It's an Open and shut case as Scots go back to links
Castle Stuart steps on to the big stage this week and should provide a perfect taster for Sandwich
For 15 years the professional golfers have been preparing for The Open with the links plainly missing. That anomaly will be rectified this week. The Barclays Scottish Open will at last be staged on a course providinga suitable test for the examination to follow.
The boggy, boggy banks of Loch Lomond will give way to the sand-based delights of Castle Stuart, a stunning layout just two years of age up there in the Highlands. As well as shifting north, the event should take a huge leap forwards. As beautiful as the scenery was at the loch – and despite the undoubtedquality of Tom Weiskopf's masterpiece – its place on the calendar rendered it inappropriate.
The cliché became that it was akin to playing a clay-court event the week before Wimbledon. Unsurprisingly, many of the stars moaned and soon the stay-aways multiplied. Tiger Woods has never played the Scottish Open, while Padraig Harrington has been absent since 1999. The former will not be in Inverness as his recovery from injury continues, but the latter will be there. As will Luke Donald, the world No 1.
''As much as I liked Loch Lomond as a great course, it wasn't an ideal place to play the week before The Open,'' said the Englishman, who will be teeing it up at the Scottish for the first time in four years. ''Loch Lomond's an American-style golf course, usually there is not much run and it's usually a bit wetter. It makes sense to play on a more Open style of course."
Pertinently, it made sense to the sponsors as well. As they peer down an entry sheet which includes five of the world's top eight – and as they envisage a scenario in which Lee Westwood and Donald fight for the honour of becoming the first Briton to carry the world No 1 tag into The Open since Nick Faldo in 1993 – Barclays must be optimistic their decision to extend their contract will eventually pay a rich dividend.
Rory McIlroy's predilection for going fresh into a major means the work will always be cut out to attract that particular phenomenon but, in future years, Woods could be a possibility. At £3 million, the prize fund is certainly large enough to attract the very best, and the fact that Phil Mickelson is making his sixth appearance signifies Barclays aren't averse to opening the purse a little wider to aid in the persuasion.
Yet if the event had remained at Loch Lomond the sponsor might not have stayed. ''When the members bought out Loch Lomond they didn'twant to continue to be hosts long- term,'' explained a Tour insider. ''That was actually a good thing, as it gave us the green light to take the event immediately to a links course.''
So why Castle Stuart? With all the historic links in Scotland, why choose one which only opened fully last year? George O'Grady, the European Tour's chief executive, explained the rationale at the launch of the new trophy.
''I admire Barclays for pushing us into going to Castle Stuart,'' he said. ''It was a brave decision but I think it will turn out to be very visionary not to go to a traditional venue as opposedto one that is new. I'm not keen personally on the European Tour to follow Open Championship venues. And anyway, when you unearth new links venues, especially at a time when the world is in love with links golf, it can work for you. Every report from the pros who have played it has so far been excellent.''
If the layout fits the bill, then so too does the backdrop. Overlooking the Moray Firth, there are spectacular views across the water to the Black Isle. Of course, the Highlands already boasted rich golfing heritage with Royal Dornoch and Nairn; thus the favourable comparisons are to CastleStuart's great credit. It could even prove to be the key to the Highlands as the Tour ventures further north than ever before.
That's where the "brave" part comes in, although with all the hospitality sold out months ago and with Peter Adams, the Scottish Open's championship director, revealing that ''ticketsales have far exceeded those from Loch Lomond'', the courage appears well-founded.
There has, however, been onenote of caution emerging from the ranges, which, in truth, will never be unanimously happy. ''To play two links courses in succession just might be too much for some players,'' said the Swede Johan Edfors, who won the event five years ago. ''The Open is a hard enough week as it is, given the tough conditions you're likely to get.''
With that in mind, the 7,050 yards have been prepared sympatheticallyrather than severely. ''This is the best thing to happen to the Highlands, probably ever,'' said Stuart McColm, Castle Stuart's general manager.
''It's wide open for the players. As a warm-up to Sandwich, we want to put smiles on faces. Eagles and birdies, we're not protective about par. We really want to see the players enjoying themselves as they get ready for The Open. And don't worry about the weather. There's a saying up here that we have two seasons – Julyand winter.''
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