The European Tour returns to the majestic Castle Stuart Golf Links by Inverness this week for the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open. Luke Donald defends the title as the top players complete their final preparations for the Open Championship.

This will be the second year Castle Stuart has hosted the Scottish Open. The Mark Parisnen design earned great praise from players, press and spectators last year and the top pros are relishing a return to the links in the week before the year’s third Major at Royal Lytham.

“I like to play links golf before I get to the Open,” said twice Open winner Padraig Harrington. “I know some people don’t like playing the week before a Major, but there’s no substitute for playing competitive links golf.”

Harrington will be just one of the many star attractions at Castle Stuart this week.

World Number 1 and defending champion Luke Donald is on the start sheet, so too are Phil Mickelson, Martin Kaymer, Ernie Els, Paul Lawrie and Louis Oosthuizen.

The 2010 Open champion is looking forward to a return to the Scottish links.

“Scotland for golf is a great place,” said Oosthuizen. “It’s a special place to be and when you walk on these links golf courses, it’s just something really special. It’s nice to be on a golf course that’s a bit different, a lot of shot making and just the way it was supposed to be from the start.”

Castle Stuart has already earned recognition as one of the finest new courses in the world. It was a new entry in Golf Monthly’s most recent top-100 ranking at number 25.

Set on the stunning Moray Firth coastline, the course features dramatic changes in elevation, wispy grasses, rumpled fairways and sloping greens, it’s a fantastic modern take on the classic Scottish links.

After 10 years as lead sponsors of the Scottish Open, Barclays have handed the baton this year to Aberdeen Asset Management. The event has a great history and has witnessed some great winners since it began European Tour life in 1972. Ian Woosnam was three times a winner, twice at Gleneagles then once at Carnoustie, Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood and Retief Goosen have all been champions.

Last year Luke Donald won a rain-shortened tournament by four shots over Fredrik Andersson Hed. An incredible downpour hit the course last year and forced the tournament to be reduced to 54 holes. Organisers will be hoping the weather is a little better this season.

Venue: Castle Stuart Golf Links
Date: Jul 12-15
Course stats: par 72, 7,193 yards
Purse: €3,168,000 Winner: €518,045
Defending Champion: Luke Donald (-19)

TV Coverage:
Thursday 5 – Live on Sky Sports 1 from 10.30am
Friday 6 – Live on Sky Sports 1 from 10.30am
Saturday 7 – Live on BBC 2 from 1pm
Sunday 8 – Live on Sky Sports 2 from 2pm

Player Watch:
Luke Donald – The defending champion will be celebrating a milestone this week. It’ll be a collective year (52 weeks) as World Number 1 for the Englishman. He missed the cut at the US Open and will be determined to bounce back from that Major disappointment next week in Lytham – a good performance here will give him the platform to achieve that.

Francesco Molinari – He was 10th in the Irish Open, then runner-up last week in France where he closed with a superb 64. It’s his first visit to Castle Stuart but it’s a course that should suit his game.

Nicolas Colsaerts – The big-hitting Belgian was third in this event last year. He’s grown in confidence since that performance. He won this year’s Volvo Match Play, put on a good performance in the US Open and was 11th last week in the French Open. On paper, he should contend this week.

Key hole: 7th. A par 4 of 461 yards, if the wind is against it requires two good shots to get home. There’s plenty of room from the tee if you play up the right side but the further right you go the less green you can see from the fairway. The green itself looks to be perched on the edge of a cliff high above the sea – visually very intimidating.