Open Observations: Round 1

Thoughts and observations from round 1 at Carnoustie


“We’re not that young”

My first golf thought of the day came while I was making coffee at 4am. It brought me to Rickie Fowler and a scene from Wedding Crashers.

At age 29, with a new young stud popping up seemingly every week, I wonder how many more majors Fowler has as a first-page favorite, 10-12? Either way, the clock is ticking.

Fowler opened with a solid round of 1-under 70, good for t18th.

Tiger and Rory

The two biggest stars of their generation are both in the mix of a major championship after round one. That’s something I’ve never written in my short career as a golf writer.

Rory put together a dazzling tee-to-green performance en route to a 2-under 69. The big question entering the week was his putter, and it looked good on Thursday. Rory was a few burned edges away from the lead.

Tiger drew the stronger afternoon winds and battled to an even-par 71. He was sharp in all facets and put on a clinic in strategic play, regularly placing shots into ideal areas and avoiding Carnoustie’s penal bunkers. Woods will get the course early tomorrow, which currently calls for rain, and he looks ready to contend.

Rory McIlroy & Tiger Woods
Rory McIlroy & Tiger Woods

The late bloomer

Tony Finau is off to his third consecutive fast start in a major after a 4-under 67. Finau is one of the most powerful players in the world and is also blossoming into one of the best. At age 29, Finau is still looking for his second win on Tour, but he is one of the most consistent in the world. In 19 starts during the 2017-2019 season, Finau has notched 12 top-25 finishes, including top 10’s in the Masters (on a dislocated ankle) and a 5th at the U.S. Open. Finau should be on the Ryder Cup team.

Danny Willett comeback

The best aspects of sports are when athletes’ backs are against the wall, and they overcome adversity. I don’t remember when the Bulls beat the Hawks by 20 in game 3 of the 1997 NBA Playoffs, but I do remember the Michael Jordan “Flu Game”.

Danny Willett is back to relevancy in professional golf. After winning the 2016 Masters and ascending to 9th in the world rankings, Willett bottomed out at 462nd a few weeks ago. The fall has come from a combination of back and swing problems, but through hard work and perseverance, Willett has regained some form lately. Willett fired 69 in round one and is in contention in a major for the first time in a long while. Seeing the dark places of the game and keeping his career intact make Willett more relatable to the average Joe.

His situation is reminiscent of countryman Lee Westwood, who fell from 4th in the world rankings in 2000 to 266th in 2003. Westwood came out of the struggles and went on to ascend to number one in the world rankings in 2010.

A herculean performance

Leader Kevin Kisner needed only 22 putts during his opening-round 66 at Carnoustie. I love Kisner’s well-rounded game. Last year, he ranked above Tour average in every strokes gained category. The firm and fast conditions set up well for Kisner, but he will have to strike it better to contend late on Sunday.

Spieth par saves

The opening round of one over par for defending champion Jordan Spieth wasn’t great, but it could have been worse. Towards the end of the front nine, Spieth found himself in poor predicaments on three consecutive holes and managed to escape with par on each. It’s Spieth’s greatest skill and the most overlooked talent of Tiger Woods’ career. Spieth will need three great rounds to win this week, but the stretch of 6-8 showed why he already has three major wins at age 24.

Firm and fast

Despite benign conditions, Carnoustie remained a tough test thanks to the speed of the fairways (stimping 10’1″). It provides a different degree of unpredictability that the modern Tour pro rarely sees.

The fairways require great precision off the tee to avoid the fescue and penal bunkers. Distance is still a tremendous advantage but misses carry a risk because the ball rolls further off line and into worse spots. This style presents a more nuanced and subtle test that, over time, will yield better winners than the Pillsbury Doughboy-soft course conditions golf fans see week in and week out in America. The firm fairways coupled with good design require a thoughtful approach to score well. I would expect the greens to firm up over the week and the class players and thinkers of the week to progressively seperate themselves.

The byproduct of speed…options

Carnoustie is one of the more narrow courses in the rota, but thanks to the speed, it’s provided a great deal of options. Off the tee, players are having to choose lines and distances. Approaching the greens, they are thinking about distances, trajectories and spin. Around the green is filled with every shot imaginable. It’s riveting golf that will only get better with a little wind.

The simple architecture of “Hogan’s Alley”

The par-5 6th is an excellent example of the simple principles of great golf architecture. The famed par 5 plays along the property line, which is used masterfully. Out of bounds is the most intimidating penalty in golf. Stroke and distance is a penalty that can cost a player a major championship. A drive down the very left edge of the property gives players the best scoring opportunity on the 6th due to the way the green is angled.

A diagram for the 6th (from non-championship tee). Credit: Carnoustie Golf Links

There is plenty of room to bail right without taking a penalty, but three fairway bunkers lie in wait. The way they are scattered allows for a chance of missing them, but they gobble up most shots. Finding the tall grass or a bunker will force a layup shot which finds the sam same predicament as the tee shot; out of bounds left, ditch right. The sixth is a great golf hole and also a very simple one.

For the love of the game

It’s amazing to see South African Brandon Stone going out to play the Old Course after shooting an opening 68 good for t5th. What’s even more shocking is that he played with his new set of hickory clubs.

I find many pros treat golf like a job. It’s refreshing to see pros who play for the love of the game and not because it’s a job. It’s clear that Stone loves golf.