THERE are 11 more days to go before the third major championship of 2012 kicks off at Royal Lytham & St Annes, but for one competitor at least, this week’s Scottish Open at Castle Stuart is an even bigger deal than the 141st Open.
Paul Lawrie, “champion golfer of the year” back in 1999, is that man.
“It’s easy for any Scot to say that our own national Open is one of the most important events in the professional game, but I honestly think that it is,” says the 43-year-old Aberdonian.
“The venues we have had over the years have been second to none. Since I came on tour we’ve played at Carnoustie, Loch Lomond and now Castle Stuart. I can’t imagine any European Tour event could beat that trio for sheer quality. I’d like to see the championship move around even more, though. We have so many great courses – we could have maybe a five-strong ‘mini-rota’ a bit like the Open has. I’m sure we could find two more to add to the three I’ve already mentioned. I know the Renaissance Club in East Lothian is keen.
“And ‘Scottish Open Championship’ is such a prestigious title, one that has always attracted a much better than average field. Last year, in fact, was the strongest ever, in terms of how many top-100 players were in Inverness. And this year will be no exception.
“Add all that together and I don’t really need to explain why it would mean so much to win. In fact, if I were told I could win only one more tournament in my life, the Scottish Open would be the one. That would mean more to me even than a second Open victory. To be Scottish champion would be beyond cool.”
Those predicting a Lawrie victory on the southern shore of the Moray Firth are hardly sticking their necks out of course. Over the last 18 months, Great Britain’s last (male) major champion has performed almost as well as anyone on the European Tour. Even better, with two victories and a string of high finishes over the last 18 months or so, he is now very close to clinching what will be a second Ryder Cup cap this September at Medinah in Chicago.
“The next two weeks are perhaps the biggest of my season and the Ryder Cup only adds to that,” continues Lawrie, who currently lies second in the European half of the qualifying standings. “I’m a big fan of links golf – I’d rather play wearing my waterproof jacket than in shirt-sleeves on a boiling hot day – and I’d like to see more of it on tour. In fact, it would make perfect sense to have a month-long ‘links swing’ – modelled on the grass court season in tennis that finishes at Wimbledon – climaxing with the Open.
“I know everyone enjoyed Castle Stuart last year, despite the awful weather we had. I love the concept of the place, with minimal rough. There’s a lot of strategy on almost every hole, a bit like there is on the Old Course at St Andrews. Hitting the fairway is easy. But hitting the right part of the fairway, one that gives you a chance to get the next shot close to the hole, that is the difficult part. If we get some wind and the course is running it will be a proper links challenge. And links golf in its purest sense.
“Those watching this week should pay most attention to the shots we will be allowed to play around the greens. When there is long grass close to the putting surfaces, it takes almost all of the skill out of chipping and pitching. Anyone can grip a sand wedge tight and give the ball a bit of hit. That’s pointless, eliminates any skill and reduces everyone to the same level.
“So it is rough that only gives the poor chipper a chance. If you want to see the really skilled players separate themselves from the rest, you need grass cut as short as possible. Really tight lies are the ultimate test of nerve, execution and technique, as well as giving us choices about what sort of shot we want to play. Again, introducing touch and feel to the equation is what proper links golf is all about. I love situations where I have to hit a 5-iron to what would normally be a 7-iron distance. I love hitting ‘soft’ shots to keep the ball low in a wind. That’s when you find out who can really play and who can’t.”
As far as his own recent form is concerned, Lawrie remains reasonably happy. While he hasn’t put himself in recent contention for what would be an eighth European Tour title, his play has been steady enough, apart from the odd loose round like the 76 he posted on the third day of the Irish Open at Royal Portrush. So “good but not great” would perhaps be an apt description. Which, upon further review, sounds a little harsh when you consider that he followed the aforementioned 76 with a score ten shots better and currently sits a highly commendable sixth in the “Race to Dubai”, or money list, what used to be the Order of Merit.
One thing he certainly isn’t regretting is his decision to skip last month’s US Open in San Francisco.
“While I must admit I didn’t watch much of the play, the number of people who have since told me I missed nothing has been reassuring,” he says. “Besides, I had a lot going on during the week of the US Open, things I didn’t divulge as part of my reasons for not going over there. I didn’t want to say that I had two big charity events scheduled, just in case the people involved thought they were preventing me from playing in America. So I never mentioned any of that and stuck to the story that my schedule was already in place, which was true anyway.
“Having said that, from what I did see it looked like the sort of course I wouldn’t have enjoyed playing. I’ve never been a fan of that style of golf. I could have gone over there and destroyed all the confidence I have built up over the last year or so. So, although I take no pleasure from the fact that I made the right decision not to go, I’m glad I did what I did.”
Looking forward, apart from the immediate prospect of his favourite fortnight of the golfing season – and taking pleasure from the fact that, for the first time in his career, he is currently Scotland’s highest-ranked player – it would be naive to imagine that the upcoming biennial battle with the Americans is not the one thing dominating Lawrie’s mind. Right now, he’s nearly there – but not quite.
“The big point is that I’m not there yet,” he agrees. “But it’s true I’m in a good position. So I’m challenging myself to try and win the qualifying, not just make the team. For me, it’s not about just collapsing over the line. I want to go there as a winner, not just a qualifier.”
Paul Lawrie’s European Tour & Major Championship victories
1996 Catalonia Open
1999 Qatar Masters
1999 Open Championship
2001 Dunhill Links Championship
2002 Celtic Manor Resort Wales Open
2011 Open de Andalucia
2012 Qatar Masters
2001 European Tour Shot of the Year
2000 Awarded MBE in New Year’s Honours List