Carnoustie a tactical puzzle for world's best

Carnoustie a tactical puzzle for world's best
 Hogan's Alley with out of bounds left and a nest of bunkers on the right

Hogan's Alley with out of bounds left and a nest of bunkers on the right

Even the fictional Christian Wolff would find it a puzzle and that's coming from fellow "accountant" Pádraig Harrington.

The last man to win The Open at Carnoustie has found the course a far different beast that it was back in 2007, baked brown by weeks of glorious sunshine, lacking in thick rough with its putting surfaces surprisingly green and receptive.

And yet it still holds as much menace as the Car-nasty they all fear and it promises to be an epic tactical test on a 7,402-yard battleground that will suit a disciplined, straight-hitting plodder with the patience of Job.

There are so many options, it’s a real head-scratcher, even for Harrington, who loves nothing better than a good jigsaw puzzle.

“Do you remember that movie The Accountant and the scene where he’s a kid and he does the jigsaw when it’s face down with blank side facing up?” he said, referencing the Ben Affleck movie about an autistic accountant, Christian Wolff, who combines a head for numbers with the murderous skills of a Special Forces operative. “It’s a bit like that.”

Harrington might have missed the cut in the Scottish Open but he made use of his weekend off to get to grips with a very different Carnoustie to the links where he won the first of his three majors.

On Saturday night he hit a downwind drive into the Barry Burn, not 250 yards from the tee as he did on the 72nd hole in 2007, but 457 yards away, where it snakes across the front of the 18th green.

It’s firm and fast but with hazards everywhere, there are few opportunities to really open up.

Harrington found himself reverting to conservative type in practice yesterday, frequently laying up short of trouble, even if it meant a more difficult approach.

“It’s irrelevant what I’d like, these are my favourite conditions this week," the Dubliner said philosophically before hitting what appeared to be a seven iron off the fifth tee.

Whether the firm conditions, warm weather and wispy rough has made it a tougher or an easier challenge, he couldn't say for sure.

"I honestly don't know," he said, genuinely at a loss to come up with an answer. "There are lots of options. And the wind is to change direction during the week too. 

"When you can't carry something that's 260 yards away from you and then on another occasion you are hitting a driver 457 yards, there is a lot of variation.

“You can find yourself laying up short of a bunker that's 240 yards away and you are still worried about hitting a seven-iron into it! And it's not like it's blowing very strong.

“This will suit, not necessarily a short hitter but a very, very straight player. Somebody who pokes the ball around the place."

Like Matt Kuchar, we suggest.

"Yes, a Matt Kuchar style of player will do nicely here," Harrington conceded. "Players who are quite happy to thread it between bunkers because that's how they play all the time. I'd be of the defensive nature and lay up. 

"The problem is that the course can play longer doing that. I had 180 yards into the first today and I'd never had 180 yards into it in the Dunhill. I was 50 yards short of the fairway bunker because I was too conservative."

At the 412-yard fifth, Harrington hit an iron off the tee to stay short of bunkers 250-260 yards away, leaving seven iron to a front pin on a green that measures 57 yards from front to back.

“If the pin was up the back I’d have 200 yards plus,” he said, sizing up his approach. "Go right up the top tier and I'd have 210. So it plays shorter but it plays longer, if you know what I mean."

Kiwi Ryan Fox bludgeoned his way past all the trouble in the Irish Open at Ballyliffin by using his driver as an offensive weapon. But that won’t be an option very often for Fox, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm or the rest of the power bunch.

Anyone who fears seeing a 500-yard drive at The Open can probably rest easy because power is not the answer.

Just a few weeks shy of his 47th birthday, Harrington believes experience and links golf ‘nous” is a great equaliser when it comes to neutralising the power of the long-hitters.

But that doesn’t mean he's ruling out Rory McIlroy for that elusive fifth major win given that the wind is not expected to blow hard.

“Rory likes a true ball-striking competition, I think, so that would tend to lend itself to the nicer conditions,” Harrington said. 

Then there’s Tiger Woods, who arrived late yesterday afternoon and hit one of his traditional stinger long-irons straight down the middle of the first fairway, bring back memories of Hoylake in 2006.

 Reserved for the Open champion?

Reserved for the Open champion?

“I think he definitely could be a contender,” Harrington said. "He likes the golf course, I think.... Well, all ball-strikers like the golf course.”

Woods believes the fairways will be quicker than the greens when he chases that elusive 15th major at Carnoustie but whether he's the same player that won on a hard and fast St Andrews in 2000 or an even firmer and faster Hoylake in 2006 remains to be seen.

"I am sure they will probably speed the greens up a touch but I’m sure this will be one of those weeks where the fairways are a little quicker than the greens," Woods said after playing a few holes late on Sunday afternoon.

"It is a risk-reward golf course and the way it is set up right now, it is going to play very narrow because it is so fast.

"We don’t get a chance to see it quite this firm very often, it was like this in 2000 and like this at Hoylake but we don’t really see the fairways this quick. It’s different this week and will be a lot of fun."

Woods didn't hit a driver at Royal Liverpool 12 years ago but it's not so much about club selection as shot shape for the former world No 1.

"It is mainly trajectory," he said. "You can get the same numbers with different trajectories. That’s what is going to be important, how hot you want the ball coming into the fairways.

"You can really make the ball roll 60, 70, 80 yards; is it really worth it or not? Some of the holes; can you carry bunkers? It is a risk-reward golf course and the way it is set up right now, it is going to play very narrow because it is so fast.

"It is just one of these weeks where I don’t see a lot of guys hitting woods off the tees just because it is so quick. It is just going to be about trying to keep the ball out in front of you. It is just one of these weeks where it is quick and we just have to deal with it."