by Hannes Wessels
With The Open Championship to be held at Carnoustie looming large on the golfing calendar it’s of interest to reflect on some of the memorable events that unfolded there which involved us southern Africans some of which I covered in my book with Nick Price, ‘The 15th Club‘.
The 14th at Carnoustie is where Gary Player hit arguably the finest shot of his colossal career. He began the final round of the tournament in 1968 on level-par playing with Jack Nicklaus. He was two shots off the lead chasing New Zealand’s Bob Charles and America’s big Billy Casper. The wind was howling and some of the greatest players in the game had had had their challenges blown brutally away when Player approached his ball on the fairway of the par-5 hole, mindful of the dangerous ‘Spectacle’ bunkers that straddled the green. He slipped a 3-wood out his bag and with little delay swung with all his might into the teeth of the gale, then in a moment of golfing magic he watched his ball fly dead-straight at the pin coming to rest almost a tap-in away from the hole. “I’ll never forget that shot,” says Player, “I hit the best shot of my life and the best shot I’ve ever seen in my life.” He went on to win his second Open by two shots from Jack Nicklaus and Bob Charles.
In 1975 Carnoustie worked out differently for Nick Price and Bobby Cole. Price remembers: “Having just left school, the first time I tried to qualify for the British Open was at Carnoustie in 1975. I had reached the quarter-finals of the British Amateur at Royal Liverpool and was playing well. I arrived at Carnoustie after having qualified on the Old Course at St. Andrews and got the fright of my life because you couldn’t see the golf course in the low cloud. I was prepared for a tough time but this was very scary. Money was very short but I was with Gavin Levenson and we put our pennies together to hire a caddy and off we went into the unknown. It got worse because visibility remained poor and we had no idea where we were on the course and the caddy couldn’t help either because we couldn’t understand a word the guy was saying. I think he had had a few beers which was of little help but his accent was so strange he might as well have been talking a foreign language. I shot 77-77 and missed the cut but it was my first brush with the championship and it was love at first sight. I dared to dream of some time in the future I would return and make an impression. To do that I knew I would have to simplify my swing and reduce the possible margins of error so that I would become more consistent and resilient.” As we all now know Price took on the challenge and eventually triumphed at Turnberry in 1994 when he overtook Jesper Parnevik in the closing holes of a thriller.
The same year was a watershed year for Bobby Cole who many pundits believed was marked for greatness. It was at Carnoustie that Cole had become the youngest British Amateur Champion when he won in 1966. In the 1975 championship he shot back-to-back rounds of 66, setting and then matching the course record.
Simon Hobday (the late) remembers: “Bobby Cole was a hell of a golfer and I think he had all the skills to be a great champion but he seemed to lack the will to win. I think he could have won The Open at Carnoustie in 1975. He broke the course record in the second round with a 66 then made the same score in the third. If I remember correctly he was leading on the 16th tee in the final round with Jack Newton, Tom Watson and Johnny Millar trailing. The shot into the green was made for Bobby. He was so good he never seemed to need to chip. But he suddenly became apprehensive and full of self-doubt about the fame and attention an Open championship would bring. He told his caddy he was not sure how badly he wanted to win. He was worried about making a speech. He messed up the hole and lost the tournament. I still think he threw it. Bobby had won the SA Open beating Gary by five shots and that sort of fame I think he was comfortable with but he did not want to be seriously famous.
“In the final round Jack Nicklaus, who began the round four strokes off Bobby’s lead, shot 72 in tough scoring conditions to post 280, the clubhouse lead. Miller had a chance to beat that, but bogied the 18th hole to also finish at 280. Watson, however, birdied the last hole to post 279. Bobby, who shot 76 on the day, needed a birdie at the last to tie Watson, but didn’t get it. Newton needed a par to tie Watson, and he did get it. And that sent Watson and Newton into an 18-hole playoff the following day which Watson won. I don’t think Bobby ever really recovered from that.”
Looking back over all the years he has watched and played golf Carnoustie holds a special and rather sad memory for Denis Hutchinson. “I think the unluckiest bounce I ever saw was Jean Van de Velde’s at the ’99 British Open at Carnoustie. There he stood on the 18th tee needing a double-bogey to win the championship and he had played flawless golf up to that point. He had also birdied the 18th twice in the tournament. He took driver and went right but it was his second that was diabolical luck. It ricocheted off the stand, hit the stone on the burn and ended up in the thick grass. He would have been fine had it found the water. He could have dropped out, knocked it on the green and won the Open. But now he found himself with a dilemma. Out of bounds was just to the left of the green which would have been weighing on his mind. He took a swing at it but his club-face got snarled up in the grass and it plopped into the water. Out for four his fifth found the bunker and he ended up making seven. Then he lost the play-off to Paul Lawrie. What a bloody tragedy that was.”
“The finishing holes are tough and a big test,” says Nick Price. “Brandon Stone is playing well and maybe he can do something here but he has tended to blow hot and cold in the past so let’s hope he can stay on top of his game this week. Carnoustie produces strong champions like Player, Hogan and Watson who tend to win a lot of tournaments.”