” the drive has a hard time making birdie. “
Then there is the Van de Velde Golf Grave, 18. Like most fans, Moir looks forward to seeing the top women at what is perhaps the most terrifying finishing hole in golf. It’s a hole that no one is completely sure of until the ball is in the cup. There’s trouble from teeing off. There’s trouble with the second shot. Even hanging up in front of the Barry Burn is fraught with dangers. Ideally, Moir would like to see the players entering with an elongated club.
“That’s where the real challenge lies,” he says. “The 18th requires a really good drive, then a really good approach. It’s a hole for drama. I like this scenario. We never have a winning result in mind. We’re just trying to offer a challenge that will identify not only the best players of the week, but also the best players of the time. We just want to offer an appropriate challenge for a great championship. “
That all sounds much better than in 1999.