ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The starter handed me a green pouch embossed with gold letters, and I immediately felt a lump in my throat: Carnoustie Golf Links. Strung together, they might be the three most dreaded words in the English language.
After an all-night, Sunday to Monday flight from Newark, N.J., to Edinburgh, Scotland, I arrived to the first tee in the late afternoon thinking about my next meal, my first nap, and Jean Van De Velde. I was going to need my best stuff to conquer the beast.
"That's where it happened," said a member of our foursome, pointing across from the first tee to the 18th hole, where Van De Velde made 7. You'd have thought he was describing a death.
Before I knew it I'd gone out in 53, even though the sun was shining and the wind was mostly light. I'd lost a sleeve in the hay. My legs were Jell-O. Carnoustie was burying me without even trying. The best golfers always focus on fairways and greens. All I was seeing were the bunkers and the burn. Carnoustie might best be explained in the scorecard of a colleague, a 9-handicap: 39 on the front, 49 on the back.
The toughest golf courses I've ever played are also among the best in the world. Oakmont (oh, those greens), Winged Foot (oh, that rough), Bethpage Black (4-iron approaches all day) and Bayonet (4-iron approaches into the mist all day). What makes Carnoustie a brute is the heather (tangled), the bunkers (deep) and the history (Van De Velde).
It's a golf course where you know, sooner or later, you're going to mess up. With me it was sooner and later. I twinned my front-side 53 with a matching one on the back (all things considered, a strong feat considering the lethal, into-the-wind holes coming home). The 16th hole might be most difficult par-3 in creation. It is 235-yards of pain. The par-4 17th, with the Barry Burn snaking through its underbelly, is a killer. As for the par-4 finisher, where Van De Velde took his nosedive, had I been carrying his three-shot lead back in 1999 I would have missed the playoff by a shot. It is the hardest hole I have ever played, a claustrophobic nightmare. Did I mention that the Senior Open Championship arrives to Carnoustie next week?
Good luck, fellas.