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When hackers attack: Amateur golfers vs. the world's hardest course

By Will Tidey for CNN
  • Carnoustie's Championship Course was named the most difficult in the world by Time magazine
  • The Scottish links has hosted the British Open seven times, most recently in 2007
  • The course is open to the paying public, with a one-off green fee priced at $220
  • Officially players need a handicap certificate to play, but the rule is often relaxed

(CNN) -- Clinging to Scotland's rugged east coast is a golf course so tough it once reduced Sergio Garcia to tears. Just imagine what it could do to a hopeless weekend hacker.

Aspiring basketball players may struggle to ever play at Madison Square Gardens, but one of the world's most historic golf courses is open to all comers. Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have walked its fairways. And so have I.

That's the beauty of golf; you don't have to imagine. If you've got $220 spare you can take your clubs to Carnoustie and discover firsthand why the locals call it "Carnasty."

"We get golfers of all abilities, from pros to relative beginners," said Rod Soutar, who's been a caddy at Carnoustie for 30 years. "You just hope they can relax and enjoy it."

I've had golfers throwing clubs in frustration - and even heard of people walking off the course
--Rod Soutar, Carnoustie caddy
  • Golf
  • Carnoustie
  • Scotland
  • Travel and Tourism

This relative beginner was far from relaxed as I stood before the packed clubhouse terrace, preparing for the most terrifying tee shot of my life.

"Watch out for the thick rough on the right, the out of bounds to the left and the bunkers up ahead," said my caddy with no hint of irony. She didn't mention that there were also a hundred or so people standing by ready to burst into laughter if the predicted shank ensued.

"It's all about having realistic expectations," said Souter, who caddied for Tiger Woods at the 1996 Scottish Open.

"The problem a lot of golfers have is they want to go home and tell their friends 'I shot a 69 at Carnoustie,' but it's not going to happen.

"I've had golfers throwing clubs in frustration -- and even heard of people walking off the course in the middle of a round. They want to play to their handicap, but they don't realize how much more difficult that is here."

Carnoustie has hosted seven British Opens and is regularly ranked the most difficult golf course on the planet. In 1999 conditions were so tough a 19-year-old Garcia had to be comforted by his mother after shooting an 89.

But that doesn't put off the thousands of golfing tourists who make the pilgrimage every year.

"Amateur golfers want to play famous courses like Carnoustie and St. Andrews whatever the weather," said Scott Hart, who owns tour operator Golf Scotland.

"They know to expect a tough time on the links courses, but they're prepared for it. And they must be enjoying it, because they keep coming back. We've never had an unsatisfied customer."

I once had a guy turn up on a corporate day who'd never hit a ball in his life. He was wearing Caterpillar work boots
--Rod Soutar, Carnoustie caddy

My round started with a double-bogey six, which my caddy tactfully told me was still one better than Garcia managed in 1999. But that was where the rain started and the comparison ended.

Zig-zagging the fairways and finding almost every pot bunker on the course, I got the full "Carnasty" experience. My poor caddy was put through quite an ordeal, but as it turns out it could have been worse.

"I once had a guy turn up on a corporate day who'd never hit a ball in his life," Soutar said. "He was wearing Caterpillar work boots and he really hacked it up the first. I think he scored 160-odd in the end, and that was without me calling any of the penalties on him.

"Caddies actually enjoy that kind of thing. We have a warped sense of humor and we like to see who can caddy the worst score. The all-time record is something like 180 I think."

My Carnoustie experience culminated in a sunset walk down the last, the scene of Jean van de Velde's infamous implosion at the 1999 British Open, where the likes of Hogan, Tom Watson, Gary Player and Padraig Harrington lifted the iconic Claret Jug.

Suddenly a torrid day on the golf course made perfect sense. When a weekend hacker gets the chance to walk in the footsteps of golfing legend it really doesn't matter what your card looks like (for the record this 20 handicapper hit 108).

If it does, you're in for a miserable time.

"Some golfers beat themselves up when they should be relaxing and enjoying it," Soutar said. "But at least they don't take it out on the caddies."