Sun-kissed fairways and quaint water features are replaced by the real deal in the Scottish Open starter at Castle Stuart on Thursday before next week’s Open Championship main course.
Swede Henrik Stenson’s position at the head of the market looks justified after his win in Germany and previous course form that saw him finish third and eighth in two previous visits to the Inverness track while links specialist Branden Grace was just denied by Phil Mickelson here in a 2013 play-off.
On the off chance the winner isn’t one of the 7 players you’re backing with Paddy this week as of 11am on Wednesday – note any eye catchers who can reward at Royal Troon.
Five of the last six Open winners played in – but didn’t necessarily win the Scottish Open – and Open champions Darren Clarke (T66, 54 holes), Ernie Els (T52) and Phil Mickelson (won) all played at Castle Stuart to varying degrees between 2011 and 2013 before winning Europe’s only Major.
1. Thomas Pieters
Has taken over from compatriot Nicolas Colsaerts as the ‘new’ Belgian bomber but has two MC’s to his name in just two starts at the Scottish Open – one at this course.
Made a promising start to the season when second to Rickie Fowler at Abu Dhabi with the big dogs of Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson a shot behind. A dual winner last season, but bar a third place berth behind Scott Hend at the True Thai Classic last March, Pieters hasn’t really kicked on since then.
Would need to be filling one of the 7 places here to sharpen his game to be considered a serious contender at Royal Troon next week.
2. Shane Lowry
So near and yet so far for Lowry who did a Dustin Johnson (before he became champ) and lost a four-stroke lead at Oakmont with the US Open title in the bag. Four bogeys in his first 10 holes did for the Irish pro as the second Major of the season reached squeaky bum time, and he’ll want to repair any lingering damaging sharpish.
Has two Top 10 finishes in seven starts at the Scottish Open and his record at the Castle Stuart track isn’t too shabby either posting a 14-11-31 in three visits.
Already one of the best-backed players ahead of next week’s extravaganza at Royal Troon, Lowry looks sure to figure here if he’s over that disappointment.
3. Russell Knox
Not quite sure whether he’s America’s favourite Scot or Scotland’s favourite Yank. But the local lad who went to the States on a golf scholarship pushed Rory McIlroy all the way in the Irish Open to finish T2 at the K Club in May after having the lead on the 16th – a few weeks after finishing T2 at the RBC Heritage to Branden Grace.
Finished a respectable T23 at the US Open and with the 31-year-old chasing hard for a place on Darren Clarke’s Ryder Cup team (he took up a European Tour membership this season), could be a value play here despite making his course debut.
There hasn’t been a ‘home’ winner of this tournie since Colin Montgomerie won at Loch Lomond in 1999 and the highest rated Scottish golfer in the world (World No. 27) has won at the highest level when becoming the first Scot to win a WGC event (2015 WGC-HSBC Champions).
Knox has the game and motivation, and could just be under the radar for this week and next.
4. Branden Grace
We’re big fans of the South African links specialist at the PP Blog and he’s already rewarded our faith this season at Harbour Town and is on the short-list for next week.
Grace finished a play-off runner-up to Phil Mickelson over course and distance in 2013 before Leftie went on to win the big one a week later at Muirfield.
Followed up his Harbour Town win with a top 10 at the Valero Texas Open and was in the mix when T5 to DJ at the US Open. Expecting a big run form the South African this week – and an even bigger one at Royal Troon as he looks a leading contender to break his Major duck.
5. Matthew Fitzpatrick
Just two appearances with little success at the Scottish Open where a 77 last year followed a MC on his debut.
But the 21-year-old is destined for greatness and a T7 at the Masters in April gave some indication what he was capable of before following up his 2015 win at Woburn by shooting a 16 under par total to leave a lot of this field trailing in his wake at the Nordea Masters last month.
Has the stones to get the job done.
6. Alex Noren
A third-place finish in 2012 is the high water-mark for the Swede in this competition, who narrowly missed out on the title after jumping on the bogey bus at the 18th to leave eventual winner Jeev Mikha Singh see off Francesco Molinari.
Eighth spot to Thongchai Jaidee at the Open de France last weekend was his first Top 10 finish since going back-to-back at Open de Espana and China Open in April and May.
7. Andy Sullivan
The World No 40 posted his second best finish of the year when T5 to TJ in Paris but a two-hole brain-fart on the back nine saw him drop three shots to allow TJ coast home unchallenged. What made those dropped shots worse for Sullivan is that he eagled the 18th.
A three-time winner last season, the chirpy Warwickshire lad has been spending more time Stateside this year and posted a respectable T23 at Oakmont behind Dustin Johnson.
Has just four appearance in the Scottish Open with a debut 16th at Castle Stuart followed by a MC but if he can perform here for 72 holes like he did in France for 63 he could out-run his odds as he’s starting to trend in the right direction.