Feelgood factor in Aberdeen is a bonus

THERE are two obvious reasons that the decision to take this year’s Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open to Royal Aberdeen for the first time was never going to be regarded as a risk.
Castle Stuart in Inverness has played host to the Scottish Open since 2011. Picture: Jane BarlowCastle Stuart in Inverness has played host to the Scottish Open since 2011. Picture: Jane Barlow
Castle Stuart in Inverness has played host to the Scottish Open since 2011. Picture: Jane Barlow

First and foremost, the reputation of the Balgownie links as an outstanding test of golf is no secret and it’s a shame, really, that a club founded in 1780 – making it the sixth oldest in the world – has had to wait until now to finally earn its week in the spotlight.

Sure, it staged the 2005 Senior Open Championship, in which Tom Watson claimed the title after beating Irishman Des Smyth in a play-off, then, three years ago, the Walker Cup, where Great Britain & Ireland upset the odds against a star-studded United States side.

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But the Scottish Open, in its prized slot the week before the Open Championship and carrying a £2.5 million prize fund, is a notch above either of those events in terms of focus, particularly when you’ve got Phil Mickelson heading there as defending champion and a supporting cast that will definitely include Rory McIlroy and, almost certainly, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose and Graeme McDowell as well.

It’s highly unlikely that any of them have taken much persuading, especially when you consider that the last three Open champions – Mickelson, Ernie Els and Darren Clarke – all picked up the Claret Jug after using the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart to prepare for the game’s oldest major and McIlroy, for one, is definitely looking forward to honing his links game in the heat of battle rather than practising that week.

If they did need a little nudge, though, then it has almost certainly been delivered by Paul Lawrie, primarily, of course, because he wants his home city to play host to a world-class field but also because he wants that for Aberdeen Asset Management, his long-time sponsor and in its chief executive, Martin Gilbert, a close personal friend.

Understandably so as a major winner, Lawrie commands respect among his peers, especially on this side of the Atlantic, and there’s little doubt the odd quiet word here and there, both about Royal Aberdeen and the warm welcome that awaits in the Granite City, will have carried considerable weight.

“Having Paul, with his standing in the game and a proud Aberdonian, almost acting as an ambassador for the event has to be very helpful,” admitted Peter Adams, the Scottish Open championship director and one of the officials in attendance when Lawrie was invited along to Royal Aberdeen to take part in a recent site visit and offer his thoughts on potential course set-up.

“While we obviously do our homework and talk to players, you don’t know what the reaction to a new venue is going to be, but Royal Aberdeen seems to have caught the imagination of a number of players,” added Adams. “We are delighted with the names we’ve been able to announce already and we are in the process of announcing a few more in the next few weeks.”

It’s incredible, really, that Lawrie has had to wait until the age of 45 to tee up in a European Tour event in his own backyard, though that is the other reason why this year’s Scottish Open could easily be a bigger hit in terms of both spectator numbers and corporate interest than it was at Castle Stuart and, possibly, even Loch Lomond.

While the Senior Tour and Challenge Tour caravans have rolled into the North-East in the past decade, this is virgin territory for the European Tour, so you can imagine how exciting it must be for the thousands of golfing enthusiasts in an area that includes gems such as Cruden Bay, Murcar Links and, of course, Trump International Golf Links, to have the likes of Mickelson and McIlroy heading there in less than four months’ time.

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“It is all looking very positive,” insisted Adams. “In addition to the great response we’ve had from players, we are also delighted with the reaction of both the Aberdeen community and the Aberdeen business community. The corporate support, for instance, is very strong, both in terms of new sponsorship and companies taking the opportunity to entertain.”

Like anything moving somewhere new, though, it is always helpful when a place is enveloped by a feelgood factor. So, as far as timing goes, Aberdeen FC ending a 19-year trophy drought by winning the League Cup – Lawrie was among the 40,000-strong Red Army at Parkhead, while Richie Ramsay followed the penalty shoot-out on social media after completing his final round in Morocco – couldn’t have been better. “There’s a bit of sporting fever starting to hit Aberdeen,” noted Adams, who is based at Wentworth but was well aware of the significance of the events in Glasgow. “The Scottish Open is part of a ‘Summer of Sport’ being promoted by the City Council and this has been kicked off very nicely indeed by the football team winning the League Cup.”

If Derek McInnes’s side also lift the Scottish Cup, Lawrie could still be on cloud nine in mid-July. He makes no secret of the fact, though, that the Scottish Open is the one title he’d dearly love to add to his impressive CV and achieving that on home soil – Ramsay, too, will be relishing that opportunity, of course, at a club where he is an honorary member – would certainly be cause for another major party in the Granite City.