FORE Questions: Carnoustie, Tiger's Chances and Offbeat Open Storylines

This week's FORE Questions is Open Championship-themed, with in-depth looks at Carnoustie, Tiger Woods' chances and more.
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As OK Go said it best—Oh here it goes, here it goes, here it goes again (minus the treadmills). “It” in the previous sentence refers to major championships, as just about a month after a wild U.S. Open we’re back at it again this week for the year’s third major, the Open Championship. It’s the oldest of golf’s four big ones—the first Open was held at Prestwick in 1860, while the first U.S. Open was held in 1895, the first Masters in 1934 and the first PGA Championship in 1916. It’s the only major held outside the United States, and the most gloriously quirky of the four. Open Championship golf courses look differently and the fans act differently (hint: less fratty, more chatty). For so many players who spend the majority of their year on this side of the pond, this is truly a change of pace that tests the versatility of your game as well as your ability to strategize.

Strategy will be key this week, as Carnoustie is by all accounts completely “baked out”: the fairways are basically devoid of moisture, leading to a course that’s faster and firmer than any you’ll see on the PGA Tour this season. Carnoustie is difficult even when the course isn’t this dry, so we should be in for our second straight major where par is an extremely good score. Without further ado, let’s dive in.

What can we expect from Carnoustie this week? What will the course be like, and what kind of player will it favor?

Unfortunately, I’m not in Scotland, so all of the following information is coming second-hand, from interviews I’ve watched with players and from conversations I’ve had with people on the ground. One of the most telling things I heard anyone say came from Brandt Snedeker, who described Carnoustie as basically the inverse of your traditional U.S. Open course. U.S. Open courses usually have pretty green fairways, lush rough and lightning-quick (and often brown) greens. Carnoustie this week has lightning-quick fairways, wispy rough and greens that, according to Tiger Woods, are actually slower than the fairways.

It’s difficult to describe just how firm these fairways seem to be. It’s even drier than the normal Open conditions, as Great Britain has had an unusually warm and dry summer thus far. We saw some 400-yard drives at Shinnecock, mainly on the downhill fairways of the ninth and 10th holes. This week, we’re going to see way more 400-yard drives, but they won’t just be on downhill holes, and they won’t all be hit with driver. Those driving irons that have become a must-have on tour these days are going to be an absolute weapon this week. If players can get the ball rolling with a low stinger and have it avoid the pot bunkers, it can run out over 100 yards. That’s no exaggeration.  

At last week’s Scottish Open, which was also played in Scotland at Gullane Golf Club, we saw Rickie Fowler go driver-putter on a 461-yard par 4. Not a typo. Here’s video proof:

So does this benefit the bombers, who will be able to poke 4-irons past 300 yards? I’d think it’s the opposite. Everyone is going to be able to hit it miles this week. The key is going to be staying away from pot bunkers in the fairway, which will serve as the chief obstacle. Last year, Jordan Spieth said he sometimes aimed at the rough en route to his victory at Royal Birkdale. The rough this week will be long but wispy—meaning not very dense—and it’s much easier to play out of that stuff than the pot bunkers, which often force you to play out sideways or even backwards.  One must avoid them like you avoid political debate at Thanksgiving dinner. 

As is often the case at major championships, the wind will have a massive effect on how the course will play. Trees are a non-factor at Carnoustie, a true links golf course, and it’s laid out with a prevailing wind in mind. If it does blow, look for guys who can vary their ball flight to have an advantage. If it’s blowing, you’re going to need to hit it low to have any semblance of control. And the greens will be soft enough to hold lower shots.

Luck will also have a role this week, as conditions can often differ big time from morning to afternoon. If it’s really nasty on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, but conditions are relatively calm on Thursday morning and Friday afternoon, then half the field is behind the 8-ball simply because of their tee times. We saw this phenomenon at Shinnecock, where the course played at least a few shots harder on Saturday afternoon that it did on Saturday morning, allowing Daniel Berger and Tony Finau to creep into Sunday’s final group despite finishing hours before the 36-hole leaders teed off. That was on the weekend, of course, so the tee times weren’t random, but the point is that a course can be entirely different from morning to afternoon.

Another interesting nugget: The European Tour’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship is played across three courses every year, one of which is Carnoustie. That would suggest that the Euro-based guys would have an advantage, as they get a look at the course every season. Tyrell Hatton has won that tournament two years in a row, which bodes well for his chances this week, right? Not so, says Tommy Fleetwood, who set the Carnoustie course record with a 63 last fall. “It’s a completely different course,” he said Monday. “Shots that you’ve hit have literally no relevance for a lot of it.”

A new test entirely. Bring it on.

What are Tiger’s chances this week?

On paper, the course should fit him decently well. The conventional wisdom with Tiger has been that he is at his biggest advantage when he doesn’t have to hit driver, a club he tends to miss wildly with. His 2006 Open Championship win at Hoylake has become almost mythical—he used only one driver for the entire week en route to a two-shot victory—and is often cited as the perfect fit for Tiger’s game. He won’t have to hit too many drivers this week. What’s more, his patented driving-iron stinger has returned in full-force in this most recent comeback, and he should be able to employ that shot quite often.

His history at Carnoustie is, for his standards, average. He finished in a tie for 12th in 2007, five strokes behind champion Padraig Harrington, and tied for seventh in 1999, four shots out of the three-way playoff between Jean Van de Velde, Justin Leonard and eventual champion Paul Lawrie (incredibly, we made it this far in an Open-at-Carnoustie column without mentioning Van de Velde). If basically any other player finished in the top 15 at the last two majors at a specific golf course, you’d say he typically plays well there and has a good chance of competing. But that was prime Tiger, and he was certainly disappointed not to win both times.

So on paper, it looks like a pretty good fit. His history at Carnoustie is only all right, though, and his play in the majors this season has been disappointing. He came into Augusta coming off back-to-back top-five finishes and entered as one of the Vegas favorites. He put together as meh a tournament as you’ll see in finishing in a tie for 32nd at one-over par, a full 16 shots back of Patrick Reed’s winning total. Before the U.S. Open, he was striking the ball as well as he had in years but couldn’t buy a putt. Then, at Shinnecock, his ball striking took a dip and his putting didn’t improve, and he missed the cut by two. He’s only made one start since, against a weak field at the Quicken Loans National, but he did pick up his third top-five finish of the year there. His form coming into the tournament seems good enough, and importantly he did roll it better last week with that (gasp) mallet putter in his hand.

The problem with forecasting Tiger this year is that different parts of his game have abandoned him at different times, seemingly without warning. In the beginning of the season he couldn’t hit a 100-yard fairway. Then at Augusta, he couldn’t hit anything close with his scoring clubs. Recently his putting struggles have been so bad that he’s moved away from the iconic Scotty Cameron that brought him 14 major championships. There were no glaring weaknesses at the Quicken Loans, but the Quicken Loans and the Open Championship are different propositions entirely. Which aspect of Woods’s game will abandon him this time? Or will it be the week that he puts everything together?

One thing that I wrote about after the U.S. Open that I think is worth pondering—and it’s a weird thing to think about given the fact he’s won 79 PGA Tour events—is that I think Tiger might be feeling a little extra pressure at the majors. He wants so desperately to win No. 15 and shove it in everyone’s face who said he’d never compete at the PGA Tour level again, let alone win a major. He knows that his newfound health could prove to be short-lived; he is, after all, 42 with a fused back. Nothing is a guarantee, and his window of competing in majors is only shrinking. So perhaps he puts a bit of extra pressure on himself to perform.

Consider this: In the last seven majors Tiger Woods—14-time major champion Tiger Woods—has played in, he’s missed the cut five times. The two times he’s made the weekend were both at the Masters, a tournament in which a higher percentage of players make the cut than any other. He’s missed five straight cuts in majors not played at Augusta. In the previous 65 majors he competed in as a professional, Woods missed the cut three times.

Anyways, to answer the question: I’ll go with T-19. It’s imperative he gets off to a better start than he has in the first two majors—he shot three-over on Thursday at Augusta and eight-over at Shinnecock. If he improves out of the gate, there’s no reason to think he won’t contend. I just don’t think he’ll do that, as it looks like he’s drawn the short end of the stick by playing later on Thursday and earlier Friday. It’s supposed to be windy Thursday afternoon and rainy Friday morning.

What are some offbeat storylines to follow this week?

There are always so many at the majors, but here are a few that stick out:

  • At the U.S. Open, we saw a number of players complain about the golf course being “completely lost” come Saturday afternoon. Will the R&A be able to do what the USGA couldn’t: produce a firm, fast golf course that challenges the field but remains fair?
  • The defending champion this week is Jordan Spieth, who’s in the midst of probably the worst stretch of golf in his young career. Interestingly enough, it’s been his putting, long considered his strength, that’s been the worst part of his game. Will he be able to channel good vibes from last year’s triumph and find a way to contend?
  • Tiger’s playing in his first British Open since 2015. Will the European fans greet him with the same warmth that American fans have shown?
  • The last five majors have been won by Americans 28 years old or younger—Brooks Koepka (2017 U.S. Open, 2018 U.S. Open),  Jordan Spieth (2017 Open Championship), Justin Thomas (2017 PGA Championship) and Patrick Reed (2018 Masters). Will the American dominance continue in Scotland, or can a European (or someone else) end the streak?
  • This is the first major since Phil Mickelson’s U.S. Open antics. Scottish golf fans have the utmost respect for the game and its etiquette—will we see some backlash against Lefty?
  • Ryder Cup points are doubled for the Americans this week and are also weighted more for the European team. That means this week will go a long way in determining who gets the final automatic qualification spots for the U.S. and Europe, creating a tournament within a tournament between bubble guys like Bryson DeChambeau, Brian Harman, Tony Finau etc.

Brittany Linciome is playing in the Barbasol Championship this week. Is this good for the women’s game? Bad for it?

One of the more underrated stories in a while, and one that would be a much bigger deal if the event she’s playing in wasn’t an opposite-field one. Lincicome will be just the eighth woman to ever play in a PGA Tour event, and only Babe Zaharias has managed to make the cut, which she did way back in the 1945 U.S. Open. Annika Sorenstam missed the cut in her lone PGA Tour start at Colonial in 2003, and Michelle Wie was 0-for in eight starts on the PGA Tour.

One thing to note: Sorenstam was the world’s undisputed best women’s player back in ’03, while Lincicome is ... not. She did finish second last week and 360 lipped-out a putt for the win, but she’s still just the No. 30 player in the Rolex World Rankings. So giving her a sponsor’s exemption does feel a bit gimmicky, but as I wrote back when Tony Romo teed it up in the Dominican Republic, that’s exactly what sponsor’s exemptions are for. Gimmicks. Stunts to attract attention. The Barbasol Championship needs every bit of buzz it can get, so I’m not against the move at all.

In my mind, only good things can come out of it as far as the women’s game is concerned. No one’s expecting her to make the cut. The best player in the world wasn’t particularly close to doing it in 2003. If she doesn’t, it’s no surprise. But if she does—if the No. 30 women’s player in the world beats half of a field of PGA Tour pros to make the cut—that would speak wonders to the quality of the players on the LPGA Tour. I’ll certainly be rooting for her.