Third Degree Burns

The Scottish burn v’s The American ‘water hazard’

“It’s out there somewhere”

So said Robert Shaw’s salty old-sea-dog character, Quintz, from the film Jaws, as he surveyed the expanse of ocean in the knowledge that somewhere, lurking hidden beneath the waves, was the shark. It’s a sentiment many a golfer might relate to as they stand on a Scottish tee knowing that the fairway is patrolled by a ‘Burn’.

So what is a burn? Well put simply, it’s a Scottish word for a stream. Well at face value it’s no big deal then? but as any golfer will tell you, Scottish golf course burns are much more subtle.

A burn is narrow and comparatively camouflaged in the contours. It isn’t as visible as a glistening lake. You peer down a fairway looking for a subtle hint in the topography. A broken shadow, or undulation perhaps. You survey the terrain for clues as to just where it lurks. You know it’s out there, and waiting to strike, but where? It’s like flirting with a cobra. One snap, and it’s all over

We’d argue that the burn is even more cunning for being so narrow though. It introduces an added element of risk and reward. You can always play aggressively towards one. A lucky bounce on a firm fairway and you can still ‘fly it’. You can’t do that to a lake. A rolling ball however becomes vulnerable, and you have that final few seconds of agony to watch. Will you fall victim, or will you hang on for a narrow escape and stop just short?

The burn has long been a natural hazard that the early pioneers who took to the links land recognised the value of as they plotted their own courses out and started to compare notes as to what particular challenges they’d weaved into their personal tapestries. The early courses were individual creations, but without the assistance of mechanical diggers they observed a golden rule. They were built round the landscape, not the landscape round the course. This is how golf evolved and this is why the burn became an integral part of it. They might not have the mass of a lake but they present every bit the same barrier. Land in one and the result is the same.

Perhaps above all else though, a burn has character, a lake after all, is a lake, or even worse, a “water hazard”. The burn by contrast comes in different shapes and can take on numerous different personalities dependent on the path it charts to the ocean beyond.

The most famous of all is St Andrews’s, Swilcan Burn. In truth it’s more of a challenge on the first hole than it is the last, but the 18th does require that you cross the most famous bridge in golf. If the burn isn’t really in play on ‘Tom Morris’ it has at least given us memorable photographs. We aren’t so sure ourselves that the bridge at Cruden Bay isn’t the more aesthetically, and their burn keeps cropping up all over the course

The absence of a burn on a links course is like an orchestra without a woodwind section. So imagine their delight when excavating Kingsbarns to have unearthed an underground burn. Understandably they wasted no time incorporating their discovery into the design. It now sits behind the 6th green waiting to snare anyone who over-hits.

The more traditional use of a burn is of course at the front of a green. Since re-profiling the 16th, Turnberry’s ‘Wilson Burn’ is very much more in play than it had previously been, and fits the description of a forward sentinel. Having said that, this particular little monster sits in a mini ravine and anyone visiting it is already in serious trouble.

Perhaps the best example of this type of ‘green’ defence comes on Carnoustie’s second course; ‘the Burnside’, and the Highland course of Tain. A natural meander in the watery weave permits the fifth green to sit almost as a quasi island. The 17th at Sawgrass often gets acclaimed thus, but let’s be honest, it’s about as authentic as ‘moon cheese’.

All Scottish burns flow out to sea eventually. On a links course this invariably means they cut fairways at ninety degrees given the traditional out-and-back lay-out. These are probably the burns we fear most. It’s the positioning of the tee that sends us into convulsions of paranoia however. Some ensure that the burn plays on the long side. These are the lurkers that seduce you into length and trying to bite off those precious extra yards, knowing that everyone one you can buy from the tee, is one less you need to pay back on your second shot. How far, dare you push it though? Hitting too hard can have an unavoidable inevitability about it. You might think of them as operating a bit like the ‘trap-door spider’. Get in too close and that’s it. Bounce, bounce, bounce, splash. A burn only needs to be 6ft wide, but if it’s on a devious yardage it’s formidable.

Then there is the burn that is set on the shorter side. This one really does play havoc with the mental side of your game. You know your own yardage, and you know that if you hit a clean drive you can carry it by 20yds say. This is the key though. Only if you strike it clean, will you prevail. Anything under hit will bounce down the fairway and be gratefully accepted. Now what do you do?

Lundin’s burn is something of an archetypal fairway residing creature that looks pretty innocuous at first glance. Cunningly positioned on a diagonal, the length of this one varies depending on the angle you choose to adopt.

Not all burns operate on a horizontal plain to the fairway or green though. Scotland has some lateral opponents for you to grapple with too. These aren’t the sort that have you nervously scouring the terrain for clues to their location however. These are much less subtle. These are the burns that sit on your shoulder, omni-present in the corner of your eye, whispering “you had better keep it straight, keep it straight I tell you. If you don’t, then I’ll have ye”. Prestwick’s ‘Pow Burn’ at the notorious third is an example. Dundonald also has a lateral burn on their third that crosses the fairway. It starts on your right, and finishes on your left. Carnoustie’s famous sixth hole, Hogan’s Alley, is already made difficult enough by an out-of-bounds fence down the left. A lateral burn, ‘Jocky’s’, runs down the right just for sadistic symmetry.

The Trump International makes full use of the Blairton Burn. Not only does it perform the role of lateral menace on the fourth, there is a touch of genius about the way it’s deployed on the third. Here it bursts through the sand dunes, washes out onto the beach, and empties into the North Sea beyond. Martin Hawtree ensured that the green was built ‘on the swirl’ and you’re presented not only with a great target at this seminal par 3, but also the surreal site of watching grass turn to sand

The Blairton Burn weaves its way up the right-hand-side of the fourth fairway at the Trump Interntaional Links

We’ve reserved our nomination for the ‘mother of all burns’ to last however. The ‘Barry Burn’ at Carnoustie is a serpent that snakes its way through the fairway (ask Jean van de Velde). The twists and turns is what make it such an unpredictable and formidable nemesis. The aerial view shows the burn at its vicious best. It looks more like a first-world-war trench system. You can drive short of it and still end up in the drink as it reaches out to collect your shot. Similarly, you can hit a perfectly good drive that would clear most of it, and yet still be gathered up if encountering it at one of its longer reaches

So what are we saying? well perhaps with a hint of mischief, but having given it full consideration now, we’d like to suggest that the authentic Scottish burn is the superior water hazard to any man made lake. Is the job of a water hazard to look pretty, or to challenge your golf? If you believe its the latter, then surely you too would come down on the side of the burn?

Finally, we resolved to try and write this without using a picture of Jean van de Velde even if we had to reference him earlier. It was said that someone rather cruelly used a picture of the hapless Frenchman paddling about in the burn and mailed it to him a week later with nothing more than the words “that’s him” by way of explanation. Just for the record (contrary to popular myth) Van de Velde didn’t actually try playing out of the Barry Burn in 1999. He might very well have gone paddling, but he did elect to take the drop having had time to consider his options. What he did say however, (a lesser appreciated bit of insight) is that the ball had originally come to rest on some water shrub type of thing, or piece of debris. It was half in, and half out the water, and in his view sitting up slightly. As he weighed up his options however, the weight of the ball started to take its toll on the plant and it slowly began to sink. By the time he was ready to wade in having treated the world to a theatrical socks and shoes routine, too much of the ball had become submerged. This is where Van de Velde was wrong however. The Barry Burn is tidal. The ball didn’t sink. The tide was coming in. Had he seized his chance there and then, and leapt in? Well he was on the 18th, surely wet shoes and socks was a price he could pay? Who knows, he might have been back in the clubhouse as Open Champion within 5 minutes if he had

One final thought. Should you stick a golf ball into a burn, don’t be too down yourself. Some of the best players in the games history have done likewise. That’s what the burn was incorporated into the course for after all