WALKING from the media centre up to the car park after the conclusion of the Johnnie Walker Championship on Sunday night, the sun was shining and, in the peace and tranquility, the setting was idyllic and the view, looking across towards Glendevon, simply stunning.
Earlier in the day, a crowd of just over 18,200 had enjoyed a thrilling last round as the PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles was given its final test before the eyes of the sporting world turn on it for the Ryder Cup in 13 months’ time.
It took the total attendance for last week’s event to just under 49,000 and, of all the tournaments I’ve had the pleasure of covering this year, I cannot remember one that not only attracted so many families but also had such a warm feel to it.
The weather helped, of course, and more of the same will do nicely, thank-you, when the home of golf stages Europe’s clash with the USA for the first time since the match at Muirfield in 1973, when it was nowhere near as big as it has become these days.
Take the attendance, for instance. It will be 45,000 per day at the Ryder Cup, which made last week feel as though it was the calm before a storm and those Johnnie Walker regulars that have been fortunate enough to secure tickets for next September should be warned, as they are in for a shock.
Such is the scale of a modern-day Ryder Cup that the venue they have become used to over the past 15 years will be almost unrecognisable due to a mass of corporate hospitality units, probably three tiers high, being dotted around the course.
It is a totally different animal to a regular European Tour event, hence the reason the wheels have been in motion to ensure it runs like clockwork almost from 28 September 2001 – the day it was announced the 2014 event would be held at Gleneagles. Ryder Cup Europe, with director Richard Hills at its helm and match director Richard Kitson on the ground, have worked closely with EventScotland to fit all the pieces of a complex jigsaw together and, based on experience alone, the much-anticipated three-day joust lies in safe hands.
For many, myself included, the biggest concern about next year has always been about the golf course itself and you can bet your bottom dollar that the grumblings will resurface over the next 12 months that such an event should be held on a links course in Scotland, not an inland venue designed by an American, even if he is Jack Nicklaus. It is impossible to deny, however, that it has improved considerably over the past few years, both in terms of the challenge it now offers, especially at certain holes, and its condition, specifically the greens that have benefitted enormously from a sub-air system that was installed as part of an overall outlay by Gleneagles Hotel of around £22 million over the last six years.
“It has been a great investment,” admits Scott Fenwick, the Gleneagles Hotel golf courses and estates manager who has woken up every morning for the past few years wondering if the weather was ever going to be kind to him again before being pleasantly surprised to find himself faced with the “nice problem” of having to crank the resort’s irrigation system into action this summer.
Sand, tonnes of it, is being used to firm up the fairways, which were running for the first time last week.
This year alone, 5,000 tons wiil be applied, with a further 5,000 tons to be added next year.
“Everything has settled in nicely,” adds Fenwick of the course changes, the most significant of which has resulted in water being brought into play at the ninth and the 18th being given a major facelift.
Based on some of the comments made by players last week, the narrow-tiered green there is perhaps a tad on the severe side, especially with steep drop-offs on either side, but, in terms of generating potential excitement, it now ticks the box, as we saw when both Stephen Gallacher and Scott Henry made dramatic eagles on Sunday.
In short, everything looks in place for the course to both be in the all-round condition expected in a Ryder Cup as well as being capable of generating some drama.
When the two captains, Paul McGinley and Tom Watson, meet there towards the end of next month for a series of “Year to Go” celebrations, then the countdown clock will be on in earnest.
Lack of Solheim stardust at Scottish Open
IT’S a crying shame, bordering on a disgrace, that the first Ladies European Tour event to be staged since the historic first Solheim Cup win on US for the Europeans features only Catriona Matthew from the side that delivered such a huge boost in Denver.
The Aberdeen Asset Management Ladies Scottish Open, which gets under way at Archerfield Links on Friday, should have doubled up as a celebration and the presence of Matthew, who had the honour of the clinching that triumph a week past Sunday, deserves a decent turnout on its own.
Carin Koch, a match-winner herself against the Americans at Loch Lomond and one of Liselotte Neumman’s vice-captains in Colorado, is also in the field for the East Lothian event. But that’s where the Solheim Cup connection ends, unless you count Trish Johnson, who was an on-course pundit for Sky Sports. It’s a great pity that the likes of Charley Hull, the 17-year-old who shone so brightly on the biggest stage in the women’s game, couldn’t have been encouraged by LET officials to support the event, especially as it has earned nothing but praise since moving to Archerfield Links in 2010.