The links at Castle Stuart was resplendent in the sunshine yesterday, as journalists gathered for the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open media day. With stunning views across the glistening Moray Firth to the Black Isle and inland, past the Kessock Bridge to distant mountains still flecked with snow, there can be few settings for golf more awe-inspiring than this.
The course has matured well since the Scottish Open was first held at Castle Stuart in 2011. The grass-coverage is more complete now and subtle tweaks to the layout have improved the playing experience.
Before the round I chatted to Castle Stuart’s General Manager, Stuart McColm, about the course and the championship. He’s extremely pleased with how the layout has developed under the expert guidance of Course Manager Chris Haspell, and rightly so.
The use of purely fescue grasses (although five different species) on the greens has been a great success. It’s created supremely smooth putting surfaces – amongst the truest I’ve putted on. They are also able to control the speed with ease. For general play, they’re not terrifyingly quick. It’s a good thing because the slopes and run-off areas on, and around, the greens are challenging enough without being super-slick. But, when the top boys are here next month, they’ll easily get them running at a pace that will test the short games of the very best.
There have been critics who’ve said the course is too easy for the elite golfers; the fairways are too generous and there’s not enough trouble. I think this is wrong. The fairways are wide but, with extremely difficult green complexes, it’s essential to be in the correct place on the fairway for the approach. It’s a layout that tests strategy and forces the players to think about placement on every shot.
On a flat calm day, the very best will score well here. But that’s the same as on almost every links course. The wind is the principle defence. Last year, the first three rounds were played in still conditions and there was some great scoring. But on day four, the wind got up and only six men broke 70, with plenty of the European Tour’s best firing in the high 70s.
Stuart McColm made a good point – The winning score at Castle Stuart last year was 271, the following week for the Open at Lytham the winning score was 273. Just two shots higher, but nobody was arguing that the Lancashire links was too easy. The difference was that Castle Stuart has a par of 72, compared to 70 at Lytham. So the under par scores were -17 in the Scottish Open, compared to -7 in The Open. Stuart was saying how they could easily make the par at Castle Stuart 70 by changing a couple of tee positions, but it’s not something they want to do.
Perhaps we’re all a little obsessed with “to par” scores in tournament golf these days. It’s the lowest total score after 72 holes that wins and what does it matter if that is 30-under-par or 10-over? The Claret Jug has the winner’s name engraved and the total score – no mention of par.
An excellent field is coming together for this year’s Scottish Open. Recent BMW PGA Championship winner Matteo Manassero is the latest star to confirm his participation and, with the Open at Muirfield the following week, many of the world’s best will complete their final preparations over the Moray Firth links. Phil Mickelson will compete again, so too Padraig Harrington, Paul Lawrie and a host of other top players.
The Scots will, of course, be well represented and Stephen Gallacher was in attendance yesterday to talk about the event and to give those assembled a quick links golf master-class. It was quite incredible to watch him playing a variety of shots from all manner of awkward situations. Unlike many of today’s pros, the Scot is not averse to playing a running shot when there’s nothing between him and the flag. On the 18th, he used almost every club in the bag, from putter to lob wedge, to play from the same position on the fairway. From some 30 yards out, not one of his shots ended more than 10 feet from the cup. And he did it all while chatting to the group watching – impressive stuff.
“It’s probably the fifth Major for the Scots,” Gallacher said of the tournament. “This is the one we want to win, in front of your own fans, in your own country.”
Gallacher has won on the links before – taking the Dunhill Links Championship of 2004. It’s 14 years since a home player took the Scottish Open title, Colin Montgomerie at Loch Lomond in 1999. But hopes for a Scottish winner are high this season. Both Gallacher and Scott Jamieson have won on the European circuit in 2013 and Marc Warren lost in a playoff at Wentworth. Warren should have won at Castle Stuart last year, but collapsed on the run for home to allow Jeev Milkha Singh in.
“Marc will have good memories here though,” said Gallacher. “He’ll probably be the one to beat.”
Let’s hope the weather for the tournament is like it was yesterday. In the warm sun, the place is heaven on earth for golf lovers. The more people who get to see that, either live or on the TV, the better.
The Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open takes place at Castle Stuart from July 11-14. Tickets are available at aamscottishopen.com or europeantour.com/tickets