The Growth of the Scottish Open

The Next Tier of Courses on a Championship Rotation

First played in 1935, the Scottish Open had something of a chequered history until 1986 when it was given a boost and moved to the inland course of Gleneagles. It had a distinctly European flavour to it, Ian Woosnam perhaps being its highest profile winner during this period. In 1995 it spent a brief couple of years at Carnoustie ahead of the their reintegration back onto the Open roster, before finding a new home at Loch Lomond in 1997

There can be little doubt that it was suffering however due to its proximity to the Open though. Top international players preferred to use the links courses of Ireland as practise for the Open. The solution was obvious. Move it to a Scottish links. In 2011 the Highland course of Castle Stuart hosted for the first time. A year later Luke Donald won on the same track. Perhaps the biggest single boost came in 2013 when Phil Mickelson triumphed at Castle Stuart and wasted no time in suggesting that preparing in ‘the Scottish’ was critical to his subsequent success at Muirfield a week later. An even stronger field assembled for 2014 when Royal Aberdeen did the honours. Justin Rose prevailed this time, but Rory McIlroy provided further evidence that the Scottish was developing as a springboard to success when following up at Hoylake. 2015 broke the link, Zach Johnson lifted the claret jug at St Andrews, but the Lothian course of Gullane still saw Rickie Fowler edge out Matt Kuchar. The pattern was convincingly restored in 2016 however. Not only did Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson spread-eagle a field at Troon having used the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart as their launchpad to do so, but both the third and fourth placed finishers (JB Holmes and Steve Stricker) also played the week before. With supreme irony, the highest placed finisher who hadn’t played at the Scottish Open was Rory McIlroy, the same Rory McIlroy who had earlier suggested that Castle Stuart wasn’t linksy enough to act as a preparation. In 2017 the spell of the Scottish was broken slightly as Jordan Spieth prevailed at Birkdale, yet the four who finished behind him, Matt Kuchar, Haotong Li, Rory McIlroy, and Rafa Cabrero-Bello (the winner of the Scottish) all played at Dundonald, as did Braden Grace who shot a new Major record of 62 and came tied for sixth. In total seven of the top-10 finishers played the Scottish. The same total as in 2016.

What Faraway Fairways are really interested in though is the establishment of a future rota for ‘the Scottish’ as it throws all sorts of interesting things into the mixer and no small amount of politics to boot just to complicate the brew.

Scotland does have what we might call ‘golf playing’ regions, but unlike say the wine producing regions of France, Scotland’s golf regions are a bit looser and not really that well defined. You can pick up guidebooks and see completely different lines drawn on maps. The golf industry is important to the economy of Scotland. Recognition of this prompted the Scottish government to take a stake in the Scottish Open. The Scottish government however are keen to share the event around the country, so one of their first considerations is an equitable geographic spread

In addition to geography, there is also a tacit priority seemingly given to membership politics and public accessibility. It becomes politically difficult for the Scottish government to use public money to support a golf club that operates restrictions.

The politics of the decision is by no means restricted to the partisan though. There is a small ‘p’ political consideration to observe too. When in 2009 Barclays were looking at sponsoring the event, then CEO Bob Diamond saw Turnberry as a natural host. On approaching the course however it is reported that they turned the invitation down, for fear of jeopardising their status on the Open rotation, preferring instead to remain with the R&A. It is known that the R&A do not want the prestige of their courses undermined by hosting European Tour events so this seemingly strikes down the St Andrews Old Course, Carnoustie, Royal Troon, Trump Turnberry, and Muirfield. Barclays withdrew shortly after and were replaced by Aberdeen Asset Management. It is perhaps worth noting however that St Andrews and Carnoustie, along with Kingsbarns, host the Alfred Dunhill links challenge in October each year. It’s not like there is no precedent for this

It was widely believed that the 2017 Scottish Open was going to be held at the Trump International Links in Aberdeenshire. Well it isn’t difficult to imagine that the course made a favourable impression on the assessors. At 7400 yds it’s more than up to tour championship standard, and is stunning. Aberdeen proved in 2014 (as if it were necessary) that the city has the infrastructure to support the award. Again politics intervened. As Donald Trump discovered with Doral, sponsors are nervous. When you also throw in the mix of the Scottish Government, the whole package and its associations started to become messy. It doesn’t seem likely that the Trump International will host a Scottish Open any time soon, but the fact that it was seemingly under consideration might offer hope of a future accommodation.

One thing that everyone agrees on however is the importance of a links course in attracting a quality field. This seemingly rules out Gleneagles, Loch Lomond, and Spey Valley. So discounting the inland courses and focusing on links, Scotland probably has five clear golfing regions. The Highlands are locked down by Castle Stuart. There is no good reason not to continue going back to Gullane, so this accounts for East Lothian and Edinburgh. Aberdeenshire is covered by Royal Aberdeen, irrespective of the Trump International, which leaves Fife and Ayrshire

There is probably an argument to suggest that Fife isn’t really in need of a profile boost. Having said that, Kingsbarns would make for particularly attractive television, although it wouldn’t have the hotel facilities. Having flagged this concern, it is only 8 miles from St Andrews. In theory at least, it strikes us as tailor made.

So if we’re looking to create an inclusive roster, this leaves us with the most problematic piece in the jigsaw, Ayrshire. The two jewels in the crown, Turnberry and Troon, are caught in the clash with the R&A’s rota. Western Gailes is simply too tight to host the event hemmed in as it is by a railway and a coastline. The neighbouring Gailes course suffers similar drawbacks, as does Prestwick, which is also just a bit too quirky and too short for a tour event. Almost by default therefore, the only name that’s left standing is that of Dundonald.

Dundonald certainly had her doubters, but the course was immaculately presented, and the winning score of 13-under (albeit aided by tough conditions for the third round) suggests she was wasn’t chewed up and spat out. On balance, she probably passed the test, albeit Henrik Stenson felt the course had deterred the bump and run and despite looking linksy, needn’t be an ideal prep

In 2016 after a reasonably torrid opening day in the wind at Castle Stuart Phil Mickelson remarked that he’s played the Scottish Open in the past because it offered a gentle reacquaintance with links golf. Challenging conditions that shred confidence and drain mental energy needn’t be what the players really want. Having said that, Phil did come a superb second at Troon a week later, finishing a full 11 shots clear of third. Were it not for running into an inspired Henrik Stenson he would have been lifting his second claret jug having probably played better than he did at Muirfield in 2013. He didn’t play Dundonald in 2017 and missed the cut at Birkdale. Coincidence?

If the organisers could pick a venue from the Ayrshire coast however, we suspect they’d select Royal Troon. Troon has name recognition and you would think it would quickly emerge as the flagship venue for the Scottish Open. Could it happen? Well somewhat perversely Portrush might hold the key.

When Royal Portrush was reintroduced to the Open roster, complete with a three tournament contract it broke the “optimum” balance of eight courses with St Andrews every five years, completing a ten-year cycle. Then Muirfield voted to exclude women from full membership and was stripped of the right to host. In effect Portrush replaced it and simply slotted into Muirfield’s place. Perhaps chastened by the R&A’s decision, Muirfield moved quickly to hold a second ballot and reversed their decision. Assuming that they will be reinstated, this now means that the equilibrium is unbalanced again. Either one of the existing courses will be dropped, the cycle made eleven years, or St Andrews will be reduced to one hosting every decade.

If the R&A hold true to their assertion of using “the best available” then Hoylake would seemingly be the most vulnerable, albeit such a decision would surely leave a sour taste under the circumstances. Hoylake has always been one of the more progressive clubs, for them to be stripped of the privilege just because Muirfield eventually consented to a change in their rules looks particularly ugly however you try and dress it up. The R&A are contracted to go back to Hoylake at least once more before they can make that decision though. Despite their commitment to quality, there surely has to be a commercial consideration too? Hoylake makes good money. Then there’s politics (again). Dropping Hoylake against this backdrop awards Scotland six Opens in a ten-year cycle. England would only have three. Faraway Fairways can easily foresee a fudge whereby the R&A resolve that the respective quality differential between Hoylake and Troon is deemed close enough to consider dropping the Scottish venue instead, even if the course rating assessors regard it as superior

It needn’t even be Portrush that pulls the trigger however. There is a strengthening geo-political lobby to add Wales and Royal Porthcawl, and so complete a ‘British’ jigsaw. Those who played in the 2013 Open Championship at Hoylake, and the Seniors Open a few weeks later at Porthcawl, were pretty unanimous in their appraisal as to which was the best links. Adopting Porthcawl causes another ‘green bottle to accidentally fall’ as pressure is applied from a second direction. Who though?

Royal St Georges at Sandwich is the R&A’s window on London. They won’t surrender that. Royal Birkdale is widely regarded as England’s best links, so they’re safe. In other words, we believe that in a close-run decision Troon can probably survive Muirfield being reinstated, and probably do so to the detriment of Hoylake in the long-term if quality is used to arbitrate. We doubt Troon could see off a second addition though, (Porthcawl in our scenario). Introducing a Welsh representative would seemingly pit Troon against Royal Lytham. Whereas Faraway Fairways believe Troon to be marginally better, it needn’t be decisively so, and especially if this means England dropping down to just the two venues

Now you might say there is a name missing in all this idle speculation, and that is Trump Turnberry. You’d be right. No course has ‘politics’ more firmly cemented in its DNA than the venue that last hosted in 2009. The R&A have skirted around the issue quite adroitly so far, but tellingly perhaps, have not formally removed it from future consideration. There can be little doubt that Turnberry more than meets the quality threshold, and especially since its renovation. In early survey’s it had overtaken Muirfield as the UK’s best course. There’s always been something of a question mark over its commercial potential however, but the R&A have been able to sign off on that before.

So what do we see long-term? Well we wouldn’t be shocked to see Hoylake and Troon removed in favour of Porthcawl. This then opens up the possibility of Troon becoming the signature home of the Scottish Open, perhaps fulfilling a similar status to that which St Andrews lends to the Open Championship. There is of course an almighty problem with any such suggestion. Is there any reason to believe Troon’s members would agree to such a request? Well it would certainly be a loss of prestige, and the club is wealthy and not exactly in need of the money. Our best guess is that Troon would pass, and prefer to keep the course open for their members

For the ‘brand’ of the Scottish Open to succeed, it might have to move to a recognisable flagship course which viewers, spectators, and sponsors can begin to build a relationship with. The other courses could then be rotated around it on an eight year cycle of, one (4) + four (1’s). The obvious ‘best fit’ would be Turnberry, Bob Diamond was probably right, but for such time as the name ‘Trump’ is emblazoned on things, it seems impossible that an SNP or Labour led Scottish government could agree to this, and that’s before we reconcile other tour sponsors. It’s frustrating. The Scottish Open is probably on the cusp of something quite big, but the final obstacle looks insurmountable