John Huggan: Missing links on the map

Looking back towards the greens  at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club in Aberdeen, Scotland. Picture: Getty
Looking back towards the greens at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club in Aberdeen, Scotland. Picture: Getty
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ON EVERY European Tour there is inevitably a range of tournaments. Some are populated almost exclusively by the rank-and-file. Others are played in distant lands in time zones inconvenient to Old World inhabitants and invariably won by men whose names would surely flummox even the most accomplished speller. I give you Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Thaworn Wirachant by way of examples.

Then there are the special weeks, the events in which the big boys come out to play. Like the Aberdeen Asset Management-sponsored Scottish Open that will this week take place over the storied – and much underrated – links of the Royal Aberdeen club. Even a quick glance at a field containing the likes of Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Jimmy Walker, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Rickie Fowler, Lee Westwood, Ernie Els, Louis Oosthuizen, Darren Clarke, Nick Faldo and Padraig Harrington is enough to highlight the quality on show at the course known locally as “Balgownie”.

Sir Nick Faldo of England in action. Picture: Getty

Sir Nick Faldo of England in action. Picture: Getty

Perhaps even more appetising is the rare prospect of watching Scotland’s top-nine ranked golfers – Stephen Gallacher (37), Russell Knox (98), Martin Laird (150), Marc Warren (162), Richie Ramsay (163), Paul Lawrie (202), Scott Jamieson (213), Craig Lee (249) and Chris Doak (341) – all playing in the same event at the same time. It will be an especially special few days for three of those men, of course. Aberdeen natives Lawrie and Ramsay will be playing on home ground and Knox, now firmly established on the PGA Tour after a string of fine performances this season, will on Thursday strike his first competitive shot on Caledonian turf as a professional.

Still, for all that, the real star of the upcoming show will be, one suspects, the Royal Aberdeen course. For reasons that can only be geographic, the Balgownie links has never really been given the recognition it deserves. Even as the likes of the British Senior Open (won by Tom Watson) and the Walker Cup (won on behalf of Great Britain & Ireland by some brisk winds and chilly temperatures) have made their way to the North East corner of golf’s homeland since the turn of the century, the undoubted quality of the host venue has gone largely unnoticed.

Last week, Faldo quoted Watson as saying that the front nine holes at Balgownie are maybe the best in the world. Even allowing for some hyperbole on the part of either or both, they make an excellent point. Running through some spectacular dunes, the opening holes represent links golf at its very best, the classic combination of strategy, course management and shot execution intoxicating. It will be fascinating indeed to see how the game’s best cope, hopefully with a bit of breeze added to the mix.

Another treat in store for all discerning golf watchers is the prospect of seeing the 57-year-old Faldo in action. Now a full-time commentator on America’s Golf Channel and CBS networks, the Englishman’s visit to the Granite City will be the second of three successive playing appearances. After last week’s Greenbrier Classic – where he shot 71-77 to miss the cut – Faldo will also take in the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.

“I’m really looking forward to playing the Scottish Open,” he said upon accepting a sponsor’s invitation last month. “It’s going to be great to come over, dust off the cobwebs and play some golf. I’m enjoying the process of gearing up to play. I try to practise as much as I can but I still have injuries that curtail my workload. Trying to play in between my television schedule is difficult too.

“If you haven’t played competitive golf for a while, you can’t be competitive. But my mind is good, which is the number one battle. I’m playing partly out of curiosity and to see what I can do, but I’d like to go out there and play well. I’m excited to play a bit of links golf and to see what Royal Aberdeen is like. I’ve heard great things about it so I’m very keen to see it for myself.”

Still, for all that, perhaps the most anticipated visitor to this year’s national championship is last year’s winner, Open champion Phil Mickelson. Twelve months on from his memorable double last July, the 44-year-old Californian is returning to defend the title he claimed so memorably at Castle Stuart. In doing so, of course, he fully embraced for the first time the nuances and subtleties of golf by the seaside. The only surprise being that it took such a naturally gifted individual so long to get the hang of things. Ordinarily, Mickelson is game for anything.

“I enjoy Scotland, I love the cool weather and I love being near the water; it makes me feel energetic,” he says. “Plus, the people are always so welcoming. And the courses are always such fun to play.

“Last year I went out with persimmon woods and old Titleist Professional balls. I couldn’t believe how much smaller they were. People don’t realise that balls today are much bigger. Anyway, I hit some drivers and put the results on the launch monitor. I was surprised. The old balls were probably a bit ‘dead’ but they were shockingly shorter than today’s.

“I’d love to see us using the old stuff in a one-off tournament. I played with those clubs and balls, but most of the young guys haven’t. The perimeter weighting of the balls today is on the outside. We used to have more weight in the liquid centres, so the outer part was much lighter. Now, the core doesn’t spin as fast and so doesn’t move so much off line. But I don’t mind the modern ball. As a player you just have to adapt.”

All of which sounds a lot like what will be required this coming week at Royal Aberdeen. The winner is going to have to have all the shots in hopefully a variety of conditions. Which is where we came in. The Scottish Open: proper golf on a proper course in a proper event.

2003: Ernie Els (South Africa), Loch Lomond. The Big Easy’s second Scottish Open on the bonnie banks, having also secured the title in 2000.

2004: Thomas Levet (France), Loch Lomond. A last-hole bogey in a play-off cost the Parisian the Open Championship at Muirfield in 2002, but he made no mistake in the Scottish Open, securing the most prestigious title of his career a stroke clear of New Zealander Michael Campbell.

2005: Tim Clark (South Africa), Loch Lomond. The United States-based Clark had tied for third earlier in the year at the US Open at Pinehurst and he was on good form again at Loch Lomond as he finished on an impressive 19-under-par 265, two strokes ahead of runners-up Darren Clarke and Maarten Lafeber. It was the last of Clark’s three wins on the European Tour.

2006: Johan Edfors (Sweden), Loch Lomond. A great year for the big-hitting Scandinavian, whose two-stroke Scottish Open win followed victories at the TCL Classic and the British Masters earlier in the season. They remain his only three European Tour wins.

2007: Gregory Havret (France), Loch Lomond. The three-time French amateur champion’s biggest win to date, keeping his cool to beat US star (and current Scottish Open champion) Phil Mickelson in a play-off by making par at the first extra hole. Havret, right, went on to win the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles the following year.

2008: Graeme McDowell (Northern Ireland), Loch Lomond. The Portrush man chalked up his fourth European Tour win, finishing two strokes ahead of runner-up James Kingston from South Africa. McDowell went on to play in the Ryder Cup and win the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach.

2009: Martin Kaymer (Germany), Loch Lomond. The Teutonic tyro came from a shot behind on the final day to win by two strokes, notching up his fourth European Tour win just a week after getting his third at the French Open. Among his subsequent wins are the 2010 US PGA and this year’s US Open at Pinehurst, North Carolina, where he stormed to victory by eight strokes.

2010: Edoardo Molinari (Italy), Loch Lomond. The Turin native played alongside his brother, Francesco, and Darren Clarke in the final threesome of the final Scottish Open at Loch Lomond, Edoardo eventually finishing three shots clear of second-placed Clarke. Edoardo followed up by winning the Johnnie Walker Championship in August at Gleneagles, birdieing each of the final three holes to win by a single shot.

2011: Luke Donald (England), Castle Stuart. Donald shot a bogey-free nine-under final round to win his first tournament as world No.1. The championship had been reduced to 54 holes due to heavy rain that caused flooding and a landslide at the Inverness venue.

2012: Jeev Milkha Singh (India), Castle Stuart. Arguably India’s best-ever golfer, Singh beat Francesco Molinari in a play-off to claim his fourth European Tour title. The win also gained him entry to that year’s Open Championship at Lytham.

2013: Phil Mickelson (United States), Castle Stuart. After winning the Scottish title in a play-off with Branden Grace, the popular Californian said: “I’ve never felt more excited going into The Open... Coming out on top just gives me more confidence.” He went on to claim the Claret Jug by three strokes at Muirfield, hitting four birdies in the last six holes for a closing round of 66 and becoming the first golfer to win both the Scottish Open and the Open Championship in the same year.