There is a reason why six of the last eight winners of the Open Championship have also chosen to play the Scottish Open .
Much like tennis pros would rather not parachute themselves into Wimbledon without playing a grass-court tournament in advance, most top-level golfers need to acclimatise to the idiosyncrasies of links golf ahead of their annual bid for the Auld Claret Jug.
There are obviously exceptions, including last year when Jordan Spieth was crowned Champion Golfer of the Year at Royal Birkdale having not played competitively in the previous four weeks after winning the Travelers Championship, while 2015 Open winner Zach Johnson came up trumps in a play-off at St Andrews having stepped off a charter plane from his home state of Iowa after finishing third at the John Deere Classic the previous Sunday.
Yet for the most part, it has paid to pitch up in Scotland ahead of the oldest major championship of them all. You don’t even have to win the Scottish Open necessarily to succeed the following week, with only Phil Mickelson of those last eight players in 2013 managing to go back-to-back having triumphed over Henrik Stenson at Muirfield seven days after winning up on the Moray Firth at Castle Stuart.
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Yet getting rounds of links golf under the belt has been hugely beneficial and whether it was at Ballyliffin last week during the Irish Open or this week at Gullane, the experience can only stand to those with ambitions of winning the third major of the year.
Take 2016 as an example, when Stenson would avenge his Muirfield disappointment by eclipsing Mickelson in that epic final-round duel at Troon. That year’s Open top four (JB Holmes was third and Steve Stricker fourth) had all played Castle Stuart the previous week.
Rory McIlroy, whose putting in Donegal – missing nine putts from between three and 10 feet – prevented him from challenging for his home Open, will not be on Scotland’s “Golf Coast” this week, preferring to practise in private on Irish links. But he encapsulated the necessity for elite pros to wean themselves off parkland golf in order to succeed by the seaside.
The 2014 Open champion McIlroy, who tuned up for his victory at Holyoake with a top 15 at Royal Aberdeen, said last Sunday: “Links golf is just so much different from what we play week in, week out, especially in America. The golf course that we played in Hartford (at the Travelers) a couple of weeks ago compared to the golf course here, it’s chalk and cheese, completely different golf. It’s a different game.
“So it was nice to get a competitive start on a links course, especially a firm links course with the weather under my belt before heading to The Open. Just, you know, bumping shots into greens, not being able to fly the ball all the way on, running it up, just getting comfortable with that stuff is really important heading into The Open.”
Which is why the top Americans have flown into Scotland and made the short trip from Edinburgh along the East Lothian coastline to Gullane, eager to accustom themselves to the proper links test of summer golf that awaits them over the next two weeks.
This week’s heatwave will provide scorched fairways reminiscent of Muirfield five years ago, just a few miles further along this famous golfing coastline that is also home to Musselburgh and North Berwick GC, where 2015 champion Rickie Fowler, when the event was last played at Gullane, chose to play on Monday night, pushing his hand cart into the long evening and by all accounts showcasing the sort of shot-making imagination that separates the great from the good on a links course.
Gullane, where Rafa Cabrera Bello is defending champion, may not be the classic links challenge in the truest sense that Ballyliffin was a week ago but that fiery fairway hardpan will provide an excellent tune-up in a superb field that you’d be silly not to take advantage of a week out from The 147th Open.
Six to follow
Rickie Fowler – 9/1
The 2015 Scottish Open winner with four rounds in the 60s when this European Tour event last visited Gullane and T9 last year at Dundonald Links. His other start was in 2014 when he finished T8, going on to place T2 behind Rory McIlroy at Hoylake in The Open.
Tyrrell Hatton – 16/1
Twice a winner of the Alfred Dunhill Links, fifth in The Open at Troon in 2016 behind Stenson and Mickelson, the Englishman has a good Scottish Open record, with a second at Castle Stuart 2016 and fourth at Royal Aberdeen in 2014. Coming of a sixth at the US Open and T16 in France a fortnight ago.
Matt Kuchar – 22/1
Second behind Fowler at Gullane in 2015, when he eagled both par-fives in the first round. Also an Open runner-up to Jordan Spieth at Birkdale 12 months ago and who knows what have been had he not been left waiting an eterninty for his rival to play out from behind the equipment trucks.
Andy Sullivan – 25/1
Arrives in Scotland following a good week at the Irish Open where he landed his sixth European Tour top-10 finish of the year with closing rounds of 65 and 69 at Ballyliffin.
Russell Knox – 25/1
It’s 19 years since Colin Montgomerie last delivered a home win at the Scottish Open but Knox’s triumph at Ballyliffin last week will fuel thoughts of an end the drought. His two monster putts at the 18th to first card a closing 66 and then beat Ryan Fox in the play-off must have armed Knox with bulletproof confidence as he goes home having re-entered the World top 50 again.
Graeme McDowell – 60/1
It’s amazing how the Last Chance Saloon can focus the mind and GMac has just walked through the swinging doors as he tees up his final shot at qualifying for The Open next week. He doesn’t even need to win, being able to claim one of the three spots on offer to the best finishers not already exempt and will be the better for a trying time last week when when he lost his clubs, missed the final qualifying competition and then ground his way around Ballyliffin for a T40 finish.