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Until last Saturday afternoon only a sour-faced Scot could find much to love in the 7,252 yards of torture and flagellation known as the Carnoustie Golf Club. Carnoustie, at the edge of the North Sea that pounds the east coast of Scotland, is no place for fun-lovers. Its 126-year-old links is a long, narrow, ugly, flat, knobby, wind-worn, crusty stretch of wasteland that can probably be ranked as the hardest championship course in the world. But to the sour-faced Scot you now can add Gary Player as a lover of Carnoustie, for by hanging on to the ropes when the strongest field ever to play in the 108-year-old tournament was going down for the count, Player won the British Open.
In the midst of a bogey-filled and improbable wild final afternoon, Player proved to be the only golfer capable of hitting back at a golf course that had bullied and mauled the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Bill Casper, Bob Charles, Roberto de Vicenzo, Gay Brewer, Peter Thomson, Doug Sanders and Bert Yancey.
For Player the victory ended three years of frustration in which he had won neither a major championship nor even a title on the U.S. tour. His total of 289 was the highest score to win a British Open in 21 years, but next to Nicklaus and Charles—who tied for second at 291—Casper (292), Brewer (295), Palmer (297), De Vicenzo (297), Thomson (301), Sanders (304) and Yancey (311), it looked pretty good.
There are a number of reasons why Carnoustie is so difficult, the primary one being there is no safe place to hit a golf ball. The course is located on a flat plain of sandy soil between the settlement of small, square, stucco cottages that is the town of Carnoustie and the wide North Sea beaches. But flat plains do not smooth fairways make, at least not here. The fairways at Carnoustie are contoured like rolling waves of green surf and are as hard and dry as marble. The rough is deep, the bunkers profuse and the greens almost as firm as the fairways. Knotting up this whole hazardous package is a serpentine ribbon, a twisting, water-filled ditch known as the Barry Burn, which wanders across the 17th fairway three times and crosses the 18th three times, too. When the wind blows at Carnoustie, which it usually does, the only safe place to be is in the clubhouse.
"This is not the best course the British Open is played on," said Bob Charles early in the week, "but it is certainly the toughest. The thing you need the most of is composure. You are going to encounter a great many bad lies and bad bounces, but you can't let them upset you. You've got to keep working hard all the way around so that things don't just slip away."
On the first day of play Charles's assessment proved most accurate. A breeze of 20 to 25 miles an hour, modest by Scottish seaside standards, swept the course, and up, up, up went the scores. Palmer, hitting the ball fiercely but hampered by a late starting time that tossed him into the teeth of the gale, shot 77. "I have just hit three supershots in a row," he grumbled to his playing partner, Britain's Tommy Horton, as he stalked down the 11th fairway after going bogey, double-bogey on the two previous holes, "and I can't even make a par."
Nicklaus had a 76, one that was untidily constructed around a total of 37 putts ("I thought I'd never finish the round"), and De Vicenzo, the defending champion, flogged his way to a 77 ("I think I get a stiff neck from too much putting practice"), as did Peter Thomson. American stars Sanders and Yancey pitched in with a pair of 78s, and British Ryder Cup player George Will, who was raised at St. Andrews, just across the Firth of Tay from Carnoustie, contributed a startling score—out in 33, back in 47. Amid all this commotion, Player's 74 ranked as the epitome of consistency, except to Player. "I was lucky," he said. "I played absolute rubbish."
Only four players managed to break par 72 on the first day, and though the weather was more benign on the second, it too was another losing struggle by the golfers. Losing, that is, until Casper teed off at 1:52 in the afternoon. I he leading money winner in the U.S. this year, with $130,000, Casper had cased himself out of the $200,000 Milwaukee Open and into the $48,000 British Open because "I think every golfer who takes his career seriously must at least try to win this tournament."
For a first try it turned out to be a memorable one. Playing with his customary efficiency, Casper made a strong bid to run off with the title on the second day. He started with a birdie, and by the time he got to the 9th hole he had blasted out of a greenside trap and into the cup (remember the same shot when he won the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic?), holed two more birdie putts and was four under par. Then Casper stopped making birdies and began scrambling to pars that were just as spectacular. (Now remember his 30 one-putt greens when he won the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot.) He missed four of the first six greens on the back nine, but made pars on all but one of the holes. "You don't think this game is meant to be easy, do you?" he joked as he moved from one potential disaster to the next.