Scottish Open 2019: Defending champion Brandon Stone recalls ‘special’ success at Gullane

South African is still ribbed about missing out on last round 59, he tells Martin Dempster

Brandon Stone emulated compatriots Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Tim Clark as he claimed the title at Gullane 12 months ago. Picture: Getty Images
Brandon Stone emulated compatriots Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Tim Clark as he claimed the title at Gullane 12 months ago. Picture: Getty Images

Brandon Stone may have squandered a golden opportunity to become the first player in European Tour history to shoot 59 but hearing himself announced as the “Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open champion” over the past 12 months has certainly helped soften that blow.

Yes, of course, the South African would love to have holed a seven-foot birdie putt on the 18th green at Gullane last July to become the circuit’s history-maker before England’s Oliver Fisher achieved the feat just over two months later in the Portugal Masters.

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That, though, would have been the icing on the cake for Stone in the week he produced the best performance of his career to claim a first Rolex Series success.

“It’s been phenomenal,” admitted the 26-year-old from Pretoria of his reign, having joined the names of fellow South Africans Ernie Els (2000 and 2003), Retief Goosen (2001) and Tim Clark (2005) on the trophy. “Being the Scottish Open champion and a Rolex Series winner has many, many perks. It’s one of those events you’ve always watched as a kid due to it being the week before The Open and to have my name alongside some great names is testament to a lot of hard work.”

On a fast-running composite course at Gullane, Stone opened with rounds of 70-64-66 before surging to the top of the leaderboard on the final day after making eight birdies in the opening 15 holes and then rolling in an outrageous curling left-to-right putt for an eagle-3 at the 16th.

Needing a birdie in the final two holes to card a 59, he left a 25-footer agonisingly short before dropping to his knees in disappointment after sending a seven-footer past the left edge at the 18th as he became the 29th player in the tour’s history to sign for a 60.

“It was a special way to win, for sure, but I think having a chance to shoot the first 59 in European Tour history has probably been more of a conversation topic than the victory because it seems everybody, especially back home, keeps asking me, ‘how did you miss that putt for a 59?’” said Stone, laughing. “It’s one of those slight sore spots, I suppose, but then I just have to remind myself that I still ended up winning the golf tournament and you can’t exactly complain about that, especially when it is the Scottish Open.

“It was one of those days, really, that just went by in a blur, to be honest. I let myself play with a bit more freedom than I had been in the months leading into that event. My game felt as it did in the weeks before, but in the lead-up I’d been putting myself under quite severe pressure to perform. We went into that week thinking it could be my last one for a while as I wasn’t in The Open at that point. I played with a lot more calmness all week and gave myself an opportunity to play some good golf. I was relieved when Sunday night came around but, at the same time, I was proud of the effort.

“I had holed a nice putt on the par-3 12th and I thought then, ‘you have to hole a few more like that to have an opportunity to pull this off’. That was the first time I had that little bit of spark and little bit of belief that there might be something on here and I could make it happen.

“Then I holed a putt on the 16th that was absolutely ridiculous. It was almost like out of a storybook that one. I remember seeing videos afterwards of the projected line and to go outside that and see it drop was pretty cool.

“Even then, though, I had no idea at all that I had a chance of shooting 59 as my caddie had done a phenomenal job of distracting me. When we walked on to the 18th green, it was honestly the first time that I had looked at a scoreboard.

“I noticed we were two or three ahead and I said to him to have a read of the putt as I walked off to the right-hand side of the green. While I was standing there, I thought, ‘that’s a lot of red number and no bogeys – that’s quite nice’.

“When I counted up that I had made eight birdies and an eagle, I thought, ‘so I’ve got this for a 61’. I then looked up the scorecard and saw it was a par 70 and I looked at my caddie and said, ‘do you know what this putt is for?’ and he nodded his head.

“He said that I’d not asked him to read a putt in three days and now I was throwing him under the bus by getting him to read this one and he said, ‘are you kidding me?’ That was a funny experience.”

As he heads back to Scotland’s Golf Coast, albeit to a new venue this year, Stone is feeling quietly confident that his game is close to clicking again after implementing some major changes at the end of the 2018 campaign. “After a fantastic season, we felt my game was at a stage where it had probably peaked,” he said. “I wasn’t happy about that, so we made a few adjustments at the start of this year. I have hired my trainer to travel with me full-time, for example, so we are working very hard on the physical side to get myself in the best shape. I didn’t have the ability to play four or five weeks in a row without fatiguing quite heavily.

“We made a conscious decision to look more long term than just 2019. The last time I checked, no-one gets a university degree after one year. It takes a lot of time. You have to be patient and we identified areas in my game where I needed a lot of improvement. The results so far this season may not have been what we are after, but it is only a matter of time before they turn around and I am looking forward to that.”