Martin Dempster: Loch Lomond still has pull

Darren Clarke plays a round at the Loch Lomond Golf Club in 2006. Picture: Getty
Darren Clarke plays a round at the Loch Lomond Golf Club in 2006. Picture: Getty
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LOCH Lomond Golf Club. Remember it? Home of a European Tour event, latterly the Scottish Open, for 15 years and one of the favourite stopovers (except when those damned midges were biting) on the circuit for players, officials and fans alike.

Created for exclusivity, it proved an annual treat for the Scottish golfing public to be let through the gates, the opportunity to spend some time in one of golf’s most idyllic locations being just as appealing as the presence on their doorstep of some of the game’s global stars.

Ernie Els, Tom Lehman, Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell, Retief Goosen and Martin Kaymer were among those to claim victories there before, on the back of a members’ buyout, the drawbridge was suddenly pulled up.

It was concluded almost exactly three years ago, since when hardly a peep has been uttered about life at Loch Lomond after its spell in the golfing spotlight and whether or not it might return there one day, having been touted in the past as a possible venue for a first WGC event to be held in Scotland.

Apologies to Bill Donald, the general manager, for using a PGA in Scotland press conference at Dundonald Links, its sister course in Ayrshire, last week to effectively hijack him but, in truth, it was time those curtains were drawn back and some light was thrown on a venue that remains special to those who set foot there, be it to play or spectate.

The club, it seems, is thriving again, the buyout group, which was led by former industrialist and BAA chairman Sir Nigel Rudd, having attracted around 200 new members despite the joining fee having been increased to £95,000. Its appeal overseas remains as strong as ever, with 35 different countries being represented in the membership, 45 per of which consists of players from outside the UK.

“Loch Lomond has grown so quickly (since the buyout) and there’s a bit of buoyancy among the board and the members,” revealed Donald, a Belfast man who was director of golf at The K Club when it staged the 2006 Ryder Cup. “There were about 350 members and now there are about 500 to 550. UK membership is now closed and we are only looking for 70 members.

“I think you had a membership at the club for quite a while that stayed through the trials and tribulations of everything that went on and now we have this whole new membership that’s come on board. Loch Lomond is a members’ club – it is what it is. It is a very strong club with a very strong board, and why not? It has produced for the members with great investment in the facilities and there are plans to reinvest even further.”

It would be a shame if those wrought-iron gates weren’t swung open again at some point in the future and, having earned its stripes as a top-class tournament venue – it was also a candidate for this year’s Ryder Cup when hats were being tossed in the ring – a WGC event seems like a perfect fit.

“No,” replied Donald to being asked if that possibility had already been raised, “but I’m not saying it isn’t an aspiration. There’s great confidence among the staff. They move as one, which is a unique thing about Loch Lomond, as are the skills that there are through dealing with the Scottish Open. And I think the board are mindful that the staff enjoy that sort of pursuit of something that has an international factor. Also, if you are one of the members, you will want to see it on TV and have that badge of honour, if you like.”

While we’ll just need to wait and see what, if anything, lies ahead on the tournament front at Loch Lomond, there’s a strong possibility that the Scottish Open could be heading to Dundonald Links, with North Ayrshire Council backing a bid to take the Aberdeen Asset Management-sponsored event there, possibly in 2017.

A European Tour delegation, which included Peter Adams and Mike Stewart, the Scottish Open championship and tournament directors respectively, visited the Kyle Phillips-designed course last month to check out its suitability as a possible west coast leg as the event is moved around the country and now, along with the likes of The Renaissance Club and Gullane on the other side of the country, it’s a case of waiting for a decision from Wentworth.

“We are happy to support the possibility of the Scottish Open at Dundonald, which is set up for tournament golf, and has been for a period of time,” insisted Donald of a venue that was originally bought by Loch Lomond exclusively for its members but opened to non-members in 2007 and now clocks up between 12-15,000 visitor rounds per year.

“There are good relations between a lot of people at Loch Lomond and the European Tour; North Ayrshire Council are very strongly in support, looking at upgrading the area around Dundonald; and we have our own plans regarding a clubhouse and a practice area to Loch Lomond standard.”

My ‘inferior’ displays met with disdain

JUDGING by an email that dropped into my inbox last week, it appears future visits to my home club of Aberdour may have to be made under cover of darkness or wearing a disguise.

It was from the club’s match committee chairman and, to all intents and purposes, inferred I’d become an

embarrassment to the game for someone that held a ten handicap – or used to!

Under the “requirements of the CONGU Unified Handicapping System”, I was informed that my handicap was being adjusted and, at the press of a button, I’d gone up from 10.4 to 11.4.

“The reason your handicap has been adjusted is a reflection of the scores recorded in medal competitions played last year,” stated our handicap expert. “The scores returned over the year were considered inferior to that expected for your handicap category.”

He couldn’t have made me feel smaller if he’d gone out of his way, though, based on a year when the raft of lows included a fresh air shot on the first tee at Muirfield, I don’t think I’ll be rushing along to the club to lodge an appeal!