REMEMBER how burned Muirfield looked for the 2013 Open Championship? Well, its near neighbour is nothing like that for its week in the sporting spotlight. As recently as a fortnight ago, Gullane was shaping up to be nice and bouncy for the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open. The sting, however, has been taken out of it by heavy bursts of rain over the past week or so.
“We’ve had a hell of a lot of the wet stuff,” said course manager Stewart Duff after the latest squall had just moved away after sweeping in from the west. “Normally, we get an average of 50mm in a month and until recently it had been a very dry period. The course was exactly how we wanted it heading into this event. Then, over a two-hour period on Saturday, we had 25mm. Two days later we had 19mm in 40 minutes. The greens were waterlogged on both occasions, though they’d cleared within an hour.”
Despite what Mother Nature has thrown at East Lothian in the build-up to it, the composite Championship Course being used for the £3.25 million event starting today is in magnificent condition, with Paul McGinley, last year’s winning Ryder Cup captain, singing its praises after he had played in one of yesterday’s pro-ams. It’s unfortunate, though, that the world’s best players are not going to be tested on it the way everyone really wanted.
“The ground is soft and, visually, the course is green,” added Duff. “It’s not what we wanted, to be honest, because we’d have loved to have had the greens crisp and brown, but they are still putting well. We don’t normally have heavy bursts of rain here five days running, but that’s the way Mother Nature works – she’s rebalancing after a dry spring.”
It means Phil Mickelson will face an entirely different test to the one he mastered when winning the Open Championship next door two years ago. For one of the home hopes, though, that is just dandy. “I felt the Muirfield course was too dry that week – it was unplayable,” said Marc Warren. Having finished third on two occasions in this event in the last three years, the Glaswegian is well positioned to talk about Scottish Open tests. He likes this new one as the event breaks new ground for the third time in five years.
“I think Royal Aberdeen is a lot more kind of irons and stuff off tees,” said Warren of last year’s venue. “Here, I think you need to use a driver a bit more. There’s a few more bunkers in play, but the rough isn’t too bad, so you can kind of try and take them out of play purely by aiming for kind of left semi or left rough or whatever, making it playable from there, so you can run the ball to a lot of greens.
“Bunkers are definitely to be avoided this week, especially off the tee. Around the greens, if you get a decent lie you can get pretty close. But the fairway traps I think are a big defence around here, and if you can avoid them, you should do OK. The approach shots are to reasonably flattish greens, but you still have to be accurate and one of my keys this week is going to be finding the middle of the green. Play like that the whole week and you won’t be too far away.”
As for those putting surfaces, they are certainly pure. “Gullane is famous for having good greens,” said Warren. “That’s all I’ve ever heard about the place and from what I’ve seen so far this week, it’s definitely living up to that billing.”
Mickelson, the 2013 winner, played just one practice round. According to Stephen Gallacher, though, that shouldn’t discount the American. “The great thing with Gullane is that it’s pretty straightforward,” said the Lothians man. “There’s not too many blind shots. It’s right in front of you. It’s got its tough points. It’s also got risk-and-reward holes and I think that’s why it’s going to be loved by the players.”
While acknowledging the course has had the “bite taken out of it” by the rain, he says the set-up can still be challenging over the next four days. “With links golf, all you can do is deal with the challenge you’ve got that week,” added Gallacher. “It can be brick hard and dusty or a little bit softer. You just have to adapt to different clubs in the bag. You may not need the 2-iron, for instance, and may put the rescue in there instead. The greens here are well-guarded and if it’s a bit soft and calm, then they may tuck the pins away.”
There’s no doubt that losing star attraction Rory McIlroy was a blow but golf is not a one-man show. Any event that has Mickelson in it has a buzz about it and fair play to him for taking the bull by the horns in his pre-event press conference by defusing things with Tom Watson ahead of the five-times winner making his Open Championship farewell at St Andrews next week.
Mickelson, of course, is among four players in four years to compete in the Scottish Open the week before lifting the Claret Jug and there are plenty of candidates here capable of extending that run next week. The course may not be fiery but we can be guaranteed that the competition among some of the world’s top players will be .
1 Branden Grace
2 Rickie Fowler
3 Justin Rose
Dark horse: Marc Warren
1 Justin Rose
2 Jimmy Walker
3 Phil Mickelson
Dark horse: Shane Lowry
1 Victor Dubuisson
2 Jamie Donaldson
3 Jimmy Walker
Dark horse: Edoardo Molinari