Martin Dempster: Castle Stuart has proved doubters wrong as Scottish Open venue

It is entirely a matter of opinion, of course, where the best Scottish Open has been staged since the Aberdeen Asset Management-sponsored event ended its lengthy stint at Loch Lomond and opened a new chapter by visiting links courses around the home of golf.
Castle Stuart Golf Links. Picture: GettyCastle Stuart Golf Links. Picture: Getty
Castle Stuart Golf Links. Picture: Getty

Justin Rose, no doubt, will say it was Royal Aberdeen, where the Englishman won in 2014, beating a field which included Rory McIlroy into the bargain, while American Rickie Fowler would pick out Gullane, having triumphed in the tournament’s first visit to the East Lothian venue last summer.

Both those venues did the event proud and it would be nice to think it will return to those outstanding courses before 2020, when the tournament’s future has been secured through a partnership involving the title sponsor, the Scottish Government and, of course, the European Tour.

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The nod from this correspondent, though, about that best venue goes to Castle Stuart, where the tournament was staged from 2011 to 2013 and now returns for its fourth staging next month. Yes, that’s right and I am prepared to put a very strong case to back that up.

Forget what happened in the first of those events, which was reduced to 54 holes due to freak weather that caused a landslide. The two subsequent stagings, in particular the one that saw Phil Mickelson emerge triumphant in 2013, have put that unfortunate opening 
chapter to bed.

Yes, of course, there are those out there who still don’t see it is a “traditional links” like either Royal Aberdeen or Gullane and, strictly speaking, they are indeed correct. It will be fascinating to hear what they’ve got to say, though, when the golfing spotlight is turned back on Castle Stuart on 7-10 July because, three years on from big Phil producing his stunning chip from short of the 18th to beat Branden Grace in a play-off, it has established that “wow factor”.

Whereas you once stood on the tees at the venue outside Inverness and felt as though you could hit it anywhere without finding trouble, it has been tightened up quite a bit with long wispy rough providing wonderful definition. Some of that rough is thick, too, and if anyone is heading there expecting it to be a pushover, then think again guys, because Castle Stuart has developed teeth.

The aforementioned McIlroy may still have to be convinced about it, but Graeme McDowell is returning for the first time since he criticised the course in 2011, admittedly 
apologising later for his remarks, and Lee Westwood is also committed to making his Castle Stuart return after staying away in 2012 and 2013.

“It is fantastic,” said Stuart McColm, Castle Stuart’s general manager of a field that will be headlined by Mickelson with the likes of McDowell, Westwood, Henrik Stenson and, of course, local hero Russell Knox as a strong supporting cast. “It is great to see the likes of Graeme and Lee coming back and I will be the first to shake their hand as we need the headline stars to support it.

“We dealt a hard hand in 2011, there’s no doubt about that. But to see people coming back after five years is pleasing. The course 
has come on a lot since then. I think they will see a difference in the course from when they were last here.”

Mickelson winning, coupled with the 2013 event being the first Scottish Open to be shown live in the US by NBC, delivered a huge boost for Castle Stuart in terms of the international visitors it has attracted in the interim. It has also been handed a welcome recent shot in the arm through BA starting up a daily flight to Inverness from London Heathrow – a service which BMI stopped in 2007 – as well as another new daily service being operated by KLM from Amsterdam.

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“I spoke to a few groups who came here in ’13 in the August and September and they said that from the moment they watched the NBC coverage, they wanted to come here,” added McColm. “It was the perfect storm, it really was. A) it was a great winner in Phil Mickelson, who, of course, also went on to win The Open the following week and b) it was really linksy that year.”

The same two ingredients will do very nicely indeed in a month’s time, when the Scottish Open can a warm welcome in the Highlands – another reason why Castle 
Stuart and Inverness get my vote (just) over Royal Aberdeen and