Gulliver’s travels takes Scottish Open on tour

Royal Aberdeen is already a Walker Cup venue, here Scotland's James Byrne plays the 18th in 2011. Picture: Getty
Royal Aberdeen is already a Walker Cup venue, here Scotland's James Byrne plays the 18th in 2011. Picture: Getty
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ALREADY champing at the bit, Martin Gilbert’s desire to get back playing golf again as he recovers from a dislocated shoulder has suddenly deepened. As chairman of a committee tasked to find two new venues for the Scottish Open, the Aberdeen Asset Management chief executive is set to become a golfing Gulliver over the next 12 months.

After three visits to Castle Stuart, it was already known that next year’s event is moving to Royal Aberdeen, scene of Tom Watson’s Senior Open Championship triumph in 2005 and renowned for a front nine, in particular, that is right up there with the best links handiwork in the cradle of the Royal & Ancient game.

Welcoming fresh news is that the future of one of the European Tour’s biggest events has been secured until 2017, it will boast prize-money totalling £13 million over the next four years and, probably the most exciting bit for the Scottish golfing public, it’s going on a road trip that will include a deserved return to Inverness.

From the Granite City, the journey will almost definitely be south. Whether the destination in the Central Belt is in the east or west coast – only links courses will be in the frame, which rules out a return to long-time home Loch Lomond in the near future – is still to be determined.

If it’s the east, the Renaissance Club, which sits next door to Muirfield, is the likely destination in 2015.

Considered among possible venues when Castle Stuart was handed its golden opportunity to put golf in the Highlands on the global map, a grand total of £32m has been spent to ensure it ticks all the boxes when it grasps an opportunity this week to showcase itself to the world.

George O’Grady, the European Tour’s chief executive, is scheduled to be amongst a string of high-profile visitors in the coming few days to a venue that only opened four years ago but has already improved the Tom Doak-designed course by opening three new holes and also has the infrastructure and space to cope with Scottish Open crowds.

The same, of course, applies to Carnoustie, where the event was held twice in the mid-90s.

It’s no secret in the game, however, that the R&A aren’t keen on European Tour events being staged on courses on its rota for the Open Championship – there might be an exception to that rule, though, and more about that later – so a return there is unlikely.

Kingsbarns, another of the three venues used for the Dunhill Links Championship, could well throw its hat in the ring for that east coast stopover, which, if not in 2015, will almost certainly happen in 2017 instead, with 2016 having been identified as the most likely date for the event’s return to Castle Stuart.

Graeme McDowell apart – in fairness to the Irishman, a self-confessed fan of Loch Lomond, he issued a personal apology to the sponsors for claiming the tournament’s prestige had been diluted by moving to the Highlands venue – few will be unhappy about that part of yesterday’s announcement.

Plain and simply, Inverness and the surrounding area has bought into the Scottish Open big style, welcoming the event with open arms and bouncing back admirably from a horrendous start, when freak weather caused landslides on the picturesque course and reduced the event two years ago to 54 holes.

It deserves to be coming back – by 2016 the prize fund, currently at £3m will have increased to £3.25m and will rise to £3.5m in 2017 – and it also deserves to be in line for a return to the west of Scotland, where bumper crowds enjoyed its 15-year stint at Loch Lomond.

Dundonald Links, its sister venue in Ayrshire, could be a destination when the road trip hits that neck of the woods again – either in 2015 or 2017 – as could Turnberry or even Royal Troon, where in both cases the R&A would have to offer some leeway. The Open is heading back to Troon in 2016, for example, so there’s a possibility that testing out course changes there the year before could be appealing to the St Andrews-based body.

There’s some big decisions to be made, hence why Gilbert, the golfing Gulliver, is set to embark on his travels. But, at a time when the bottom has fallen out of the tournament scene in Spain and the Irish Open doesn’t boast a title sponsor, it’s encouraging that Scottish golf’s flagship event is safe and sound thanks to a unique tripartite arrangement between Aberdeen Asset Management, the Scottish Government and the European Tour.

Back at Castle Stuart, where he’d partnered world No.8 Phil Mickelson in the pro-am last Wednesday, First Minister Alex Salmond said he was delighted to “safeguard, secure and enhance” the event’s future.

“This has been a sponsorship of outstanding success and, just as Castle 
Stuart has proven, the venues where 
the event takes place through to 2017 can provide outstanding platforms for Scottish golf,” he said.