ONLY a few hardy souls braved the freezing conditions to mark the opening of the new season at Castle Stuart yesterday, but, according to both Phil Mickelson and Paul Lawrie, the Inverness course should be basking in the glory of hosting a World Golf Championship one day.
This summer marks the end of a three-year run for the Aberdeen Asset Scottish Open being staged on the picturesque links on the banks of the Moray Firth. Next year that is moving to Royal Aberdeen and, though not ruling out the possibility of it returning in the future, even bigger events are also in the sights of Castle Stuart bosses.
Not that they’ve had to do much boasting themselves about the course’s suitability to prove a fitting test for the world’s best players. Its praises have been sung loudly over the past couple of years, with Mickelson, for example, liking it so much that he actually threw down the gauntlet to European Tour chief executive George O’Grady.
“I’m not putting words in people’s mouths, but, at the Barclays Pro-Am before the first Scottish Open here in 2011, Phil Mickelson challenged George O’Grady there and then, saying, ‘you have to bring a WGC event to Castle Stuart as that’s how good this place is’,” revealed general manager Stuart McColm.
Told about Mickelson’s comments as he visited the course yesterday to open the new season, Lawrie added his voice to Castle Stuart’s hopes of becoming the first Scottish venue to host a WGC and only the third in Great Britain & Ireland. The American Express Championship was held at Mount Juliet in 2002 and four years later at The Grove – both events being won by Tiger Woods.
“Why not, absolutely,” declared Lawrie. “You could see any tournament being brought here as it’s a magnificent place. Imagine a WGC Matchplay event round here – 64 of the world’s best players playing on a links course in Scotland.”
While Lawrie himself only braved the bracing conditions on this occasion for a photo shoot with the Scottish Open trophy, the Aberdonian added: “This is the golf I was brought up on, hitting a 5-iron in from 150 yards as opposed to a wedge.
“Today, in fact, would be the right level of wind. You need that, any links course in the world without wind is not much of a challenge. They need it. That’s why they are great. You can go 65 and 75 and play the same both days. That’s the appeal of links – it changes every day.”
After a storm-hit first bite at the cherry, Castle Stuart passed its second Scottish Open test with flying colours last summer. Jeev Milkha Singh claimed the title, but, for the second year running, the event also featured the man who went on to become Open champion the following week as Ernie Els emulated Darren Clarke’s feat from 12 months earlier.
“It reflects well on the tournament that each of the last two Open winners played at Castle Stuart the previous week,” added McColm as he launched a scheme that will see spectators who buy tickets for this year’s event securing a discount to play the course.
“I think the European Tour are keen to make sure that stat is out there that Darren Clarke and Ernie Els both played here the week before they won the Claret Jug. That’s great news for us, it’s great for the tournament and great news for the people who dreamed up putting the Scottish Open back on the links.
“The slogan this year for the tournament is ‘this is real golf’ and this is the roots of the game. We are proud of the Claret Jug and what it all stands for. And, if we can help in any way shape of form to get people in tune for that week, then it’s great.”
Lawrie, who missed the cut last summer but will be back in July to give it his all in a bid to add the Scottish Open to three previous victories in the home of golf, has been disappointed with his start to the new season – “diabolical” putting being the main problem – but is resisting the temptation to add an event to his schedule before the Masters in just over a fortnight.
Instead of heading out to Malaysia this week or travelling to Houston or Morocco next week, he has decided to stay at home to give his two sons, 17-year-old Craig and 14-year-old Michael, support as they prepare to play in the following week’s Scottish Boys Championship at Monifieth. “Ideally I would have played the week before The Masters, but I feel it’s more important to watch the boys playing in such a big tournament,” said Lawrie. “I’m still struggling a bit with my back and my neck and I’ve been having treatment on that, so it might work out perfectly that I’ve got another three weeks before I play.
“I feel I need some time out because it’s been a hectic time, not just with my playing commitments but also with the expansion of my Foundation and taking over the Aspire Golf Centre in Aberdeen. That’s been hard going, as you can imagine taking over a business and changing it demands a lot. I felt I needed three or four weeks to down tools for a bit, so I haven’t hit a ball since I got home (from the WGC event in Doral a fortnight ago). But I feel ready to go and I’ll get right back into it next week, hitting balls most days hopefully if the treatment goes well.”
• Scottish Open tickets are available on www.europeantour.com/tickets