Gilbert’s risk pays off for Scottish Open future

Alex Salmond and European Tour chief executive George O'Grady confirm the future of the Scottish Open. Picture: Getty
Alex Salmond and European Tour chief executive George O'Grady confirm the future of the Scottish Open. Picture: Getty
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THE future of the Scottish Open has been secured until 2020 thanks to the shrewd vision of an “old-fashioned investor but risk-taker as well”.

The Aberdeen Asset Management-sponsored event is now locked down for longer than any other tournament on the European Tour after a three-year extension was confirmed by its trio of partners in Edinburgh yesterday. The six-year contract in place surpasses the deal for events like the Tour’s flagship tournament, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, as well as any of those in the Middle East or Far East.

With its pre-Open Championship slot having been guaranteed and prize-money set to rise to a minimum of £4 million by 2018, the Scottish Open can now confidently expect to attract one of the strongest fields of the season for the next six years. Yet, just three years ago, after Barclays ended their decade-long sponsorship of the event, there was a distinct danger of it dropping off the schedule altogether.

“I knew we were close,” admitted First Minister Alex Salmond of that possibility as French Open organisers waited in the wings ready to pounce on the prized slot, which was also being eyed for a possible Hugo Boss-backed event in Sweden.

“I was in negotiations about an engineering contract with the company we were most likely to lose it to, Alstom,” he added. “They wanted the slot because they were building to their Ryder Cup [in 2018].”

In the bid to keep the Scottish Open afloat, a frantic search was started for a title sponsor to come on board with both the Scottish Government and European Tour. “I approached a large number of companies who I thought should be interested in this tournament,” revealed Salmond.

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Instead, his bait attracted just one bite. Crucially, though, it was one that has helped the event go from strength to strength in a short period of time. Now played on links courses, its last four stagings have all helped players become Open champions the following week, the latest to join that list, of course, being world No 1 Rory McIlroy.

Held this year at Royal Aberdeen, it is moving to Gullane next July. It then returns to Castle Stuart near Inverness in 2016 before heading to the west of Scotland, probably Dundonald Links, the following year.

“Martin Gilbert was the only one who was interested,” reflected Salmond of that pivotal moment in the event’s future. “If I did that same exercise today and phoned the same dozen top level companies that I did back then, then I think ten out of 12 would want to do it. In 2011, just one wanted to do it. Different times, different world then. But that was the test. The people who see opportunity not problems. And they saw that. This slot is guaranteed until 2020. It will be so big by 2020 they won’t be able to take it off us.”

The move for a three-year extension started in August, when the three partners signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’. As promised by Salmond, the i’s have dotted and t’s crossed before he steps down as First Minister later this month. “This is a great deal for everybody,” he insisted, though unable to actually shake hands on the deal due to the fact he’s only just removed a cast from his wrist after being left in pain by doing exactly that during the referendum campaign.

“Any group of people would come to this conclusion as it’s such an overwhelming thing. It wasn’t an overwhelming thing in 2012 when Martin Gilbert had the vision to see the opportunity. Now everybody and their auntie would want to sponsor it. To me this is the prime sponsorship of the European Tour, in the sense of credibility. I believe, absolutely, by 2020 this will be acknowledged as the second biggest tournament after The Open and the second greatest links tournament in the world. That’s the ambition.”

When it comes to ambition for Scottish golf, Aberdeen Asset Management, through the Scottish Open and its support of the game at grass-roots level through both the Scottish Golf Union and Scottish Ladies Golfing Association, now lead the way by a country mile, though Scottish Hydro has also done its bit to help events and players in recent years. “Martin is a shrewd individual,” said Stephen Docherty, the company’s head of global equities, of the absent chief executive’s role in helping establish such a bright future for the Scottish Open. “He’s an old-fashioned investor but a risk-taker as well and he saw a good opportunity to sponsor a prime tournament and make it better. We’ve made it more Scottish by moving it to links courses and the combination of that and its prime slot it seems like a win-win to everyone.”

This year’s event, won by Justin Rose, carried a prize pot of £3m. That will rise to £3.25m next year and the year after, go up again in 2017 to £3.5m before boasting at least £4m in 2018. The PGA Championship and Dunhill Links Championship were worth £3.7m and £3.1m respectively this year.

As for where the Scottish Open will be held during the last three years of the new contract, the venues for this year and the next few seem more likely than any more new ones. “Phil Mickelson spoke to the First Minister during a birthday party for Martin Gilbert at this year’s event and told him how to develop the Scottish Open,” revealed George O’Grady, the European Tour chief executive in his first engagement on British soil since it was announced he’s stepping down from the post. “He advised to have a rota of three or four courses as opposed to eight different ones as that would make it easier for players to get to know them. That’s not set in stone but it’s the likely way forward and we have our eye on one in the west of Scotland.”

While that isn’t Turnberry, Salmond insisted it had nothing to do with the Ayrshire resort now being owned by Donald Trump. Rather, it was down to the partners having agreed on a policy whereby the event shouldn’t be held on courses already on The Open rota.

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