Martin Gilbert upbeat about future of Scottish Opens

Driving force behind ASI’s support for golf in this country is optimistic company will still be heavily involved in the game after his retirement

Martin Gilbert will leave a strong legacy when he retires in September, with ASI having been a loyal supporter of golf in Scotland for more than a decade. Picture: Paul Severn

Even without his input and the current impact of the coronavirus, Martin Gilbert is quietly confident about the future of the Scottish Open, both men’s and women’s versions, under the Aberdeen Standard Investments banner.

Gilbert, the driving force behind the company’s strong support of Scottish golf and Scottish golfers for more than a decade, is retiring in September, raising fears in the game that his departure could see the Edinburgh-based company adopt a different attitude towards golf.

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Initially as Aberdeen Asset Management and then Aberdeen Standard Investments following its merger with Standard Life, the company has been the title sponsor of the Ladies Scottish Open since 2008 and the Scottish Open since 2012.

As one of the European Tour’s Rolex Series events, the prize-money for the men’s tournament has risen to 
$7 million while a £1.5m pot is now on offer in the women’s event after it became part of the LPGA through a co-sanctioning with the LET.

In addition, Gilbert was behind a posse of top Scottish players, including Paul Lawrie, Colin Montgomerie, Catriona Matthew and Bob MacIntyre, becoming ambassadors for the company, which has also supported the game at grass-roots level through its backing for Scottish Golf.

It’s going to be some legacy and, though talks with the Scottish Government and the European Tour about a new deal for the Scottish Open have been put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Gilbert is optimistic that ASI will still be heavily involved in the game after his departure.

“They’ve grown and become associated with ASI,” he said of the Scottish Opens, both of which occupy prime slots on their respective schedules and have been held at the same venue a few weeks apart since 2017.

“The chairman [Sir Douglas Flint] shares my view that these are events we should be continuing with. He used to work for HSBC and they have a long history in golf.”

Referring to the men’s event, Gilbert added: “Nothing is guaranteed in this coronavirus shutdown. But for the virus, I would have said it’s absolutely unequivocal that we would renew. But this has thrown it. I still think we’d love to do it, but the whole Tour is up for grabs at the moment. Nobody knows how many events are going to be played this year.”

A mad-keen golfer himself, Malaysian-born Gilbert has enjoyed the opportunities the company’s association with the game has afforded him over the years. Like partnering Lawrie, a long-time friend, when he won the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews in 2001.

“That was a unique experience,” he admitted. “I’ve got a great picture of me picking the ball out of the hole at the last and giving it to him. He’s such an amazing player, still an incredible striker of a golf ball. Marc Warren is also up there as one of the best I’ve played with. Retief Goosen as well.” Games with Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler have also been occasions to cherish. “You can’t beat playing with them,” he added. Through the event, Phil Mickelson has become a close friend. “He came to the house the year it was at Royal Aberdeen,” he said of the 2012 tournament. A year later, Mickelson emerged as the champion at Castle Stuart then won The Open seven days later at Muirfield.

“The way he won in Inverness was so very special,” said Gilbert of the American producing a masterful wedge shot to beat South African Branden Grace on the first extra hole in a sudden-death play-off. “One of the most amazing golf shots you’ll ever see off the hard ground,” observed Gilbert. “An incredible player and such a nice guy.”

MacIntye, the current Scottish No 1 and last year’s European Tour Rookie of the Year, has made a big impression on Gilbert since he became an ambassador. “I was really thrilled to see Bob doing so well last year, that’s really been a highlight,” he admitted.

In the second year of the company dipping its toe in golf sponsorship, Scotland, represented by Callum Macaulay, Gavin Dear and Wallace Booth, were crowned as world champions by winning the Eisenhower Trophy in Australia in 2008. That pleased Gilbert, as did David Law tasting victory on the European Tour last season after coming through the amateur ranks during ASI’s backing.

“Unless we encourage golf at grassroots and amateur level, it will decline even in Scotland, so it’s really important we start in the amateur game,” said Gilbert. “One of the highlights for us has been the way the amateurs have done, with Johann Rupert’s support as well. I suppose the disappointment is that until Bob came through is they haven’t really grown into the pro game as much as we would have wanted. There hasn’t been enough players in the top 100. We really need to get more players in that top 100 in the world.”

The Scottish Opens in particular won’t be the same without Gilbert, a shoot-from-the-hip type of guy. But he won’t be disappearing from that scene altogether. “I’ll be doing other things, I don’t know what, I haven’t decided,” he said of retirement. “But I’ll be trying to scrounge tickets [for golf events]. And get into the pro-ams, obviously.”

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