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Gary Van Sickle
July 26, 1999
When an already tough course turned into a killer, everybody screamed bloody murder
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July 26, 1999


When an already tough course turned into a killer, everybody screamed bloody murder

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The masters had rough, and the greens at the U.S. Open were a bear, but the first two majors of 1999 were nothing compared to the British Open at nasty Carnoustie. "Only 30 days ago we were saying that Pinehurst was the hardest course we've ever played," said Colin Montgomerie. "Now we've changed our opinion."

The numbers were convincing. Not only did no one break par (71) last week, but also just six players finished better than 10 over. Paul Lawrie's winning score of six over was the highest in a major since Hale Irwin's seven over in the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. And the cut came at 12 over, the highest since it was +13 in '74 at Winged Foot.

Much of the carnage came on the 7,361-yard course's four fearsome finishing holes and at the par-56th, a 579-yard brute that had almost all the players second-guessing the setup. "I wish I hadn't come," said Phil Mickelson, who was happy to flee the scene of the crime after shooting 79-76.

Here's all you need to know about Carnoustie: Pretournament favorite Sergio Garcia, defending champ Mark O'Meara and Rodney Pampling, the first-round leader, were a combined 60 over par after the two rounds. Garcia was so despondent during his opening 89 that he considered walking off the course. O'Meara had no offense in his title defense and shot an 83 last Thursday. Pampling made history by becoming the only first-round leader to miss the cut when he followed his 71 with a Maxwell Smart (an 86).

Garcia's demise was the most stunning. The 19-year-old wunderkind had been on a roll, winning the Irish Open and tying for second at Loch Lomond in the weeks leading up to the Open. He never had a chance at Carnoustie, triple-bogeying the opening hole and doubling the 9th while going out in 44. He had four more doubles on the back nine and bolted from the course in tears after finishing. To his credit, he returned a couple of hours later. "I felt as if I couldn't swing the club," he said. "It crossed my mind to walk off, but my caddie said, 'Come on, let's see if you can shoot 80,' but that was an impossibility."

Garcia learned the hard truth about Carnoustie: The course was unplayable from the rough. He hit only five fairways in the first round and was even par on those holes. He was 18 over on the others. Garcia's short game failed him, too. He had an 83 on Friday and took 69 putts in the first two rounds despite hitting only 15 of 36 greens in regulation. "I will try to forget this," Garcia said when his Friday round was over. "It was not a good experience. I don't feel embarrassed. I just don't care." Garcia added that he did not intend to watch the rest of the Open on TV, either. He had already seen enough.

O'Meara doubled the 2nd and 3rd holes on Thursday, added another double at the 10th and tripled the 17th. "When you're defending champion and shoot in the 80s, it's a little embarrassing," he said. "I'm a professional golfer. I have pride. I knew I was going to get a snowman score [in the 80s], I just didn't want a dreaded caveman [in the 90s]."

Four things made Carnoustie tough: ridiculously narrow fairways; ferocious rough; firm, fast greens; and, for the first three days anyway, a steady 20-to 25-mph wind. Most of the complaints were about the width of the fairways. The landing area for the second shot at the controversial 6th, for example, was only nine yards wide. "We don't call these fairways back in the States," said U.S. Open champ Payne Stewart, who came in 30th, "we call 'em walkways." Even Tom Watson, a five-time British Open winner, spoke out against the setup. "Giving golfers a fairway 15 yards wide is below die minimum by quite a bit," he said. "The USGA's minimum is 23 yards. We have several fairways here close to 15 yards wide or less. That's unfair." After turning aside that kind of criticism for days, Hugh Campbell, chairman of the Royal & Ancient's championship committee, admitted on the weekend that the fairways, which had been halved for the tournament, were probably too narrow given the severity of the rough.

The R&A denied, however, that the rough, which was knee-high only a few steps off the fairway, had been fertilized and watered in the weeks before the tournament, as 1985 Open champ Sandy Lyle claimed. Said Stewart Cink, who failed to break 80 in the opening two rounds, "It's one thing to hit bad shots that turn out bad. It's another thing to hit damn good shots that turn out bad...over and over. I missed one fairway by four feet and spent four minutes looking for the ball."

Although the greens were firm, like the fairways, they were no more so than the greens at any British Open played on a links course. Nevertheless, they frustrated the players who were either unable or unwilling to hit run-up shots to them.

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