Martin Dempster: Time for our major courses to be in Scottish Open mix

I t was said on numerous occasions last week. “There aren’t really a lot of options when it comes to venues for the Scottish Open!” Just think for a second how utterly ridiculous that sounds in a country that boasts some of the best courses in the world.

Austrian Bernd Wiesberger with the Scottish Open trophy following victory at The Renaissance Club.

A reason for that actually being the case, of course, is because the pick of those venues are effectively off limits when it comes to this tournament due to the R&A not being keen on courses on the Open Championship rota being used for regular European Tour events.

It’s not been written in stone, of course, because Carnoustie and St Andrews have co-hosted the Dunhill Links Championship with Kingsbarns since 2001. However, that is the reason why those courses, along with Muirfield, Royal Troon and Turnberry are never mentioned when talk turns to possible Scottish Open venues.

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“It’s not official not to use The Open venues, but I’d never ask the R&A and they’ve never said no, to be fair,” revealed Martin Gilbert, chairman of Aberdeen Standard Investments in a chat over the weekend at The Renaissance Club as it hosted the event this year for the first time. “If I was them, I’d want to keep it pretty exclusive. They use those venues for their own events. The R&A are very commercial these days and they do a great job.”

On the one hand, you get why the St Andrews-based body is keen to keep that “exclusivity” for the game’s oldest major but, on the other, it is part of a huge problem for the Scottish Open and one that should surely be reviewed at some point in the near future.

Next year’s event will almost certainly be returning to The Renaissance Club. That was the original plan and, despite it being ripped apart over four days in benign conditions on the East Lothian coast, the fact the event attracted a record crowd of 66,864 for the tournament since it left Loch Lomond nine years ago will have been pleasing for the organisers.

But where to after that? Kingsbarns could be a possibility at some stage, while a return to Royal Aberdeen, where Justin Rose triumphed in 2014, might materialise, though it appears that is dependent on the club wanting the event back. It has also been said that the players found it a bit on the “tricky” side on that first visit, something they’d rather avoid the week before teeing up in the Open Championship.

Castle Stuart, on the other hand, was deemed “too easy” when it staged the tournament on four occasions. Due to its location, the crowd figures don’t match the ones for events in the Central Belt, though, in fairness, the final round there in 2016 coincided with Andy Murray winning the Wimbledon final.

While it might not be for every player, it deserves to be considered again at some point, though the focus in the short term definitely appears to be East Lothian due to its proximity of the Edinburgh headquarters of the title sponsor, Aberdeen Standard Investments.

“This [The Renaissance Club] works best logistically,” said Gilbert as he hinted a return was on the cards next year once feedback from the players was properly digested by the event’s three partners. “It is a very big site, which helps enormously.”

The majority of players, caddies, tournament staff, etcetera, seemed to be staying last week in North Berwick and, though it would be a magnificent Scottish Open venue from a TV perspective in particular, it just isn’t possible, sadly.

The course is too short for the modern-day game and would be destroyed.

It also doesn’t have the space to handle the infrastructure and crowds, which is also why Dunbar, another terrific coast on Scotland’s Golf Coast, can’t come into the equation.

Next year’s tournament is the final one under the current deal between Aberdeen Standard Investments, the Scottish Government and the European Tour. There is nothing to suggest a new deal will be struck and also nothing to suggest that the Irish Open, no matter how determined they might be to get it, will ‘steal’ that prized pre-Open Championship slot.

“We are reluctant to give up this date,” declared Gilbert. “We almost lost it eight years ago to go to Stockholm [before Aberdeen Standard Investments took over the title sponsorship at the end of Barclays being the backers], so we musn’t ever get in that position. We don’t want to be remembered as the people who lost 
[the slot]!”

To that end, there can be no denying that it would be beneficial for the sport, surely, and the home of golf, for that matter, to see the Scottish Open being played at the likes of Carnoustie, Muirfield, Royal Troon and Turnberry five years apart from when they are staging an Open Championship at a time when the courses, apart from St Andrews, are on a ten-year cycle for the Claret Jug event.

Where better, after all, for players to prepare for an Open Championship than on Open Championship courses and, while Gilbert, European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley and his VisitScotland counterpart Paul Bush might not want to make that request to the R&A, then consider it done.