No wonder the event’s main partners reacted swiftly a few weeks back to squash speculation that the Scottish Open’s coveted pre-Open Championship spot was under threat. Just take a look at the field for this week’s tournament at Castle Stuart and you’ll see why.
Events like the Abu Dhabi Championship, Dubai Desert Classic, Irish Open, PGA Championship and French Open may all have featured players with higher world rankings – the likes of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, for example – and also included the Masters champion, Danny Willett, in their line-ups.
In terms of strength of depth and the appearance of some non-European Tour regulars, however, there is no doubt that the Scottish Open has once again attracted a field that will be drawing envious glances from promoters and sponsors far and wide.
Based on the global list, the line- up is headed by sixth-ranked Henrik Stenson and also includes three others – Branden Grace (10), Patrick Reed (13) and JB Holmes (20) – currently sitting in the top 20. Cast that net to the top 30 and you can add another four – Phil Mickelson (21), Chris Wood (24), Shane Lowry (26) and Russell Knox (27).
With all due respect to the others – and that also includes local hero Knox – the star attraction is undoubtedly Mickelson, the winner on this very course on its last visit in 2013, the week before he also claimed a first Open Championship victory at Muirfield. From the moment he first clapped eyes on Castle Stuart when the Inverness venue first staged the event in 2011, the left-hander fell in love with the place. As had been the case at Loch Lomond prior to it being moved around the country, Mickelson supported the event at both Royal Aberdeen and Gullane over the past two years, but a question mark could be hanging over an appearance in the future at any venue other than this one.
According to comments attributed to the five-time major winner at the weekend, he is “excited” about returning to Castle Stuart as he believes it is “ideal preparation” for the Open Championship. However, he may think twice about continuing to be a Scottish Open regular as he doesn’t want to be in a position of trying to learn a new links layout to him in addition to reaquainting himself with venues for the Open that, St Andrews apart, now come around every 10 years.
If that’s the case, Mickelson will be throwing a spanner in the works as the event’s three partners – Aberdeen Asset Management, the Scottish Government and the European Tour – ponder the next step after 2017, when the tournament will visit Dundonald Links in Ayrshire for the first time. The event’s future has been secured until 2020 and it was widely thought that a rota was taking shape, with returns to both Royal Aberdeen and Gullane likely to be popular with both players and spectators.
It’s certainly right that it is back at Castle Stuart, where the course has matured into something really special since the golfing circus last came to town. It’s also no surprise that this week’s venue is Mickelson’s favourite among the three we’ve been at since those Loch Lomond days because he’s made no secret of the fact he likes the design philosophy here.
However, the decision taken back in 2010 to move the tournament to a links course, albeit a new one at the time in Castle Stuart, was a masterstroke, as was that subsequent decision to move it around the country. Yes, Mickelson has a point and, if he’s back in 12 months’ time, he will find himself playing Dundonald Links for the first time before heading to Royal Birkdale after an eight-year gap in between Open Championships. It would be wrong, however, for those three partners to be influenced by one voice, even when it such a powerful one and that individual has probably been the biggest overseas Scottish Open supporter over the past decade.
In an ideal world, a rota with Castle Stuart, Royal Aberdeen, Gullane and Dundonald Links that worked on a four-year cycle would be great. At the same time, though, it would be fantastic to see the Scottish Open visiting somewhere like Kingsbarns in years to come and also returning to Carnoustie. Turnberry, too, would be a terrific venue for the event somewhere down the line.
In the meantime, though, let’s just enjoy what lies ahead this week and hope that the Scottish Open continues to occupy this particular slot for a long time to come.