Ernie Els invests in some quality Scottish time before Open


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The Independent Online

Ernie Els' Open Championship defence begins today at Castle Stuart, in preparation at least. Els was a late entrant at the Scottish Open, an event he added to sharpen the tools ahead of the world's oldest major at Muirfield next week. The tournament stands alone as one worth winning, but appears caught between two schools: those that like or need to play the week before a major and those that prefer to prepare out of the public eye.

Els is joined by Phil Mickelson, who prefers to familiarise himself with the unique demands of links golf before resuming his Open challenge. The resurgent Paul Casey, who won for the first time since 2011 at the Irish Open a fortnight ago, is another ticket-seller in the field. Rory McIlroy thought hard about playing this week to rediscover that elusive rhythm, but in the end chose to stay away, along with Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood.

The attendance of Britain and Ireland's golfing grandees at events in these isles is arguably as important to the European Tour as their presence in the Ryder Cup. In a period when sponsors are running for cover, the game needs its big names out there attracting the kind of investment their visibility promotes.

Yes, scheduling is an issue for golf's high rollers, but that can surely be solved by some joined-up thinking and negotiation. Golf's stakeholders might start by tugging the sleeve of the chief executive of Aberdeen Asset Management, Martin Gilbert, who nailed the company name to the Scottish Open door because of the exposure to the American market afforded by television. He might even have the answer to the vexed problem of finding a sponsor for the Irish Open.

"The crowds at the Irish Open are just massive. I was looking at that on television last week, thinking, 'What an event to sponsor.' You have all the top Irish players, three of them are in the top 10 in the world. I thought to myself, 'Jesus, why is someone not coming in with a £1m offer?' It is such an obvious move. And coming so close to the Scottish and the Open you have that swing. It could be a really good deal, that one," he said.

There is a reason finance houses invest in sport. The association with this remarkable breed of human beings works. Gilbert was at Wimbledon last Sunday wishing his branding was sewn into the shirt of the first British men's champion on Centre Court for 77 years, Andy Murray. Maybe it will be next year.

"We have grown the business in the last few years. We are No 8 or so in the world but still so many people have never heard of us so we really do need to be spending a lot of money on name awareness. And this [golf] works for us. The reason we went into this event was its prime slot [before the Open] and the fact it's going to be on TV in the US. Half the world's wealth is still in the US, and that is an incredibly important market for us."

Els is hoping the Scottish Open works for him, too. His victory at the BMW International in Germany last month was his first since Royal Lytham. Though thrilled with the win, he reasoned that his time was better spent in Inverness this week to keep game and mind sharp.

"I have very fond memories of my two wins in the Scottish Open," he said, "and if I can win it a third time it would be the perfect platform for my defence of the Open. The Scottish galleries really know their golf, so if we can get some decent weather we should be in for another great week."

Els is among the afternoon starters in a group with Henrik Stenson and Marc Warren. Mickelson leads them out from the 10th tee in the morning alongside Padraig Harrington and Stephen Gallacher, who claimed a place at Muirfield after the withdrawal from the Open of John Daly. Casey has South African Branden Grace and American-based Scot Martin Laird for company over the next two days.

Scottish Open: The big names

Phil Mickelson

The American is looking to bounce back from the "heartbreak" of finishing runner-up for the sixth time at the US Open at Merion last month.

Ernie Els

Victory at the BMW International in Germany last month was the South African's first since winning last year's Open at Royal Lytham and he will want to impress.

Padraig Harrington

The Irishman is looking to find form after failing to make the cut at the Masters in April and enduring a disappointing US Open last month, finishing 21st.

Paul Casey

Casey is motivated after battling back from injuries to win last month's Irish Open. Before that, the 35-year-old had slipped to a lowly 169 in the world.