Scottish Open venue can help renew the connection between strategy and top-level golf

This year's Scottish Open has a host of big names with big records. American world No.6 Phil Mickelson, right, is a three-time winner of the Masters and also a winner of the USPGA, while Ireland's Padraig Harrington has two Open championships and a USPGA title to his name.

South African Ernie Els has an Open and US Open titles, his countryman Retief Goosen won the US Open twice, Argentina's Angel Cabrera won the US Open in 2007 and the Masters two years later, and Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal has twice won the Masters. Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell won the US Open last year, and Aberdeen's Paul Lawrie won the Open at Carnoustie in 1999.

Veteran Sandy Lyle is the other Scot with to have tasted major success, having triumphed in the Open in 1985 and the Masters in 1988.

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The tournament is also playing host to world No.1 Luke Donald, No.2 Lee Westwood and No.7 Matt Kuchar.

Italy's Edoardo Molinari will be defending the title he won at Loch Lomond last year, while weel-kent Scots include world No. 25 Martin Laird, and last year's Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie.

As you'd expect at one of the biggest events on the European Tour, a lot of pretty nifty golfers are in the field for the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart this coming week. There are major champions, Ryder Cup team members and even some - hold your breath - Americans making a rare venture outside the cosseted and one-dimensional confines of the PGA Tour. But it's unlikely that any of the participants will provide the most enduring recollection of what should be a memorable few days in the endlessly picturesque Highlands. That accolade will surely go to the magnificent links itself, the best course built in the British Isles since the Second World War.

The joint creation of owner Mark Parsinen and designer Gil Hanse, Castle Stuart really is that good. Set in a delightful location on the banks of the Moray Firth, the course embodies all that is strategically intelligent about the greatest game of all. Instead of the boringly long rough and stupidly narrow fairways that are too often the mindless norm in 21st century professional golf, Castle Stuart is all about width that allows golfers of all standards to play each hole in ways suited to their own abilities. If, say, a 15-handicapper wants to settle for bogey on every hole he can do so with relative ease. The potential problems start when the more proficient and ambitious aim for pars or birdies.

"The philosophy we went in with was simply to make the course playable and fun," says Hanse. "We wanted everybody to be able to navigate around and enjoy the experience.Mark has a great phrase he uses to explain that, he wants everyone to be 'engaged' from tee-to-green. In other words, every player should be able to finish every hole without spending time looking for lost balls.

"Our hope is that, within those wide, playable corridors, there is enough inherent strategy in the angles and the hole locations to challenge tour players. While the fairways are nearly all about 50 yards wide, being on the correct side greatly increases the chance of the approach shot finishing close to the pin. So, in reality, the proper landing areas are only maybe 25 yards wide.

"The same is true on the greens. They are spacious and tend not to have a great deal of contour, but you need to be on the correct side of the hole. Missing on the wrong side is never good because there is a lot of contour around the greens. So I hope there is enough complexity in the design that it is challenging and interesting for the level of player we will see this week. All while being more than playable for the average guy who goes there the other 51 weeks of the year."

Hang on, though. Aren't the big wide landing areas and the lack of rough going to make the course "too easy"? Shouldn't golf at professional level be simply a test of execution, devoid of creative thinking, the players given obvious, pre-conceived and well-defined targets to aim at and hit?

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"My biggest hope is that we get a good champion," continues Hanse. "I really don't care what they shoot. I know most designers do care about winning scores, but I really don't. I just want everyone to enjoy the experience. Besides, the level of scoring is all down to whether or not the wind blows. If it does, the winning score will be maybe four or five under par; if it doesn't those playing well could shoot 24-under.

"So many architects get fixated by the notion of making really good players look bad. I don't want that at all. I want to see them making birdies and showing off their skills. And I want our course to lend itself to all of that. If that means low scores, so be it. Besides, if top players playing well can only shoot, say, 69 then there is something wrong with the test presented to them.

"It is odd that so many people don't appreciate how interesting and difficult short grass can be when used as a hazard. My mind always goes back to the play-off for the 1989 Open Championship at Royal Troon. Greg Norman had missed a green but had nothing but short grass and a bank between him and the hole. He stood there and thought about it. Then he switched clubs. Then he thought about it more. Eventually he just chunked the shot. The best player in the world had been perplexed by the subtlety of what was in front of him. His mind was full of doubt.And that, especially with the distances they can hit the ball these days, is just about the only way we can mess with a really good professional."

Speaking of which, it is to be hoped that the European Tour officials charged with course set-up this week take full advantage of what is in front of them. According to Hanse, the ample opportunities for mixing and matching the tees and pin positions to the meteorological conditions are too good to miss.

"One of the things we really stressed at Castle Stuart is how easy it is to marry the design to the set-up of the course," he explains. "We have provided opportunities for anyone to set up this course to be very difficult. You can move the tees back and tuck the pins away if that is what you want to do. But what is also provided is an opportunity to set the course up to play quite easily.

"That's so important for a big tournament. The officials should have the flexibility in the design to set up the course properly, no matter what the weather does day-to-day. They can mix the tee and flag positions to match the conditions and always have a nice balance of difficult and easy holes."

"That is actually going to be the most interesting aspect of the tournament, to see if strategy actually does matter. I know Mark intends to "chart" play to see whether or not approaching the greens from what we think are the proper angles has a significant effect on scoring. We want to see the player who drives up the right side when the pin is tucked back left to get his due reward. Equally, we'd like to see the guy who drives left on that same hole - and so has a horrible angle of approach - being subtly penalised by the design."

As for which holes are likely to provide most entertainment, subtle or not, Hanse picks out four: "The three short par-4s - the third, ninth and 16th - will be, for me, the most interesting. I can't wait to see how really good players tackle those holes. There are so many choices off each of those tees.

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"The 18th will also be exciting. Finishing with a par-5 always brings a lot of numbers into play. Unless it is dead into the wind, most players will be able to reach in two shots - or at least be tempted into trying. I like the scenario where a lot of things can happen on the final hole."

Or, in the case of Castle Stuart, all 18 holes.