The Open Championship is widely regarded as golf’s most prestigious tournament and has delivered some truly incredible moments through the years.
Ahead of this year’s Championship at Carnoustie, we spoke exclusively to two revered figures within the sport – Bernard Gallacher, who has played The Open 18 times, and Iain Carter, golf correspondent for the BBC.
Here is their exclusive Open preview.
What makes The Open such a special championship?
Bernard Gallacher: It’s special because it’s the oldest of the Major championships and it’s played on traditional seaside links golf courses, which are the best we’ve got in the United Kingdom. Each course tests a different aspect of a golfer’s game – the fairways are usually windy, bouncy and narrow with thick rough, and you’ve got to play a mix of high and low shots. It’s a complete challenge. Every great player has won The Open, which is testament to its prestige. Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros – you name it, they’ve won it. The Open is a barometer for golfing legends. You can’t always say the same for the US Open or the Masters, because there are some great golfers who haven’t won those Majors.
Iain Carter: There are so many players who can win The Open. The field is drawn from far and wide, so as a championship, it does what it says on the tin – it’s open to a whole host of golfers. It’s not the British Open; it’s THE Open. If golfers play at their very best and have a few lucky breaks, they can win it, even if they don’t necessarily have the relentless ability to consistently compete at the top level. Equally, it has that magic ability to identify the best players in the world. Anyone who is anyone in golf has won The Open. That’s why it’s like no other Major.
We’ve seen in the past how hard it is to win at Carnoustie. What demands does this course place on even the best golfers?
BG: Carnoustie is the only Open Championship on the rota which finishes with water. Whenever you put water near finishing holes, you can always expect a lot of drama. Where there’s water involved, this becomes a mental barrier for players, as we saw with Jean van de Velde in 1999. Even when Padraig Harrington won at Carnoustie in 2007, he was in the water twice!
It’s interesting that the three most recent winners at Carnoustie have all won via a play-off, which shows that it’s the toughest of the championship courses. The wind is a big enough obstacle on its own, but even without the wind, it’s a long course which tests many aspects of a golfer’s ability.
IC: Carnoustie is a course that puts a high premium on quality ball striking and efficient play around the greens. It’s a very stringent test for any golfer, but also a largely fair test in my opinion, as far as links golf courses go. Carnoustie is an embodiment of links golf – sometimes it isn’t fair, but it’s the players who deal best with this adversity who come out on top.
There’s been a lot of talk around 1999, but this year will undoubtedly be less tough than in 1999. That was a truly freakish event when the rough and extreme weather conditions conspired to make it the most difficult Open we’ve seen in modern times.
In 1999, the winners were tied on 6 over par. Today, the game is much more low-scoring. Do you think it’s good for the game not to see the players struggling?
BG: The reason the scores were so high in 1999 was that the Championship committee made the course too tough. The fairways were too narrow, the rough was too thick and the players couldn’t get on the fairways.
I think the scoring will be lower this year because lessons have been learned from Van de Velde’s meltdown. The greens are better and the equipment is more sophisticated, so I don’t envisage a repeat of that this time around. I think it’s for the better that this is the case.
IC: I prefer to see a fairer set-up which provides the opportunity for players to recover after they’ve made mistakes and not just be left with a one-dimensional hack out of the rough. Obviously, there is an element of competition between the player and the golf course, that’s the nature of the sport.
However, what I want to see is a contest between the best players in the world and for this to be the talking point, à la ‘Duel in the Sun’ between Watson and Nicklaus in 1977. I don’t subscribe to the view that we should see the pros struggling, I want to see golf of the highest quality.
Dustin Johnson is our pick to win the tournament. Would you say he’s the front runner for the Claret Jug this year?
BG: Dustin Johnson is a potential winner every week because he’s got such a strong game. He’s had a real chance to win The Open on at least one occasion, most notably when Darren Clarke won at Royal St George’s in 2011. He also led the first round at St Andrews when Zac Johnson won in 2015. He knows how to play at seaside courses and his wedge play and putting are much better these days, so he’s a strong contender.
IC: Dustin Johnson would be a worthy winner of The Open, and he’s got a fantastic chance of being crowned champion. He’s challenged at previous Opens – he held his own until late on at St George’s and he was right in contention at St Andrews. When he’s on top form, he can overpower golf courses like virtually no other player. His wedge play and approach play have improved massively, so I think he’s got a very good chance.
Jordan Speith and Rory McIlroy are also among the bookmaker’s favourites. What do you make of their chances and those of the other contenders?
BG: Rory is in with a shout because he has such a great game. It all depends on how he putts – if he does this well, he’s going to be right in contention. As for Jordan Speith, his game’s gone slightly downhill since finishing third in the Masters. He’s the defending champion, so there’s going to be a lot of focus on him and with that of course comes added pressure. I’m not sure this is going to be his year. As an outside bet, I think Tommy Fleetwood has a decent chance.
IC: Rory will always have a good chance at the biggest events because he’s the best ball striker out there and the most naturally gifted golfer on the planet, so inevitably he’s going to be among the favourites. He’s having a frustrating year, but even so has won once and had five top-5 finishes. His game is perfect for Carnoustie, so long as the weather is kind to him. He still has to prove himself in windy conditions on fast, firm golf courses, which neutralises his talents.
Jordan Speith, Justin Rose and Justin Thomas are also up there, as is Sergio Garcia. He’ll feel like he has unfinished business with Carnoustie, having missed the putt to win there in 2007. I think these days, he’s a much more mature and rounded golfer and he’s finally won that elusive Major with the Masters last year. He certainly possesses all the golfing attributes to succeed at Carnoustie.
This year marks Tiger Woods’ 20th appearance at a British Open. Do you think he might be a good outside bet to win?
BG: He’s getting better with each game, there’s no question about that. There are spells where he’s swinging really well, as we saw at the Players Championship, and you can see that he’s now playing more or less pain-free.
His putting obviously isn’t as dependable as it was at his peak, but the more competitions he participates in, the more confidence he gets. At the end of the day, he’s still Tiger Woods and he’s still won 14 Majors. He knows what it takes to win, but he’ll need to refine his game slightly if he wants to be in with a shout.
IC: I think Tiger has a very good chance in relative terms, certainly more of a chance than I would have thought possible before his latest comeback. Considering what he’s been through, the fact that he’s challenging for titles and putting his name on leaderboards at big events on the PGA Tour demonstrates a remarkable resilience and shows what a phenomenal golfer he is.
The weather is a big factor for him, as well. It’s been a dry summer on the East coast of Scotland so far and if conditions are fast and firm, you could see Woods mounting a very strong challenge. He’s won in fast, firm conditions at Hoylake and St Andrews and he can do it again. The concern would be his ability to make those crucial putts which seems to have eluded him in recent years.
Carnoustie has a new £5m Links House which includes locker rooms, a bar and restaurant, a shop and caddy facilities. What do you make of its new look?
BG: In previous years, Carnoustie lacked high-class accommodation. That was one of the reasons that The Open wasn’t taken back there for a while. If you’re going to host an Open, you need the best accommodation for players, spectators and media alike. They’ve got a hotel on-site now which they didn’t have when I played there and this has made a big difference. We’ve now got a world championship golf course with world-class facilities, which can only be a positive.
IC: The Links House looks fantastic and is a facility befitting of one of the greatest golf courses in the world. The players will absolutely love it and it’s very encouraging to see such an investment being made. Carnoustie is synonymous with golf and the new facility speaks volumes for how important the sport is to the town.