WE MAY have been looking on the wrong side of Muirfield for a possible East Lothian venue to host the Scottish Open in the next four years as part of it being taken on a tour of the home of golf by its three partners.
The Renaissance Club, with its challenging Tom Doak-designed course and spanking new £9.2 million clubhouse, is almost certainly in the frame, having been considered when the event was looking for a home after its Loch Lomond run ended before Castle Stuart was awarded a three-year contract.
It appears, however, that Gullane No 1, which has hosted Open qualifying in the past and numerous leading amateur events over the years but not a top professional one, is also on a list of courses being contemplated by the European Tour in tandem with the events two main backers, Aberdeen Asset Management and the Scottish Government.
“We have looked at the Muirfield area,” confirmed George O’Grady, the European Tour’s chief executive, during the Turkish Airlines Open in Belek. “Gullane, for instance, has a great history and lots of people have played there during Open Championships. East Lothian, as a whole, has made us aware that we could take the Scottish Open there. If it could be done, we’d be quite keen to do that, but it is too early to say if that is possible yet.”
After three years in Inverness, the event is moving to Royal Aberdeen next year, when it will carry an increased prize fund of £4 million. It will definitely return to Castle Stuart in one of the three years after that, probably in 2016.
Where it goes in the other two years is the golden opportunity up for grabs and Dundonald Links, the Loch Lomond-owned course in Ayrshire, is another venue that could well emerge as a strong contender.
“The respective partners have looked at a lot of different courses,” added O’Grady. “What is great is the fact all the parties in this partnership involves golfers. [Aberdeen Asset Management chief executive] Martin Gilbert, for instance, has played golf himself at most of these venues and the First Minister, Alex Salmond, is a keen golfer, too, and also keen to showcase Scotland as much as possible.”
The three partners are determined not to become embroiled in men-only club issues, a situation that led to Salmond not attending this year’s Open Championship at Muirfield. They also seem to be keeping courses on the rota for the world’s oldest major off their list of potential venues, though chances are the R&A wouldn’t warm to such a prospect, anyway.
“We are mindful of the gender issues in some places and, if we can, we are quite keen that the Open Championship venues have their own flavour,” said O’Grady. “We’ve got a new venue next year in Royal Aberdeen and we are heartened by the number of players indicating they’ll be playing there as they have heard it is such a nice golf course.”
Phil Mickelson will top the Balgownie bill as defending champion, Rory McIlroy has already indicated he’ll be there, too, while there’s a strong chance both US Open champion Justin Rose and Graeme McDowell, holder of that title three years ago, will also be in the line-up.
“Both the First Minister and Martin Gilbert want to showcase links courses and the view of the players is that when we left Loch Lomond they wanted it to be played on a links course,” noted O’Grady. “We’ve done that so far and I think that a lot of people have been heartened by the fact that the winner of the Open for the last three years [Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Mickelson] all played at Castle Stuart the previous week.
“I certainly know from speaking to Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington that playing links turf as opposed to the design of a particular course is what they are looking for the week before The Open. I believe the turf is good at Gullane. I’ve not looked at it myself and I’ve not played it myself for a number of years. I do know, though, that the 18th is quite close to a busy road and that might pose a problem.”
It might indeed given that the road is the main arterial route along the East Lothian coast, but one thing for certain is that, with its three courses, Gullane certainly has plenty of space to house the infrastructure of a Scottish Open. Recent changes were also made to the No 1 Course and it was by no means a pushover in qualifying for this year’s Open. As was the case in Inverness, the aim is to help players prepare for the Claret Jug joust.
“Personally, I think the fact the last three Open champions all warmed up in the Scottish Open speaks volumes for the event,” said the European Tour supremo. “I think Castle Stuart was great preparation. OK, so it isn’t all that punishing off the tee but it certainly has lots of fiddly shots into greens. Phil Mickelson, for example, talks about how great it is that he gets to play shots he normally wouldn’t get the chance to play.
“We never really had overly strong winds up at Castle Stuart but then, if we did, players might leave on the Sunday night feeling they’ve been beaten up heading into the Open Championship. At Royal Aberdeen, I don’t think it’s anyone’s intention to make it as tough as they possibly could because we wouldn’t really want people to feel broken before The Open.”