Golf’s Open fills sporting void at course known as ‘Car-nasty’

(CNN) – The World Cup has been lifted and the Wimbledon prizes handed out. But for bereft sports fans, golf’s British Open is stepping in smartly to fill the void.

From perfect pitches in Russia, to the manicured lawns of the All England Club and the highways of the Tour de France, so the focus of the sporting summer shifts to the windswept links land of Carnoustie in eastern Scotland.

The Open, the oldest of the four majors founded in 1860, is golf’s chance to shine in a crowded market, and the annual battle for the Claret Jug across some of the world’s most venerable links courses has a unique and rich history.

The return of Tiger Woods for the first time since 2015 after multiple back surgeries gives this year’s 147th edition extra allure.

In its own way, golf can produce drama just as gripping as a penalty shootout, tense tiebreak or six-man breakaway.

Take last year. Jordan Spieth’s remarkable victory, via a gripping saga on the 13th — including a drop on the nearby practice range — and an almost supernatural finish to beat Matt Kuchar, was matchless drama and added another layer to the Open’s gilded tapestry.

“One of the biggest things of Open week is the history and tradition of being on golf courses that have been played on for such a long time,” Rickie Fowler told TheOpen.com.

Links golf is an acquired taste for some, the original form of the game played across dune land bordering the sea in Scotland since the 15th century. The firm fairways, with their humps and hollows, pot bunkers, thick rough, gorse and, above all, a preeminent wind offer a distinct challenge to the manicured parkland courses of elsewhere.

Instead of flying the ball set distances through the air and spinning it to a stop on the greens, skilled links players use the ground to their advantage, knocking the ball low to hide it under the wind and running it towards the hole.

Tom Watson, a five-time Open champion, wasn’t keen the first time he came over from America. “I didn’t like the way you had to play short,” he told the BBC.

Phil Mickelson, so successful in the US, took 19 attempts before he was able to change his aerial game enough to win the Open in 2013.

“It took me a while to learn how to get the ball on the ground without spin,” the left-hander told CNN’s Living Golf.

Masters champion Patrick Reed is another American who has fallen in love with this form of the game.

“It takes a lot of creativity to play links golf,” he told reporters at the Scottish Open at Gullane, east of Edinburgh.

“You can do so many different things with just one club, whether you hit it low to get it to roll, hit it high, kind of work it into slopes.”

The appeal of golf as it was invented, allied to Scottish heritage, hospitality and scenery, is why golf tourism is worth $375 million (£286M) annually to the nation’s economy, with 47 percent of visitors coming from overseas, according to a recent survey by VisitScotland.

The Open itself is said to generate up to $133M for its host region, according to organizer the R&A.

But for pros with a living and a legacy on the line, this week is all about work.

Not for nothing is Carnoustie often dubbed “Car-nasty.”

It’s revered as the toughest course of the 10 venues which currently take it in turns to host the Open, a reputation bolstered by sometimes brutal weather, its length — more than 7,400 yards — deep rough and narrow fairways.

When the Open was played there in 1999, strong winds claimed plenty of notable scalps. A 19-year-old Spaniard named Sergio Garcia, who had recently turned pro and just won the Irish Open, shot a first-round 89 and cried on his mom’s shoulder.

That year will be forever remembered for the 18th-hole collapse of long-time leader Jean van de Velde.

The last time the Open was played at Carnoustie in 2007, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington broke Garcia’s heart with victory in a playoff, after which the Irishman’s young son put ladybirds in the Claret Jug.

That week also witnessed the first major appearance for an 18-year-old mop-haired amateur from Northern Ireland named Rory McIlroy, now a one-time world No.1 and a four-time major champion.

Despite his early protestations, Watson won the first of his five Opens at Carnoustie in 1975, while greats such as Ben Hogan and Gary Player have also triumphed on the Angus track east of Dundee.

Of all golf’s majors, the Open has a habit of rewarding guile and experience. Seven of the last 10 Open champions have been 35 or older.

That will be music to the ears of the 42-year-old Woods, a three-time champion who is desperate to validate his recent resurgence and win a first major since 2008.

Also of note is that Americans have won the last five major championships, although the last five Open winners — three from the US, McIlroy and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson — have lifted the Claret Jug for the first time.

The lore of the jug, and of drinking favorite beverages from its silver interior, is part of the Open’s tradition and charm.

But this year’s increased purse, with a first prize of $1.89 million (£1.42m), is an equally attractive proposition.

The World Cup and Wimbledon may be over, but the summer fun continues at the place they call “Car-nasty.”

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