‘THE Challenge Awaits...’ is the slogan for this year’s £3.25 million Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
For the European Tour and its players, the wait for that challenge has been exactly 12 months. For Gullane Golf Club, you could say it has taken more than 350 years to come around.
The history of the Royal & Ancient game in the picturesque East Lothian village dates back to 1650. Then, it was the weavers of Dirleton and Aberlady who played there in an annual match. Now, it’s some of the world’s best golfers trying to weave their magic in one of the European Tour’s biggest events.
Gullane, of course, is no stranger to hosting top-class tournaments. It has staged Final Qualifying for the Open Championship on numerous occasions, while a whole host of leading amateur events, both for men and women, have also been fought out over this iconic chunk of golfing terrain. This, though, will be by far its biggest week in the sporting spotlight and what an exciting event is in prospect.
The Scottish Open has a history of attracting stellar fields, having boasted star-studded line-ups at Gleneagles, Carnoustie and Loch Lomond before seeing that trend continue over the past four years at Castle Stuart and Royal Aberdeen in its new phase of being staged on links courses. The ‘Class of 2015’, though, is arguably the best yet – a nice feather for Gullane’s cap.
Topping the cast list is world No 1 Rory McIlroy, who has included the event on his carefully-planned schedule again after feeling that last year’s tournament at Royal Aberdeen had been hugely beneficial as he became Open champion the following week at Hoylake. On another traditional links, the four-times major winner is looking for another week of perfect preparation for his Claret Jug defence at St Andrews.
“It is great to have this fantastic event, played on some of the best links courses in the world, and then to move on to the Open Championship the following week,” said McIlroy, who suffered back-to-back missed cuts in the BMW PGA Championship and Irish Open before producing a late surge to claim a top-10 finish in the recent US Open.
“I know Gullane from my amateur days as it has hosted a lot of great Scottish amateur events,” added the 26-year-old, who led after round one at Royal Aberdeen thanks to a sublime seven-under-par 64 and eventually finished tied 14th. “I can’t wait to get back to see the composite Championship Course (comprising 16 holes from the No 1 layout and two from the neighbouring No 2 Course) and test my game against a very strong field.”
If McIlroy is the star attraction, Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler, to name just a few, are pretty impressive to have in supporting roles. For Mickelson, of course, this event sees him making a return to East Lothian, where he was crowned as Open champion at Muirfield in 2013 – seven days after he’d also won the Scottish Open in Inverness.
“I have heard a lot about the course,” said the American, who is making his sixth successive appearance in the event and has effectively become its unofficial ambassador. “I saw it when I was practising at Muirfield before the Open a couple of years ago and am really looking forward to playing it.”
Rose, of course, is the defending champion, the Englishman having produced a classy display as he claimed a two-shot victory in Aberdeen last July. Unlike Mickelson, his main memory from a previous visit to East Lothian was a disappointing defeat – to James Bunch from St Andrews in the first round of the 1998 Amateur Championship at Muirfield. It was to prove pivotal, though, for the tremendous success Rose has enjoyed since then, both as a major winner and Ryder Cup stalwart.
“Not doing well at the Amateur Championship that year was actually the catalyst for me turning professional,” said the world No 7. “I’d done well in the stroke-play qualifying but losing in the first round was frustrating. The dream for every amateur is to win that. It opens up so many doors with the Open and the Masters. So to lose in the first round left me a bit disillusioned. I didn’t want to wait around another year to try and win the Amateur and get into those events that way.”
One of those qualifying rounds 17 years ago was on Gullane No 1. “I’d be lying if I said I could remember much about it,” he admitted. “But I’ve driven through Gullane since then and it’s such a great little town and I think it’s going to have a superb atmosphere and feel about it for the Scottish Open.”
McIlroy and Rose are among eight European players from last year’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles heading to “Scotland’s Golf Coast”, while Mickelson is being accompanied by three of his American team-mates from that event, namely Rickie Fowler, Jimmy Walker and Matt Kuchar.
“It should be a blast to play Gullane in the Scottish Open before heading up the coast to St Andrews the following week,” said Fowler, who won the Players’ Championship in a pulsating finish at Sawgrass earlier in the season. “I had a great couple of weeks playing links golf at Royal Aberdeen and Hoylake last year, and there is no question that my experience of adapting my game to links conditions in Aberdeen contributed to my runner-up finish in the Open the following week.”
Add in the likes of Graeme McDowell, Luke Donald, Jamie Donaldson, Victor Dubuisson, Ian Poulter, YE Yang, Ryan Palmer and Cameron Tringale, as well, of course, as a strong Scottish contingent spearheaded by Stephen Gallacher, Marc Warren, Richie Ramsay, Russell Knox and Martin Laird, and it’s going to be worth that long wait for Gullane and its members to see a European Tour event take place on the land where that annual match involving those local weavers led to the East Lothian village becoming such a well-kent golfing hotbed.