CARNOUSTIE, SCOTLAND | The question inside the question at the Open Championship as it begins Thursday at Carnoustie is this:
Are longer hitters such as Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka better off hitting drivers around the bunker-speckled layout or adopting a more conservative approach with irons off many tees given the extraordinary amount of roll on Carnoustie’s baked-brown fairways?
It depends, as you might imagine, on whom you ask.
“There’s not a lot of opportunities to hit the driver just because the ball is going to be rolling 80 yards,” Tiger Woods said. “It’s just hard to keep the ball in play. Even hitting 4- and 5-irons, they’ve been running 50, 60 yards.”
That’s one approach.
Then there’s the DJ strategy.
“If I can hit driver and take the bunkers out of play, absolutely going to do that,” Johnson said. “The bunkers, if you hit it in, it’s a penalty shot.
“So navigating the bunkers is definitely the biggest key this week because the rough is not very penal.”
Typically, Carnoustie’s edges would be covered in a tangle of deep fescue, adding another layer of concern for players. With only a few randomly scattered exceptions, the rough is not a serious concern this year.
Because of an unusually warm and dry summer, the rough is thin and wispy, more of a nuisance than a problem. It’s also not an exaggeration to say the fairways are running faster than the green speeds.
“It’s so burned out, there’s a lot of opportunity where the rough’s not quite as thick as I expected it to be,” Koepka said. “Sometimes we can just take all the bunkers out by hitting driver. Especially with no rough, if you can get it within 40 yards of the green, why not?”
The intangible in the strategizing is the wind, an essential part of every links equation. It’s expected to blow during the championship but not with particular gusto, at least until Sunday when it may turn gusty. Depending on how strong the wind is at a particular moment and where pins are positioned, it could make the difference in a player hitting a driver or choosing a 5-iron off the tee.
“There’s 5,000 different ways for me to play these holes out here, but for me it’s pretty clear cut how to play these holes,” Patrick Reed said. “There’s maybe three or four holes that are one way or the other and that’s all going to depend on how I’m hitting certain clubs that day, how aggressive I want to be.”
Sometimes the longest tee shots don’t leave the best options for approach shots.
“It’s not a very difficult shot to hit the green but I would like my chances with a 7- or 8-iron from the fairway better than a gap wedge from the rough, you know what I mean?” Thomas said. “I’m probably not going to make any bogeys from a gap wedge in the rough but I’m probably going to make a lot more birdies with a 7- or 8-iron from the fairway. It really does present a lot of challenges out there.”