A combination of a less demanding course set up and favourable weather conditions produced a low-scoring Johnnie Walker Championship last week as the Perthshire layout underwent its final dress rehearsal for the Transatlantic contest in 13 months’ time.
Englishman Tommy Fleetwood’s winning 18-under-par total of 270 was the second lowest in the event’s 15-year history, eclipsed only by current Masters champion Adam Scott carding rounds of 67, 65, 67 and 63 when he lifted the title by ten shots on 26-under in 2002.
Fleetwood, who beat Stephen Gallacher and Ricardo Gonzalez in a play-off, was amongst 34 players to finish on ten-under or better, while all but two of the 72 players who qualified for the final two rounds managed to break par.
Admitting he’d be “delighted” if his European team reproduced the same level of scoring against the Americans, McGinley said he was pleased to have seen the course playing differently from most of the annual visits he’s made since 1991.
However, the Irishman insisted he has an open mind as to how he’d like it to be set up for the Ryder Cup and is set to seek out the opinions of fellow players before making that decision.
If Howell, who broke par in each of his four rounds to finish in a tie for 17th on Sunday, is one of those asked, the Englishman will be telling McGinley that he’d like to see it toughened up.
“There wasn’t much rough out there last week other than if you had a real wide,” said the 38-year-old, who made a winning debut in the biennial joust at Oakland Hills in 2004 before being on the winning side again two years later at The K Club.
“In previous years, it has been quite brutal off the tee and I think it’s a better course when the latter is the case. I don’t necessarily buy that it’s all about cheers for birdies in a Ryder Cup. The cheers come from winning holes, not necessarily from birdies.
“So I would like to see it set up tougher than it was last week. I think driving has to be a real premium – that’s what this course is all about. Without the rough just off the fairways, it loses a bit of its teeth and that’s a shame.”
Since 2011, a total of £1.3 million has been spent on course improvements that have included a sub-air system for the greens and extensive modifications by Jack Nicklaus, the original course designer.
“I think the changes are good and there’s now a bit more drama,” added Howell, who is hoping to be back at Gleneagles himself next September – preferably as a member of McGinley’s side but, if not, as part of the Sky Sports team.
“There’s a bit more thought needed for the second shot at the ninth, though personally I’m not sure they have the bunkering a 100 per cent right there. But the water being in play is a huge improvement. Something this course has lacked has been some trouble other than heavy rough if you are off line.
“The 18th used to be a bit of a boring par-5 and now it is not, as you could see players having all sorts of trials and tribulations up there. Unlike some, I don’t think the green is too severe. It’s a short par-5 and, if you miss the green, you can have trouble getting on in three. It makes you think and I actually think it is quite clever.”
Asked how he thought Gleneagles compared to Ryder Cup venues he’d visited either as a player or commentator, Howell said: “I don’t think anyone is going to try and pass this course off as a Muirfield Village or one of the classic American courses.
“But look at The Belfry. It wasn’t the greatest of courses when the Ryder Cup went there but it produced plenty of drama. Gleneagles is a lovely place to be and I think they’ve tried to add a bit of potential drama here knowing it was a tad on the boring side.
“They’ve made a good effort to make it a bit more exciting and I’m sure it will be. The course will hold up well and it will certainly be in great condition. How it plays in the Ryder Cup will depend a lot on how they set the course up.”