Normally the week leading up to the Open Championship is a very enjoyable one for me – golf watching usually comes high on the list, all in the name of research. This week it’s been a little different. Hours in an overcrowded, hot, fracture clinic full of short-tempered people, followed by the news that my nearest and dearest’s elbow surgery is not to take place for another three days. And then, agonisingly, news that the op won’t be happening today after all because it’s all hands to a more complex case. Ah well, at least I’ve had ample time to write this week’s blog in waiting rooms, sorry, waiting corridors, in between appointments of one sort and the other.
My first visit to Carnoustie was in the spring of 1999 when I went to play the course with Lawrence Farmer, redoubtable coach and mentor and my late brother-in-law, Dai Davies, golf correspondent of The Guardian. Ah, those were the days when there were newspapers and they actually had correspondents! It was one of the few courses on the Open rota that I hadn’t played and as I was going to be part of Radio Five Live’s Open coverage that July I wanted to see for myself why it was hailed as the most difficult test of all. We teed it up on a pet of a day and the three of us set off. Dai found the greenside bunker on the right at the 1st, a devilish pot bunker from which he found it difficult to extricate himself never mind the ball. When he did emerge from the bunker, he discovered to his horror – and our amusement – that he had split his trousers from stem to stern and a speedy return to the clubhouse was required to effect a repair. (The weather was so lovely none of us had any waterproof trousers with us.) So, Lawrence and I continued on our way and the full majesty of Carnoustie unrolled before us.
Dai rejoined us after a few holes and the three of us arrived at the 16th tee facing the hardest trio of finishing holes in the game. I always feel when you emerge onto the 16th tee at Carnoustie, it’s like a marathon runner entering the Olympic arena for the last couple of laps. What an amphitheatre! You are within sight of the finishing line but there are many tests to be faced in the final moments before victory can be claimed. As a spectator it is possible to position yourself in one spot and watch the denouement of the Championship unfold around you without moving. And, rather unusually, the combatants themselves can actually see the shots hit by players in the groups around them. It’s all right there in front of you – no hiding place.
And there was certainly no hiding place a few months later for Jean Van de Velde who came to the 18th tee needing “only” a double bogey 6 to win the Claret Jug. I had been out with Justin Leonard in the last round and when he finished the 17th hole I hopped over the wall at the 18th tee and went to our HQ in the adjacent TV compound. Two of our team were in the commentary box overlooking the final green so our work was done after 17 holes. As is the way with these things, once your duties are over you can scarper and most of the guys had already left, trying to get ahead of the Open traffic that would shortly be streaming out of Carnoustie. Alan Green and I were the only two who stayed and we had our little portacabin to ourselves as we settled down to watch the Frenchman’s triumphant progress down the last. We watched with a mixture of horror and disbelief as the events of that final hole unfolded and ultimately Van de Velde made a good up and down from the bunker for a seven and a place in the play-off with Paul Lawrie and Justin Leonard.
With that came the realisation that we would be continuing on air for the four-hole play-off and we had nowhere near enough commentators to cover the climax of the Open. Who was going to tell the producer who was locked away in his studio directing the broadcast? Alan or me? We were the only ones on site who knew the situation. At that point, through our headsets, we were given our duties and were told the players were already heading to the 1st tee. At that moment there was a roaring of engines as several cars raced into the compound. The troops had returned! Listening disbelievingly to our own broadcast as they whizzed down the road they deduced that a play-off was looking likely and got back just in the nick of time. The producer never knew and the Five Live crew moved seamlessly on. But it was a close run thing!The next time we were back at Carnoustie, in 2007, I was working for television and boy, was it a good Open for the Irish! There was another four-hole play-off with Padraig Harrington getting the better of Sergio and a youngster with a mop of curly hair won the low amateur honours. It was Rory McIlroy’s last Open before turning pro and he opened the week with a 68, Thursday’s only bogey-free round. He finished the week volunteering to mind the Harrington’s young son, Patrick, so that mum Caroline could walk the four holes of the play-off with her husband. During that play-off Paul McGinley trotted round in support of his fellow Irishman and alongside him strolled Miguel Angel Jimenez, Cuban cigar clamped between his teeth, in support of Sergio. It was the first time I can recall other players following golf out on the course. So, what lies in wait for my third Open at Carnoustie? Undoubtedly, the course will be a triumph and the weather looks set fair. Nine out of the last eleven major winners have been first timers – I wonder will that trend continue? Will Tiger challenge or is his time gone? How will Phil be received after his rules performance at the US Open? Will Rory rediscover his putting form or is Sergio due a little revenge for that play-off loss back in 2007? So many twists and turns will unfold before we know the answers and I predict another great Open at a truly great venue.