The Origins of Golf in Carnoustie

The game of golf has been played in Carnoustie for well over four centuries. The first indication that the game was being played in the Angus town can be found in the Parish Records of 1560 when the game of gowff was mentioned and there is every indication that the game has played an important part in the town’s life ever since.

Carnoustie’s first golfer might well have been a gentleman named Sir Robert Maule (1497-1560), a local landowner who was described as “a gentleman of comlie behaviour, of hie stature, sanguine in colour both of hyd and haire,” and who was “given to leicherie” and other sports such as “hawking, hunting and the gawf.”

Unfortunately, nobody knows how proficient Maule was at “gawf” or, for that matter, “leicherie”. As with so many of the older Scottish golf towns, the history of Carnoustie is not well recorded. We do not know the exact site where Maule and his colleagues “exercisit the gowf” in the 15th century but we do know that by 1839 the Carnoustie Golf Club had been formed, making it the oldest artisan club in the world.

Around that time, the Carnoustie course consisted of 10 holes, laid out by Allan Robertson, the greatest golfer of his time and the man generally acknowledged to be the first golf professional. Later, in 1867, Tom Morris Snr extended the course to 18 holes but it was not until 1926, when the great James Braid was brought in to oversee sweeping changes, that the course became ready to receive the Open Championship.

Since then, The Carnoustie Championship Course has become widely regarded as one of the world’s finest golf courses, as well as being tagged ‘golf’s greatest test’. Occasionally, throughout the history of Carnoustie, The Championship Courses’ condition has been allowed to deteriorate. However, under the watchful eye of now retired Links Superintendent, John Philp and all of his predecessors, it has been consistently maintained to a world class standard. Thanks to the hard work of the mentioned, The Carnoustie Championship Course is not only ‘golf’s greatest test’, it is also one of the best conditioned golf courses in the world.

Today, Carnoustie welcomes visitors from across the globe on an annual basis, who seek to test their game on ‘golf’s greatest test’.

How Carnoustie Got Its Name

The name Carnoustie probably derives from two Scandinavian nouns, “car” meaning rock and “noust” meaning “bay”. However, there is more fanciful explanation that some local inhabitants prefer.

Those individuals will tell you that the town got its name from the Battle of Barry in 1010 in which the Scottish King, Malcolm II, repulsed a band of Danish invaders led by their general, Camus.

History suggests that the Battle of Barry was a bloody affair that raged for hours until Camus was put to the sword. To this day, a cross in the ground of the Panmure Estate marks the spot where he was buried.

Legend has it that the Norse Gods were so incensed by the loss of their favourite warrior that they put a curse on the neighbourhood, letting thousands of crows loose on Barry Sands. Soon, the crows colonised the woodland on what is now Buddon Ness, their numbers growing to such an extent that the area became known as Craw’s Nestie, later corrupted to become Carnoustie.

The village was elevated to burgh status in 1899 and at that time local officials adopted a crest featuring three crows flying over a leafy tree.

The tree on the crest of Carnoustie is now considered to be The Dibble Tree, found in the centre of the town. The Dibble Tree is over 200 years old and the town is said to have been built around it. This crest has been adapted over the years and remains the official Carnoustie Golf Links logo.

Later, in 1927, an annual amateur tournament was launched. Originally, it was rather unimaginatively titled the Carnoustie Corporation Trophy but, after a while, that name was dropped in favour of the more colourful Craw’s Nest Tassie (a tassie is an old Scots word for a drinking cup)

Carnoustie’s Golfing Ambassadors

St Andrews can rightfully lay claim to being the Home of Golf in Scotland but it was Carnoustie, across the water in Angus, which provided many of the game’s earliest ambassadors.

At the start of the 20th century around 300 of Carnoustie’s sons emigrated, many of them westwards to America, spreading the golfing gospel as they went.

Nowadays, of course, most of these golfing missionaries have long since been forgotten but some did prosper and become leading figures in the history of the game.

At one time or another, Carnoustie natives have won the Open Championships of Britain, America, Canada, South Africa and Australia and several others have also been active in other important roles.

One such was Stewart Maiden who, today, is renowned as the teacher of the great Bobby Jones, the amateur who achieved a unique Grand Slam by winning both the Amateur and Open Championships in Britain and America during 1930.

The story goes that Stewart and his brother, James, emigrated to America together. James became professional at East Lake, in Atlanta, and Stewart succeeded him there in 1908. It was while working at the East Lake club that Stewart, often called “Kiltie” by his friends, came in contact with Jones. Although the young Jones did not copy Maiden’s swing, he developed one that strongly resembled it and, in later life, often called on the Carnoustie man to help him iron out the faults that developed from time to time.

Maiden became a hugely successful teacher but, when it comes to players, there is little doubt that the Smith brothers, Willie, Alex and Macdonald, were Carnoustie’s most successful exports.

Willie and Alex won three US Opens between them. In 1899, the former became the first to win America’s national title, when he emerged victorious at Baltimore GC. His total of 315 (77, 82, 79, 77) gave Willie an 11-shot winning margin, a margin not surpassed until Tiger Woods won by 15 shots at Pebble Beach in 2000.

Seven years later, in 1906, Willie finished second at the US Open at Onwentsia but, on that occasion, his disappointment was tempered by the fact that it was his brother, Alex, who beat him. That year, Alex recorded rounds of 73, 74, 73 and 75 to win by seven shots and become the first man to post an aggregate of under 300. In 1910, he was to win again at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, this time after an 18-hole play-off against Johnny McDermott and his brother, Macdonald.

Sadly for Macdonald, that was not the only time he was narrowly to miss out on a major title. The records show that he never won a major but he did finish second in two US Opens (1910 and 1930) and two Opens (1930 and 1932) as well.

Macdonald’s record for near misses was quite remarkable. Between 1910 and 1936, when he was fourth in the US Open at Baltusrol, he finished within three shots of the winner in five US Opens (1910, 1913, 1930, 1934 and 1936) and six Opens (1923, 1924, 1925, 1930, 1931 and 1932). For that reason, he has inherited the reputation of being arguably the best golfer who never won either of those two national championships, a reputation that was enhanced after his most crushing loss in 1925, when he needed a final round 78 to win The Open at Prestwick but succumbed to an 82.