This year’s Scottish Open at Dundonald Links in Ayrshire is set to provide the toughest test so far since the Aberdeen Asset Management-sponsored event started to move around the country.
That’s the belief of Mike Stewart, the tournament director, and the scoring when the Kyle Phillips-designed venue staged an event as part of the the European Tour’s Qualifying School process certainly backs him up.
The winning total in the last of those events, in 2011, was five-under while the previous year, when Wallace Booth led the qualifiers, it was one-under and, moreover, there were just six scores in the 60s over four rounds from a 94-strong field.
“I think there are a lot of challenges at Dundonald, not least on the golfing front because it’s renowned as one of the toughest golf courses on the west coast,” said Stewart, pictured, as he prepared for a visit today to the venue of the Rolex Series event. “Any breeze at all, which is not uncommon there, makes Dundonald a very tough challenge. It might be the toughest of the Scottish Open venues.”
Knowledge from those Qualifying School tournaments led the Tour to suggest that as many as six greens perhaps needed to be “softened” after Dundonald was confirmed as the venue for this year’s event. With renowned architect Phillips involved, three greens – the fifth, 15th and 16th – have ended up being altered. “We didn’t want to take away the character that was there. At the same time, subtle modifications will make it much better,” added Stewart, who has been the Tour’s man on the ground for the event’s visits to other new venues in Castle Stuart, Royal Aberdeen and Gullane since 2011. “It was going to be very difficult otherwise to find enough pin positions and keep the green speeds down. It was quite good that they brought Kyle Phillips back in and virtually agreed with everything. He could do the work in a very subtle way without people really knowing there had been much change made. A similar thing was done at Kingsbarns, and I think that would have helped him at Dundonald.”
While plans to have a new permanent clubhouse in place for the Scottish Open have been shelved, other work has been carried out around the course in preparation for the venue staging by far its biggest event so far. “The practice putting green was inadequate for tournament golf. It was too small and also had a huge slope across it, so a completely new one has been built,” said Stewart. “They laid the new green back in October, so that should be fairly well on the way now. They have also removed some of the dunes near the clubhouse to fit in our hospitality unit facilities. They did have plans to build a new clubhouse, but that’s now been put on hold. In hindsight, that’s a good thing because where the clubhouse was going to sit is now where the hospitality unit is going to be.
“Dundonald (owned by the Loch Lomond Club) have been terrific. They have been so enthusiastic. Bill Donald (the general manager) is incredibly supportive and enthusiastic. He has been really proactive throughout the whole process so that we can have everything that we need. He and his team have been a pleasure to work with. Frank Clarkson, the superintendent, has been great as well, whether it’s the greens, preparing the ground for the village or new access points.”
Carrying a £7 million prize fund and having now seen five of the last six Open champions – Darren Clarke, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson – play in it the week before picking up the Claret Jug, a top-class field is guaranteed on 13-16 July, though it remains to be seen what effect the Irish Open, with Rory McIlroy as its host, moving to the previous week will have on the Scottish equivalent.
“I’m actually going up there on Wednesday, my first visit for three or four months, just to have another look at it,” said Stewart. “We will spend most of the morning looking at the general golf course and the ground around it, working out the best way to get spectators round it. There are one or two challenges because of the up and down nature of the dunes.
“I haven’t been involved in the traffic side of things, but I think it should be quite good as there are enough roads around there. There’s a lot of work involved in parking, tented village etc. This is the fourth new Scottish Open venue after Castle Stuart, Royal Aberdeen and Gullane. It’s been a good run, but it’s a much bigger challenge when you go to somewhere new. Castle Stuart became easier every year, and last year it was almost the same as before. We had the blueprint that made life quite straightforward.”