Until last Saturday afternoon only a sour-faced Scot could find much to love in the 7,252 yards of torture and flagellation known as the Carnoustie Golf Club. Carnoustie, at the edge of the North Sea that pounds the east coast of Scotland, is no place for fun-lovers. Its 126-year-old links is a long, narrow, ugly, flat, knobby, wind-worn, crusty stretch of wasteland that can probably be ranked as the hardest championship course in the world. But to the sour-faced Scot you now can add Gary Player as a lover of Carnoustie, for by hanging on to the ropes when the strongest field ever to play in the 108-year-old tournament was going down for the count, Player won the British Open.
In the midst of a bogey-filled and improbable wild final afternoon, Player proved to be the only golfer capable of hitting back at a golf course that had bullied and mauled the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Bill Casper, Bob Charles, Roberto de Vicenzo, Gay Brewer, Peter Thomson, Doug Sanders and Bert Yancey.
For Player the victory ended three years of frustration in which he had won neither a major championship nor even a title on the U.S. tour. His total of 289 was the highest score to win a British Open in 21 years, but next to Nicklaus and Charles—who tied for second at 291—Casper (292), Brewer (295), Palmer (297), De Vicenzo (297), Thomson (301), Sanders (304) and Yancey (311), it looked pretty good.
There are a number of reasons why Carnoustie is so difficult, the primary one being there is no safe place to hit a golf ball. The course is located on a flat plain of sandy soil between the settlement of small, square, stucco cottages that is the town of Carnoustie and the wide North Sea beaches. But flat plains do not smooth fairways make, at least not here. The fairways at Carnoustie are contoured like rolling waves of green surf and are as hard and dry as marble. The rough is deep, the bunkers profuse and the greens almost as firm as the fairways. Knotting up this whole hazardous package is a serpentine ribbon, a twisting, water-filled ditch known as the Barry Burn, which wanders across the 17th fairway three times and crosses the 18th three times, too. When the wind blows at Carnoustie, which it usually does, the only safe place to be is in the clubhouse.
July 21, 1968
Three previous British Opens have been held at Carnoustie, but only three players—including Ben Hogan, who won the title with a final round of 68 in 1953—had managed to break 70.
"This is not the best course the British Open is played on," said Bob Charles early in the week, "but it is certainly the toughest. The thing you need the most of is composure. You are going to encounter a great many bad lies and bad bounces, but you can't let them upset you. You've got to keep working hard all the way around so that things don't just slip away."
On the first day of play Charles's assessment proved most accurate. A breeze of 20 to 25 miles an hour, modest by Scottish seaside standards, swept the course, and up, up, up went the scores. Palmer, hitting the ball fiercely but hampered by a late starting time that tossed him into the teeth of the gale, shot 77. "I have just hit three supershots in a row," he grumbled to his playing partner, Britain's Tommy Horton, as he stalked down the 11th fairway after going bogey, double-bogey on the two previous holes, "and I can't even make a par."
Nicklaus had a 76, one that was untidily constructed around a total of 37 putts ("I thought I'd never finish the round"), and De Vicenzo, the defending champion, flogged his way to a 77 ("I think I get a stiff neck from too much putting practice"), as did Peter Thomson. American stars Sanders and Yancey pitched in with a pair of 78s, and British Ryder Cup player George Will, who was raised at St. Andrews, just across the Firth of Tay from Carnoustie, contributed a startling score—out in 33, back in 47. Amid all this commotion, Player's 74 ranked as the epitome of consistency, except to Player. "I was lucky," he said. "I played absolute rubbish."
Only four players managed to break par 72 on the first day, and though the weather was more benign on the second, it too was another losing struggle by the golfers. Losing, that is, until Casper teed off at 1:52 in the afternoon. I he leading money winner in the U.S. this year, with $130,000, Casper had cased himself out of the $200,000 Milwaukee Open and into the $48,000 British Open because "I think every golfer who takes his career seriously must at least try to win this tournament."
For a first try it turned out to be a memorable one. Playing with his customary efficiency, Casper made a strong bid to run off with the title on the second day. He started with a birdie, and by the time he got to the 9th hole he had blasted out of a greenside trap and into the cup (remember the same shot when he won the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic?), holed two more birdie putts and was four under par. Then Casper stopped making birdies and began scrambling to pars that were just as spectacular. (Now remember his 30 one-putt greens when he won the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot.) He missed four of the first six greens on the back nine, but made pars on all but one of the holes. "You don't think this game is meant to be easy, do you?" he joked as he moved from one potential disaster to the next.
On the demanding final three holes, Casper's game providently returned, and he finished with two pars and a birdie for a 68, the fourth sub-70 round in Carnoustie's Open history. Since this followed an opening round of 72, Casper suddenly had a four-shot lead on the field.
On the third day—Friday—the big lead shrank drastically when Casper had a 74 for a 54-hole total of 214, which was one better than Charles (72, 72, 71), two better than Player (74, 71, 71) and four ahead of Nicklaus (76, 69, 73).
And then for Saturday's finale the Scottish wind picked up, the cold set in and Carnoustie showed how exciting golf can be when the world's hotshots don't have their own way. Casper, paired with Charles in the final twosome, lost his lead quickly when he drove into the rough at the second hole and bogeyed. Charles returned the favor by hitting two sand traps on the third hole and taking a double-bogey 6. While Casper was missing short putts for bogeys on the fourth and fifth holes, Player, paired with Nicklaus just up ahead, made his first error by hooking his approach to the fifth green and missing a 12-foot putt. Nicklaus finally got into the trouble routine at the sixth hole, where he hooked his drive into a Ministry of Defence firing range—which is emphatically out-of-bounds.
Charles somehow managed to get to the 10th hole before going over par again, but Player hit bad tee shots on the 10th and 13th to make bogeys, and suddenly three players, all at two over par for the tournament, were tied for the lead. They were Player, who stood over his ball on the 14th fairway squinting up toward what was visible of the flagstick some 230 yards away; Charles and Casper, who had just made pars on the 13th hole and were striding toward the 14th tee. Nicklaus—two strokes back—was in the woods to the right of the fairway trying to figure out how to extricate his ball without hitting a tree on his backswing.
"I really thought Nicklaus was deep in the bush somewhere," Player said later. "Then Jack took out a wood and whacked it up so near the green that the crowd began to yell. I thought, 'Oh, Lord, what has he done now?' "
A few moments later the roars were for Gary. From where Player stood the red flag, flapping in the wind on the 14th green, was just visible behind a huge mound up ahead on the fairway. Player's ball took off in a straight white streak as he lashed into it with his three-wood. "The shot was so straight," he said later, "that I had to lean sideways to see the top of the flagstick."
The surface of the green was not visible from where Player stood, twisting sideways and clutching his three-wood. But the crowd in the grandstand beside the green began to yell as the ball landed short of the putting surface and hopped toward the hole. The roar grew louder and louder, until the ball finally stopped two feet from the cup. It was one of the memorable shots of recent major championships, and when Player tapped in his eagle he had a two-stroke lead that he never gave up. But there was still many a thrill as he struggled to preserve his advantage.
Nicklaus did his best to keep the pressure on Player through the final four holes, and Player did his best to keep the pressure on himself. On 15, Player saved his par by chopping his second shot out of the high rough, hitting a sand wedge to the green and sinking a curling, eight-foot putt. Nicklaus, meanwhile, barely missed a putt for a birdie.
On the par-3 16th both golfers used drivers against a slight breeze. Player bunkered himself short to the right, but Nicklaus hammered a beauty that stopped only 20 feet from the cup. As the two good friends walked together toward the green through the massed crowds on either side of the protective chestnut palings, Player turned to Nicklaus and said: "Man, what a shot. What are you trying to do to me?"
"Do to you?" Nicklaus said with a surprised laugh. "Look what you're doing to me."
Nicklaus missed his putt, but moved within two strokes when Player also missed a putt after a beautiful recovery from the deep bunker. By now Casper had hit a tee shot out of bounds and was through, and Charles contributed a bogey that all but ended his hopes.
Nicklaus kept trying. He hit drives of 350 yards that soared high over the twisting burn on both of the closing holes, while Player hopped from island to island with cautious iron shots that squirted this way and that—one deliberately aimed at an adjoining fairway, another into the ominous rough—but in the end his little irons netted him exactly what Jack's big drives got him: two pars.
Player, because he has been in something of an eclipse over the last three years, was doubly jubilant at his victory, dancing his way toward his final putt, hugging his caddie and lapsing into something that seemed suspiciously like tears.
Moments later he summed up his golf, and Carnoustie: "It's the best I've ever played," he said. "And on the hardest course there is."