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The Talk of the Town
Cameron Morfit
July 12, 1999
Before the Open, a handful of residents had given Carnoustie a measure of fame
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July 12, 1999

The Talk Of The Town

Before the Open, a handful of residents had given Carnoustie a measure of fame

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Carnoustie is not a large town, and the roads are narrow. I've been in Scotland for only 24 hours, and already the driving—left side! left side!—has made me miss Manhattan. So I walk to Mackays, which makes preserves and chocolates and is the town's second-most-famous institution. It's just 10 minutes from my hotel room overlooking one of the 54 holes that make up the famed Carnoustie Golf Links (everything in Carnoustie is a short walk from everything else), and thanks to Mackays 75-foot chimney, the tallest structure in town, I can't get lost. Paul Grant greets me in a white lab coat and a white hat covering his mostly white hair. "Welcome!" he says, extending his hand. "Would you like to see the fourth course of Carnoustie?"

About 11,500 people live in Carnoustie, which next week will host the British Open for the first time since 1975, when Tom Watson played such inspired golf that at least one local named his first-born son after him (more on that later). Golf isn't the only thing in this town on the northeast shore of the Firth of Tay, but it's close, so during the 128th Open Championship, when all eyes are on Tiger and Colin and Sergio, no one will pay any attention to the handful of residents who have already given Carnoustie a small measure of fame. That's my job.

The Candy Man: As managing director of Mackays, which among other confections sells chocolate tennis balls (10,000 of them last year at Wimbledon) and golf balls filled with orange, strawberry and hazelnut truffle, Grant is the Willy Wonka of Carnoustie. He's also the last marmalade maker in the area of Dundee, which is 10 miles from Carnoustie and is the birthplace of marmalade. But Grant's real claim to fame is that he's the proprietor of the so-called fourth course, a replica of the 14th green on the Championship Course, complete with its famed bunkers that, because of their shape, are known as the Spectacles. Five holes are cut into the imitation green. The fourth course—located in the backyard of Grant's cottage, which is next door to his factory—is tiny, like so much else in Carnoustie. "You're in the starter's box," he tells me, referring to a small wood structure the size of a phone booth.

In 1995 Grant bought Mackays from United Biscuits, the London company for which he had worked for 26 years. A native of London, he then moved north with his wife and their three children, all four of whom had been born in Scotland. Grant was intent on making the Mackays smoke stack more visible to the outside world, and he knew he needed a hook. When he learned that Iain Gunn, the son of one of his new employees, had been a greenkeeper at Carnoustie for 16 years and was now a self-employed gardener, Grant wondered if he couldn't transform the weed garden next to the factory into something that might help people to remember his new business. (It's not hard to remember now. On June 23 Mackays won its fifth Food from Scotland excellence award for exports.) "I don't really know what happened," Grant says, "but we said, 'C'mon, Iain, let's recreate the Spectacles.' "

It took Gunn four months in '95 to build the fourth course. After clearing the area of debris, he found that the sandy soil underneath was perfect, very much like the stuff he had worked with at the real thing. "Peter O'Malley matched the course record, eight, two years ago," Grant says. "He came over during the Scottish Open." You putt to the five holes on the fourth course as if you were on a practice green. Only highly accomplished players, whom Grant trusts, are allowed to hit from the Spectacles, lest some bungler skull one over the back fence and through someone's window. The record is shared by Earle Smith, the secretary of the Carnoustie Golf Links Management Committee, which runs the three courses. When I borrow a putter and try to go low on the layout, I buckle under the pressure, my score hits double digits by the 4th hole, and I stop counting.

Grant has special plans for the Open. He will have all his friends over to his course for breakfasts and barbecues and set up a 19th hole. "I would love to have Gary Player here," he says, "because he won the '68 Open with an eagle on the Spectacles. It would be great to have him do something here." Player will be busy at this Open, because his presence is also requested at the first course of Carnoustie, where he will officially open the new, 85-room Carnoustie Golf Course Hotel.

The Epicurean: Dundee developer Michael Johnston, a tall, meaty former plumber with salt-and-pepper hair, is the chairman of the new hotel and a figure of some controversy. When he bought the Carnoustie Golf Links name and logo last year, some of the more Braveheart residents in town claimed that he had bought their heritage. Their claim: As citizens of Carnoustie they collectively owned the golf course.

Johnston, who drives a limited edition yellow Bentley with MIKE J vanity plates-he also has a standard-issue black Bentley and a Ferrari—has been accused of everything from poor manners (he had to raze Carnoustie's 130-year-old Dalhousie Clubhouse to make room for the hotel) to lousy fish (his Buster's fish-and-chips restaurant chain went belly-up in 1998). Yet Carnoustie would not be back in the Open rota had a hotel not been built, and besides, the old clubhouse had dry rot.

Johnston meets me for breakfast, and all he really wants to talk about is what his kids are up to. He and his architect, former Scottish rugby star David Leslie, were under the gun to get their masterpiece built in time and made it with only two months to spare. Perhaps to commemorate their feat, they had the world's largest Rolex clock, 2.8 meters in diameter, mounted on the outside of the south wall. There's no need to wonder what to aim for off the 18th tee. Just hit it at the O in Rolex, with a slight fade.

In a region that reeks of charm, Johnston and Leslie's edifice lacks it. It may remind American guests of a Renaissance—the hotel, not the age. From the pay phone's one-button access to an AT&T operator to the guaranteed tee times on the Championship Course, Johnston and his guests have an implicit understanding: If you drop enough coin (£129, or about $204, nightly for the cheapest room), hassles don't happen. That's especially true if you stay in one of the 10 suites, which go for up to £650. Five of them have been dubbed Armour, Cotton, Hogan, Player and Watson in honor of the past winners of Carnoustie Opens. One of the other five suites will bear the name of the '99 winner. (A victory by Fred Couples or Davis Love III would make the rooms a natural as the honeymoon suite.)

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