IT WAS Mickelson magic at Castle Stuart. This time it was Fowler finesse at Gullane. Rickie joined Phil in becoming a Scottish Open champion with a shot that was equally as good as the left-hander’s sublime pitch in a play-off in the Highlands two years ago.
With a play-off against fellow American Matt Kuchar looking likely at the end of a day when as many as a dozen players were in contention at one stage, Fowler knocked a lob wedge from around 90 yards to a couple of feet at the 18th. His third birdie in the final four holes, it gave the 26-year-old a closing 68 for a 12-under-par total.
Snatching the outright lead for the first time all week when it mattered most, Fowler beat Kuchar (68) and Frenchman Raphael Jacquelin (70) by a shot – Marc Warren finished joint fourth after an agonising four-hour wait to see if his clubhouse target of 10-under would be overhauled following a 64 – to become the fourth American to win this event.
His success in emulating Michael Allen, Tom Lehman and Mickelson added to a play-off win earlier this season in the Players’ Championship. Now Fowler will head to St Andrews with high hopes of matching Mickelson’s Scottish Open-Open Championship double and also become the fifth player in a row to lift the Claret Jug after using this event as links preparation.
“I’d played the last four holes well all week and, after suffering a minor setback with a dropping shot at the 14th, I felt I could birdie all four of them,” said Fowler as he savoured his fourth career win and second outside America, having beaten Rory McIlroy in a play-off to win the 2011 Korean Open.
“I made some great swings over the closing stretch and saved the best one for last. I choked down on it to take five yards off the second shot. I started it on the left edge of the green and had to trust that it would drift over as there wasn’t much room for error.”
In the toughest conditions of the week – the Firth of Forth had white horses riding on it in a stiff north-westerly wind – 64s from both Warren and Swede Rikard Karlberg were outstanding efforts. “This is a good Gullane medal wind,” one local sage told me out on the Main Street in the morning, meaning the members knew that a tough test was in store.
Out in one-under 34, Warren picked up five birdies coming home. When finishing at 2.45pm, he thought 13-under was the target he needed to set but it wasn’t – Kuchar came in at 6.45pm having bettered the Scot’s score. After starting with a bogey, Kuchar was flawless for the rest of the round. His third birdie of the day – at the 16th – seemed as though it would earn him a play-off.
Having shared the lead earlier in the round, Fowler looked to be flagging when he dropped a shot at the 14th. His response to that setback, however, had the hallmarks of a great player. His approach to the 15th came to rest a few feet from the hole. He holed from ten feet for birdie at the 16th after his first putt had careered left on the sloping green there. The shot at the last was the icing on the cake.
It was fitting that both Jacquelin and Englishman Daniel Brooks earned a reward for their efforts in the event, the pair securing Open Championship spots along with Karlberg, who pipped YE Yang for the last of those by virtue of a better world ranking after they finished locked together on eight-under.
Jacquelin fought doggedly all day. In fact, the 41-year-old wasn’t headed until he dropped a shot at the 14th. A birdie at the last repaired that damage and earned a share of second spot. He almost forced a play-off with an approach to the last that ended up 18 inches from the hole.
“I wasn’t aware that I needed to hole that shot to make the play-off – I thought I needed a birdie,” he said afterwards. “So I was a bit disappointed at that stage but I gave it everything today and it’s great to get back into the Open when my confidence is back and my game is good.”
Brooks, who had led after both the second and third rounds, was still in the hunt after holing a string of par putts around the turn. Perhaps inevitably, the 28-year-old from Basildon eventually missed one – at the 13th – and duly followed that setback with another bogey. As he’d done from day one, though, he dug in. A birdie at the 16th means he’ll also be heading for St Andrews. “It’s been a great week,” he said. “After playing some lovely golf for two days, I’ve scrambled like you would not believe over the weekend but I’m over the moon to get a spot in the Open.”
A last-day crowd of 13,286 made the total attendance for the week 63,030. That was slightly less than last year’s figure of 65,833 at Royal Aberdeen and also the final two years at Castle Stuart, where the totals were 63,363 and 65,528. It was a pity the final day was the lowest crowd of the week in East Lothian, especially with Andy Murray not involved in the Wimbledon final.
However, the surprising failure not to create a new attendance record since the event moved to links courses should not overshadow a week that saw Gullane tick lots of boxes. First and foremost, the players loved it. It was also a big hit in terms of spectator experience. This was surely just the start of an exciting Scottish Open relationship.