Scottish golf shake-up could boost amateur chances

Scott Henry is in favour of a 'proper Scottish Order of Merit'. Picture: Neil Hanna
Scott Henry is in favour of a 'proper Scottish Order of Merit'. Picture: Neil Hanna
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IN THE midst of what a colleague described as a “minor Twitter storm” – it’s amazing what a much-needed healthy debate can be mistaken for by some people – a suggestion was made that merits scrutiny.

It came from Scott Henry and, at a time when Scottish golfers appear to be finding it more difficult than ever to make a successful transition from amateur to professional, is one that indicates that the domestic fixture list is in need of a long overdue shake-up.

“A proper Scottish Order of Merit would benefit all aspiring players,” said Henry, whose words carry weight given that he is someone who has actually managed to make some headway in the paid ranks after underlining his potential during an amateur career that spawned three Scottish Boys’ Championship successes – two in match-play and one in stroke-play – as well as victory in the Scottish Open Stroke-Play Championship.

By “proper”, Henry means a series of tournaments involving both amateurs and professionals. Similar to the one-off experience he himself learned so much from in 2007 in the bunkered Match Play Challenge, a Ryder Cup-style event between teams representing the Scottish Golf Union and the PGA in Scotland. At The Carrick on Loch Lomond, Henry just 20 at the time, beat Colin Gillies, the Tartan Tour’s all-time leading money winner, in the concluding singles to force a 12-12 tie. Picked out by SGU team captain George Crawford ahead of more experienced campaigners for a play-off, he then defeated Paul McKechnie, who’d topped the inaugural PGA EuroPro Tour Order of Merit a few years earlier, with a birdie at the second extra hole.

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“We wanted a crack at the professionals,” declared Henry at the time and now he believes the current wave of top Scottish amateurs should be given the same chance to see how they match up against the leading lights in the PGA in Scotland, an organisation, of course, that Paul Lawrie used as a stepping stone to become Open champion. “If you are a good enough amateur your merit position will prove it,” said Henry of his idea. “If not, you’re not ready to sniff it.”

Sadly, the bunkered Match Play Challenge was short-lived, leaving the Northern Open as probably the only tournament on the fixture list at present – other than a European Tour or Challenge Tour event or the Open Championship – where amateurs can enter to get the chance to lock horns with professionals. David Law did that in 2011, became the first amateur to win the Northern Open in more than 40 years and, having used that as his springboard, reclaimed the title as a professional this year.

Using Henry and Law as examples, the talent is there for Scottish golf to enjoy a bright future. As they’ll tell you, though, talent can count for little in the world of professional golf if you don’t have the toughness to back it up.

Of course, Bradley Neil, the Amateur champion from Blairgowrie, will gain enormous experience from playing in The Masters and US Open next year, as will be the case when he lines up in the Dunhill Championship, this week’s European Tour event, in South Africa. Just imagine, however, how much he’d benefit from playing in six to eight events next season against the likes of Greig Hutcheon, Neil Fenwick, Graham Fox, Paul O’Hara and Gareth Wright. Beat them on a regular basis and you are going in the right direction.

To improve what is currently a very poor transition rate, we need to see players being tested against people better and more experienced than them. Which is where Lawrie has come up trumps once again. This week, at Pestana Vila Sol in Portugal, he’s hosting a get-together for 11 fellow Scottish professionals, namely his son Craig, the aforementioned Hutcheon and Fenwick, as well as Scott Henderson, Ross Kellett, Paul Shields, Greg McBain, Philip McLean, Kris Nicol, Sam Kiloh and Alastair Forsyth.

The trip has been funded by Lawrie’s foundation and, what’s more, he’s putting up around £5,000 prize-money in a 36-hole event on Thursday and Friday. “I felt it was important, especially at this time of year, to start taking full-time guys away for short events in some better weather in a competitive situation,” said Lawrie. He, of course, intends to make it as competitive as possible himself, but what an opportunity, especially for the likes of Fenwick, Kellett and Shields, to spend valuable time in the company of both Lawrie and Forsyth, a two-times European Tour winner.

The SGU, of course, have used the likes of Lawrie, Stephen Gallacher, Richie Ramsay, Scott Jamieson, Marc Warren and Martin Laird to try and educate young players and long may that continue. Perhaps it’s now time, though, that they also sat down with the PGA in Scotland and came up with a circuit that gives that next generation a more realistic taste of what it takes to cut the mustard in the modern game.

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