Carnoustie loves the Open, but the true prize for a town obsessed by golf is already in the bag, Mike Wade writes
A crowd of 180,000 is about descend on the town and Tiger Woods is dreaming of his third successive Open championship victory.
But in their snug club house members of Carnoustie Golf Club sit at ease over their drinks, content in the knowledge that they have already secured the most important prize in golf - and it’s nothing to do with the game’s elite players or the famous Claret Jug.
“The Open is a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong,” says Joe Gourlay, 61, the club’s match secretary. “But in Carnoustie, the Lindsay Shield is the highlight of the year.”
The shield is an annual trophy won by Carnoustie this spring in a three-way competition which pits the club against its amateur rivals from St Andrews and Leven Thistle in Fife.
Competition is fierce, and requires each club to field a team of 50. Played out over three weekends, this year the result went right down to the wire after both Carnoustie and St Andrews beat Leven, but the game between Carnoustie and St Andrews was halved.
Mr Gourlay’s team may only have won the shield because they defeated Leven by the greater margin, but he is positively glowing with pride.
“It is a great honour to play for the club in that standard of match and a real test of talent,” he says. “You would be very lucky to get in the team with a handicap over three.”
Though still not engraved with this year’s winner’s name, the shield occupies pride of place in the club’s well-stocked and heavily alarmed trophy cabinet. It is so prominent that is easy to overlook the medal sitting in its shadow – which turns out to be a life membership awarded to Arnold Palmer, one of the finest players ever to have lifted a golf club.
Carnoustie may attract the greatest names in the sport, but reputations count for little here.
For all their delight in the shield, Mr Gourlay and the club captain, Alex Brown, admit they love the atmosphere which comes with the Open.
“The feeling in town is tremendous,” says Mr Brown, a 54-year-old engineer. “For every moan about the traffic chaos and the closure of the course, there a lift in spirits and a buzz in the air. But we are never overawed. We are used to seeing great sportsmen round here. They can get peace here to play the game, because in Carnoustie we understand them. The people here are all about golf.”
The statistics bear him out. Little more than a village, Carnoustie is built on the main railway line between Edinburgh and Aberdeen, but its population of just 10,000 supports six golf clubs with a combined membership of around 2,000. Each of the clubs in town delegate two officials to the Links Management Committee, the organisation which runs the publicly owned links and the two other courses in the town. The committee presides over 50 full time staff and an annual turnover of around £2.5 million.
Open years are special. Some of this year’s competitors inevitably themselves up in luxury hotels in distant Edinburgh or Gleneagles, arriving at the course every day by car or helicopter, but others stay in rented houses in the town and at hotels nearby. In the traffic chaos slowly strangling the tiny warreen of streets, there are hazards even for the famous. Mr Brown reveals that he almost drove over the Danish golfer Thomas Bjorn at the weekend.
“He wasn’t paying a blind bit of notice to where he was going, just wandering down the road with his phone clapped to his ear,” complains the club captain.
Local pride doesn’t cut ice with everyone. In 1999, the last time the Open was held here, the condition of the Carnoustie course came under fire, its narrow fairways surrounded by the thickest rough.
The most famous players fared badly, leaving Scotland’s unheralded Paul Lawrie to steal the championship from an equally unknown Frenchman, Jean van der Velde in a play off.
Events that year gave rise to a new term in the golfing lexicon, “the Carnoustie effect”, words which describe the impact on talented but cosseted professional sportsmen of fiendishly difficult playing conditions. After the final round one highly fancied talent, the Spaniard Sergio Garcia, went straight from the course to his mother’s arms in tears. American golfers simply refer to the course as “Carnasty”.
“It was Carnasty that year,” concedes Mr Gourlay. “But it is the same for everyone. If you are a wee bit off line, you’ll get what you deserve.”
“Carnasty. That is a term of endearment really,” says Mr Brown. “It a back-handed compliment. You want to test the best, and that happens here.”