ONE of the highlights of the golfing season takes place next week. No, I’m not talking about The Masters, though it’s a great pity – and this is something that happens every so often – that the season’s opening major clashes with the Scottish Boys’ Championship.
West Kilbride is this year’s venue for the domestic season’s traditional curtain-raiser, the picturesque Ayrshire course staging the event for the 11th time since first visiting there in 1979.
Burntisland’s Duncan Weir, who now works for the R&A in a golf development role around the world, claimed the title on that occasion and other West Kilbride winners in the event have included Callander left-hander Ben Collier, Peter Whiteford’s brother Stewart and, most recently, Grant Forrest, currently Scotland’s top-ranked amateur.
With all due respect to the other venues used in recent years by the Scottish Golf Union for the event, namely Dunbar, Murcar Links, Southerness, Royal Aberdeen and, for the first time last year, Monifieth, West Kilbride is a clear favourite among the small band of Scottish golf writers who cover it.
The main reason? At the others we’re normally housed for the week in a portacabin but not at West Kilbride. Traditionally, the ladies’ lounge up on the first floor of the clubhouse is the “media centre” and, with stunning views over towards Arran, it takes some beating.
It is also furnished with the odd comfy couch and one of my many heart-warming memories from covering the Scottish Boys is the sight of Jack Adams, the Daily Record’s one-time sports editor and character if there ever was one, slouched in one of them enjoying his daily afternoon snooze.
It was also in that very room, covering the 1990 event won by Collier, that I first came across the clattering din of Peter Donald’s typewriter as he hammered out a piece for the Daily Telegraph.
Sadly, Jack and Peter are no longer with us, but neither will ever be forgotten by this correspondent and the same surely goes for the dozens of youngsters they interviewed either in that room or, more likely, North Berwick or Dunbar, the two venues that were exclusively used for the Scottish Boys until the 1979 event.
Next Monday and Tuesday, a total of 256 youngsters – thankfully, it is back up to a full field after falling short 12 months ago – will step on to the first tee at West Kilbride and, for many, it will feel just as exciting as Stephen Gallacher making his Masters debut a few days later.
Take Hamish Gorn, a member of Aberdour, my home club. He is as keen as mustard, has fairly seen his handicap come down over the last year or so and will hopefully cherish his first taste of playing in a national event, no matter how long that lasts.
Realistically, very few will set out next week with a chance of securing the coveted crown. Twelve months ago, the top two seeds – Blairgowrie’s Bradley Neil and Ewan Scott from St Andrews – fought out the 36-hole final and there’s a strong possibility of a similar scenario unfolding on this occasion.
Neil is not defending the title – a sensible decision given that his focus now is trying to win men’s events like the Lytham, Brabazon and St Andrews Links Trophies – while Scott is now too old, but there are two equally stick-out contenders.
Bearsden’s Ewen Ferguson, for example, heads for the Ayrshire coast as the British Boys’ champion, having become the first Scot in almost a decade to claim that title with a superb performance at Royal Liverpool last August.
It makes him, arguably, the hottest favourite in the event’s 70-odd year history, though Robert MacIntyre’s credentials are also pretty impressive based on the notable double recorded by the Glencruitten left-hander last season in the Scottish Boys’ Stroke-Play and Scottish Youths.
Having spent part of the winter in either the United Arab Emirates or South Africa with the SGU squad, both Ferguson and MacIntyre should be much better prepared than the others in the West Kilbride field, the exception being Ben Kinsley as the St Andrews player was also on both those trips.
In truth, it will be a major surprise if anyone other than that trio or perhaps Niall McMullen, who produced an eye-catching performance at The Duke’s to win the Scottish Junior Champion of Champions just over a week ago, emerges victorious from next week’s golfing marathon.
But, at the same time, it will throw up special moments for many others along the way, hence why an event like the Scottish Boys Championship will never be completely buried away or forgotten in the home of golf – even when it clashes with that Green Jacket joust.