Hometown wins do happen. Just ask Billy Hurley, who chalked up his first PGA Tour title triumph at the age of 34 in the Quicken Loans National in Washington last Sunday. This week, on the outskirts of Inverness, Russell Knox will be the man in Hurley’s shoes. Three years after he reluctantly turned down an invitation for the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart due to the fact he was still trying to establish a solid footing on the PGA Tour, he is returning to his roots as one of the star attractions in the £3.25 million event.
It’s a tournament that has had Florida-based Knox licking his lips since it was announced as far back as 2013 that it would be returning to the Highlands, having visited both Royal Aberdeen and Gullane in the interim as part of the event being moved around the country, with a trip to Dundonald Links on the cards in a year’s time. Knox finished 27th on his debut in the event at Royal Aberdeen before climbing to tenth at Gullane. Having since become the first Scot to win a World Golf Championship and climbed into the top 25 in the global rankings, it’s certainly not fanciful that he can do, well, a Hurley.
“I loved it when it was at Aberdeen, as did Richie [Ramsay], and to have so many people there, who you know are watching you, as opposed to the others, is great,” said Paul Lawrie of the scenario his compatriot will enjoy in an event that also features five-time major winner Phil Mickelson as well as the likes of Martin Kaymer, Henrik Stenson, Graeme McDowell, Shane Lowry, Lee Westwood, Padraig Harrington, Branden Grace and Patrick Reed. “Russell, as a local lad, will have that, too, and it should be all about him.
“It does bring up its own problems, of course. The expectation for you as well as those of everybody else go up. You expect huge things from yourself anyway, no matter what shape your game is in. You expect and want to win or else there’s no point in playing. Russell will have all that, but he’ll enjoy it and thrive on it, I’m sure. It’s a great experience playing in your own town. It doesn’t get any better.”
Before arriving at Gullane 12 months ago, Knox paid a flying visit to Nairn Dunbar to receive an honorary membership. The same gesture is being made by Inverness Golf Club this week as the local boy continues to receive deserved recognition for establishing himself as the new Scottish No.1, having gone to Jacksonville University to polish his game before using the web.com Tour, the PGA Tour’s feeder circuit, to get himself ready for playing with the big boys.
“When Adam Hunter was a national coach for one of the amateur squads, I met Russell then but that was few years ago,” said Lawrie. “Since then, over the last two or three years, I’ve done a lot more with him and I’ve been hugely impressed by him both as a person and as a golfer. You see him on the television and you know he’s a good player but when you play with him you realise just how good he is.
“We’re trying to get Russell to play in our matchplay event [at Archerfield Links in East Lothian next month]. I’m not sure he will, but he’s a huge draw. What he’s done has been terrific. We’d love him in the Ryder Cup, too. It’s a big few weeks for him. The Irish Open (where he finished joint-second behind Rory McIlroy) was huge for him and, if he can kick on over the next few weeks, then he’s going to be pretty close.”
While the Scottish Open story at Castle Stuart didn’t get off to the best of starts – a weather-hit event in 2011, won by Luke Donald, was reduced to 54 holes – it certainly produced a fairytale three years ago, when Mickelson beat South African Branden Grace in a play-off before becoming Open champion as well for the first time at Muirfield seven days later. A condensed schedule this summer due to the Olympics may have led Rickie Fowler to break golf’s unwritten rule by opting not to defend his title, but the field assembling at Castle Stuart is easily the strongest so far on the European Tour this season.
In addition to those already mentioned, the line-up also features BMW PGA champion Chris Wood as well as fellow Ryder Cup hopefuls Matt Fitzpatrick, Andy Sullivan and Rafa Cabrera-Bello while joining Mickelson and Reed in a strong American contingent are JB Holmes, Jamie Lovemark and Steve Stricker.
For the likes of McDowell and Westwood, it will be a first return to Castle Stuart since 2011. And, according to Lawrie, they will definitely be more impressed than they were on that occasion. “I was up a wee while ago with the boys (his two sons) and the condition of it was just beautiful,” said the 47-year-old, who will break off from his preparations for the event on Tuesday to take part in an exhibition match along with Sandy Lyle and Kelsey Macdonald at Royal Dornoch to mark golf being played at the Sutherland venue for 400 years. “The whole place has gone up a notch or two since we were last there. It was always going to happen, it was going to mature and become something special.”
This will be the sixth Scottish Open since it moved away from Loch Lomond. “It’s ideal before the Open,” added Lawrie of the current strategy of the event being played on a links as opposed to an inland venue. “A lot of the players Aberdeen Asset Management spoke to, they didn’t want to be battered the week before the Open. You don’t want to be two or three-over and struggling every day. Castle Stuart, no matter how windy it gets, you can get it round there. But it still tests the links ability. It’s good for everyone. It gives you the links experience but you’re not getting battered and blown off course.
“There are places you can go where you can get it round. Other courses, maybe not. It ticks all the boxes. You want it blowing a bit, obviously, to make it a bit of a test. You don’t want 20-odd under winning. It has to be a test to show what links golf is. But that’s what links golf is. It needs that little bit of wind. The biggest thing that came over when Aberdeen Asset Management were doing their research about taking it back to a links course, every player said it was a great idea but don’t batter us. It’s proved to be a great idea.”