Salmond welcomes talks over Scottish Open sponsor

LESS than three years after the event’s future was in doubt, the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open is now almost certain to occupy its prime pre-Open Championship slot on the European Tour until 2020.

Kylie Walker gives the First Minister some tips on putting at North Berwick golf course. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Already secured through to 2017, discussions have opened between the event’s three partners – the European Tour, the Scottish Government and Aberdeen Asset Management – to extend the contract for another three years.

It would take AAM’s title sponsorship to nine years, just one less than the number of times it was played under the Barclays banner, which is testament to the event’s success since First Minister Alex Salmond, European Tour chief executive George O’Grady and AAM chief executive Martin Gilbert got their heads together to come up with a plan to protect its future.

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Organisers of both the Irish Open and, in particular, the French Open were ready to move in if the Scottish Open slot had become available ­following Barclays ending its association with the event after the first of three successive stagings at ­Castle Stuart near Inverness in 2011.

However, that door was slammed shut by the formation of an exciting new partnership, which has now resulted in the tournament having a bright future as it moves around the home of golf.

It was held this year at Royal Aberdeen, moves next year to Gullane, then returns to Castle Stuart in 2016, with a west of Scotland venue – possibly Dundonald Links – being sought for 2017.

The prize fund is rising from £3 million to £3.25m over the next two years, then going up to £3.5m in 2017. Add in the fact that the past four Open Championship winners – Darren Clarke, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and, of course, Rory McIlroy – all used the Scottish Open as part of their preparations and the three partners see an event they believe is ready to go from strength to strength. “This is our 2020 ­vision for the event,” said Salmond as he joined O’Grady and AAM chief investment officer Anne

Richards, deputising for Gilbert, in signing a Memorandum of Understanding to enter talks at a press conference held yesterday at North Berwick Golf Club.

“It is a sign of the success of the tournament, which we are happy about, but there is much more to come and now we aim to build it year by year to make it second only to the Open Championship in terms of the greatest links tournament in the game.”

He added: “With the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles just weeks away, the eyes of the golfing world are falling on Scotland. The Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open has gone from strength to strength and is one of the most anticipated competitions on the Tour by players and fans alike.

“Aberdeen Asset Management’s tremendous support has had a huge hand in the tournament’s growth and the opening of these negotiations will hopefully see that fruitful partnership continue.”

It was described as “very powerful” and “enduring” by O’Grady, who attended a gala dinner for this week’s European Tour event in the Czech Republic on Tuesday night before boarding an early morning flight out of Prague yesterday so that he could attend the announcement in East Lothian. “Following the initial agreement, announced at Edinburgh Castle in March 2012, our partners have gained outstanding value from their association with the Scottish Open and the European Tour,” he said.

“As we strive towards our agreed vision for the 2020 Scottish Open, I have no doubt that the continued commitment, drive and vision of Aberdeen Asset Management and the Scottish Government, working in partnership with the European Tour, will continue to enhance this superb championship each year.”

As hinted at in The Scotsman when plans for the event were announced just over a month ago, a new 54-hole qualifier for the Scottish Open will be held at North Berwick next year. It is set to take place on 4-6 July, when six spots will be up for grabs.

Salmond revealed it had been introduced to help avoid “agonising choices” with invitations and is hoping players from an all-Scottish field – the event will be run by the PGA in Scotland – can use the opportunity to challenge, in turn, for the Open Championship spots up for grabs in the Scottish Open.

“Someone coming through from the Scottish Open qualifier to win the Open might not be likely or probable, but that fairytale is going to be possible and that’s one of the great things about golf,” said Salmond.