Strategy off the tee: The challenge facing players at Carnoustie

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The challenge facing players this week: Some of the World's best talk about the importance of strategy off the tee around Carnoustie 

A lot of the talk around Carnoustie at the beginning of the week has revolved around the course conditions, and why it’s been so difficult for some to come up with a set course strategy ahead of the first round on Thursday. 

Thanks to a hot summer the fairways are firm, fast and baked, leading many to draw comparisons with Hoylake in 2006 and Tiger Woods to remark after a practice round that “the fairways were faster than the greens.”

The rough may not be as penal as expected and some rain has come in, which means the way the course has played may not be quite as tough as the initial practice rounds  - yet the ball is still rolling a lot further and with plenty of trouble to contend with, strategy off the tee is proving to be an issue.

A lot of players may opt to deliberately come up short of the penal pot bunkers, while others have said that with the length the ball is rolling they are just as well to take them on.

Two-time Open Champion Padraig Harrington remarked that many are ‘going to have to take some chances’, as although there are plenty of ways to play the course, there’s no way to guarantee you can always avoid the trouble. 

“If you keep playing short of the bunkers, the second shots are actually very long,” Harrington said. “You know, like if you lay up on, say, 5. Yesterday I hit 7 iron off the tee to stay short of the bunker at 245 on the left, but like I had -- if there was a back pin in there, I would have had 210 yards, which is an exceptionally long shot into that pin position off the back.

“So at that stage you're thinking to yourself, well, I've got to take a chance and maybe hit 5 iron down between the bunkers and get it down to 170-yard shot or something. So the beauty of the golf course is there's a lot of different ways of playing it, but eventually you're going to have to grow up and hit the shots. You can't always avoid -- you're going to have to take some chances.”

Carnoustie course record holder Tommy Fleetwood echoed those thoughts, pointing out that certain shots have to be taken on as the conditions mean there is no club which can take the bunkers or rough out of play.

“There's certain holes where your game plan might be to hit driver off the tee just simply because you're not going to be to hit a club that is going to take trouble out of play.

“6 is a particularly difficult shot that you have to take on. I mean, there's no real bailout. If you push it right, you could end up in the fairway bunkers or in the rough. All kinds of troubles can happen and there. And left is left.”

So just how far is it rolling? Tiger Woods said he hit his 3 iron 333yards on Monday, while even his five iron was running 50, 60 yards after it landed. 

As a result, the three-time champion doesn’t reckon he’ll be hitting a lot of drivers off the tee, while US Open Champion Brooks Koepka said he’ll probably be hitting eight or nine, and Tommy Fleetwood isn’t sure yet.

Those that played in the Scottish Open last week might have a slight advantage given they had similar conditions at Gullane, with players like Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler both finishing well there. 

"It was as dry at Gullane as it is here," said Justin Rose. "So it was great preparation last week in terms of this style of golf."

Below, read the thoughts of Padraig Harrington, Tommy Fleetwood, Tiger Woods, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas on the course conditions, and how close they are to coming up with a strategy this week.

Padraig Harrington

You'd have to go back to Hoylake in 2007 to see something as fiery. Probably not quite as fiery as Hoylake.

It does lean itself to experience. It certainly plays into the hands of guys who can tread the ball around… the great thing about this golf course, or the interesting thing, is you can't take all the trouble out. You know, there's no perfect strategy that eliminates risk. You're going to have to take some risk. You're going to have to go by, skirt by some bunkers. It's very difficult to stay short.

There's a lot of undulations in the fairways here, so if you are trying to lay up, you can get it back of a slope and kick forward an extra 20, 30 yards more than you think. You can kick left and right. So it's not as easy to eliminate all the risk by laying off. It just doesn't seem the strategy in all places. Sometimes the strategy will be to hit driver and cover some of the trouble -- not all of it, but cover some of it and take a chance.

The rough isn't penalizing. It's a little bit different. Normally, when you get burnt-out rough, you get an automatic flier. I've been seeing the opposite so far. I've been seeing spinny shots coming out of the rough. So I'm interested to hear how that plays out during the week. Does it make it easier to go in the rough, or does it make it unpredictable to go in the rough?

So as I said, I'm not sure there's a strategy that you can set out right now that you could stick to on every hole without waiting to see how the weather changes, the wind changes, how the scoring happens. Like clearly the first hole is into the wind, at the moment it's like a 3 iron to lay up to the bunker at 265, but if it turns anywhere downwind, it's drivable. And virtually, if it's downwind, it would be quite difficult to keep it short of the bunker.

I think the most important thing is every player is going to have to be fluid when it comes to their strategy, that they're not going to be able to set out a strategy that they could stick to at all times. They're going to have to be able to adapt, watch their playing partner, see what they do, and learn as they go along.

Tommy Fleetwood

I've never played it this firm or fast. Shots that you've hit have literally no relevance for a lot of it. It was definitely apparent that the difficulties this week are probably going to be putting it in play and hitting it in the fairways and go from there.

The greens are still pretty receptive. You can tuck some pins away, but overall the greens are pretty flat. It's not -- it doesn't do any harm to have played it for a few years. It doesn't do any harm to have a course record, but it's a completely different challenge to what we normally face.

The difficulty is definitely -- it kind of doesn't matter what club you hit, there's so many holes where you're going to be taking fairway bunkers on. You can't just -- the 260 is just a completely irrelevant number because any amount of clubs can go that far just with it playing that firm.



There's certain holes that -- there's holes that have been nothing tee shots, like the 3rd. If you play that in the middle of September or October when we play it and it's green and soft, you could just hit a mid-iron down the fairway and knock it on with a wedge. But yesterday it was playing so firm, the fairways really undulate and you have bunkers on either side, it's actually all of a sudden a tough tee shot. And you feel like on such a short hole you should have a chance at birdie, when actually you can hit a 6 iron or 7 iron and it ends up in a fairway bunker.

It just reminds you of like an Open, to me, a long time ago, where you had really hot summers and the courses were playing really firm and fast. No doubt about it, it's playing quick. And I don't think a bit of rain last night is going to make too much difference. It's kind of strange where there's not really a number that you know you're going to be short of.

I think just having played it once, it's really difficult to gauge. As the weeks go on, you'll probably get more of an idea. But it's kind of that funny feeling where you're not quite sure how it's best to play here.

Tiger Woods

The course is a little bit different than what it was last couple times we've played it. There's not a lot of opportunities to hit the driver just because the ball is going to be rolling 80 yards. It's just hard to keep the ball in play. Even hitting sometimes 4 and 5 irons, they've been running 50, 60 yards.

It's going to be an interesting test to see which clubs we're going to be using off the tees, and a lot of it is dependent on which way the wind blows. So the whole idea of these practise rounds is just to get a good feel for what I'm going to do, and then adjust accordingly based on wind.

 



I'm not going to hit that many long clubs off the tees… I hit a 3 iron on Monday, down 18, I went 333. It can get quick out here. Obviously, we had a little bit of rain since then, but if it just dries out a little bit and gets to where it was on Monday, then you're going to see a lot of guys hit the ball a long way with not a lot of club.

Joey and I have worked great throughout the years. You know, he walked it on Saturday, and it was quick. It was drier than it is now. And he basically formulated his game plan on his own, and then I'd come and play, and I played yesterday. I played on Monday. Played a little bit on Sunday, but we had a pretty -- I had a pretty solid game plan to where I would play it too, how I think each hole should be played.

And then as we're playing the hole, we start talking about the spots where we want to hit the golf ball, and I would have to say every hole but one, that we're on the same page, the idea of how to play each hole. So now it's about getting feel for the rounds of golf. Now we've got rain coming in right now, that's definitely going to change a few things, and we might have to alter some of the clubs, but I think the areas that we're playing to should be about the same.

For me, it's just trying to get a feel for the speed of this golf course. It was a little bit -- the way Joey described it on Saturday, he was very surprised it was this fast. And then when I played on Sunday, played eight holes, I was very, very surprised at how fast the fairways were, but yesterday they were much slower because it rained.

I feel very confident with the way I'm rolling the golf ball, but the greens were a little bit slower yesterday, and I'm sure they'll be a little bit slower today with a little bit of moisture on it. Again, I'm going to spend a little bit of time trying to get a pace for it.

Justin Rose

There are going to be opportunities to hit driver. Maybe an exception is that fairway from 200 is as difficult as rough from 90 yards. So that's going to be -- it could be very much pin placement-dependent day to day, where it creates the best angle.

Even if you play this golf course aggressively, you're going to have ups and downs during the week. You're going to have bad lies. You're going to have shots that do end up in bunkers. You're going to have breaks and bounces that go against you. So I think accepting that is probably the biggest, wide sweeping statement that the player who wins is going to have to be patient with all of that for sure.

I think that's the beauty of this golf course is that length isn't a necessity, which brings the whole field into it from that point of view. But there are players like Dustin and Brooks, who are going to take it on, and should they have a great week off the tee, they can make -- they can do a lot of damage.

So, yeah, obviously, playing the Scottish Open last week I think was very valuable as well because I had a scorecard in my hand for four days playing the kind of golf we're going to face this week. It was as dry at Gullane as it is here. So it was great preparation last week in terms of this style of golf.

I haven't formulated my game plan yet. Definitely for me it's going to be knowing when to attack, and I think it's going to be about good strategy, knowing which pins are your birdie opportunities, which pins to respect.

Brooks Koepka

I think there's eight or nine, eight or nine drivers we hit. Depending on the wind direction, we could hit more. It's so burnt out, where there's a lot of opportunity where the rough's not quite as thick as I expected it to be. Coming here I knew it was obviously a very warm summer, not much rain, but I still thought you play the golf course with a lot of irons off the tee, lay back to the bunkers.

But sometimes we can just take all the bunkers out by hitting driver. Especially no rough, if you can get it within 40 yards of the green, why not? Guys on Sunday were driving it into the Burn on 18. There's no reason not to take advantage of that, especially with the rough being not so thick.

There's some spots where it is thick. It seems to be -- the one place you can't miss it on every hole. It seems to be a little thicker on one side, but you just take that side out of play.

As far as adjustments, you just got to make sure -- you're going to get some crazy bounces, and they might bounce into some bunkers, and they might roll an extra 30 yards. Sometimes you've got to kind of expect that. We talked about sometimes, if you hit into the slope, you could be 30 yards back here, not get the roll that you expected, or you could hit the downslope of it and you're an extra 30, 40 yards longer than where you should. Why did I end up here? It could be a case of that very easily.

It will be very interesting. I think you're going to see quite a few bad breaks where guys, almost the caddie could say, there's no way you could reach this bunker. We were hitting 4 iron, I think, over 320 yards on some holes.

I think the interesting one is going to be 15. It's very hard to hold that fairway, being left to right. I think the predominant wind is basically down out of the left there a little bit, and you almost have to hook. I mean, we were hooking 5 irons, landing them in the left side of the fairway, and they're still rolling through almost into the gorse. I mean, you're trying to take the bunkers off, but yet if you get a good bounce, it could be up in the gorse. So it's very interesting.

Justin Thomas

It presents a lot of different strategies, you know, how you want to play it, if you want to be aggressive, if you want to be conservative, if you want to attack some holes, wait on certain winds, whatever it might be. It definitely causes you to think. With it being as firm as it is, it definitely adds a whole other variable to it.

I hit a 5 iron on 18 about 305 today, and I've hit 5 irons 230 or so. So it just -- if you get it downwind and you hit kind of that flat, little flat draw and it gets running, it will go pretty much until it runs into something.

If the rough was very, very thick, I think you would see everybody playing the exact same way and very similar, but because the rough is as thin as it is, I think guys are going to be playing very differently.

.. to me, a lot of those holes have a bunker in play with a driver, and that's causing me to not want to hit driver because I just -- the bunkers here are truly a water hazard. You can never hit them on the green from them.

So to me, the bunkers are causing me to not hit drivers as opposed to the rough. I look at a hole like No. 4. If there wasn't that bunker up there at about 330 or something like that -- granted, it is a narrow fairway, but if that bunker wasn't there, you could hit it anywhere up there as long as it isn't in that Burn way left, and you could run it up on the green. But I've hit 5 iron, 7 -- or 4 iron, 7 iron the last couple days. So to me, I like my chances from the fairway, but it definitely presents a whole other challenge.

I think where you really can get in trouble is just pressing out here. I think -- you know, I could see, for instance, like myself, I'm probably going to hit a lot of irons out here. If I get two, three over par early, front nine, whatever it may be, potentially trying to change my game plan and start hitting drivers, and then you start hitting them into bunkers, gorse bushes, whatever it may be. And you start making more bogeys and double bogeys, and next thing you know, you turn a 1 or 2-over into 5 or 6-over.

That's what is going to be the -- at least to me, it's really what could get some guys in trouble and myself included. So I think there's a couple holes that are still up in the air for myself, but for the most part, I'm playing the hole exactly how I know I'm going to play it, no matter the wind.