ANYBODY desperately pouring through the golfing formbooks in the attempt to identify the man of Kent should, according to no less an expert than Phil Mickelson, divert their gaze 600 miles north these next four days. The left-hander believes next week’s Open champion will be playing here at the Scottish Open. Well, that’s narrowed it down to 47.
Considering the world’s top two are in attendance and, indeed, three more members of the world’s top 10, the Californian is perhaps not fully deserving of the nickname “Mystic Mickelson”. Yet the record shows that 12 months ago Louis Oosthuizen became the first winner of the Open who had played at the Scottish Open in eight years. Some might venture that Scotland never has been the best place to warm up.
But all that is about to change, claims Mickelson. The tournament has moved from the beautiful but wholly inappropriate environs of Loch Lomond to the links of Castle Stuart. At last the prep event provides a suitable vicinity in which to prepare. The Highlands will never be confused with Kent, but Castle Stuart is at least from the same species as Royal St George’s. “I expect that the winner of the Open will be in this field,” said Mickelson, who, thanks to the sponsors, has become a fixture at the Barclays Scottish Open. “I think it will be such an advantage to play in this event now.”
Of course, the inference was picked up and Mickelson was at his sharpest to cover himself. “I must have thought that Rory was in the field here,” he said. Yes, since his US Open victory Master McIlroy has to be central to every golfing narrative. The 22-year-old was at Royal St George’s yesterday and on Monday for his early reconnaissance. McIlroy doesn’t like to play the week before a major. In racing parlance “he goes well fresh”.
Some professional golfers are just like that and there is nothing the sponsors can do to change them except dangle enough money to persuade the stay-aways to sacrifice their chance for the greenback. The chances of that with McIlroy are on the non-existent side of slim, although Mickelson does believe more of the big names will soon put the Scottish Open on their schedules. Already, the dress rehearsal’s full costume change has attracted the likes of the world No 1, Luke Donald (who has not played in the Scottish for four years), and Padraig Harrington (who has not played for 12 years). Meanwhile, there are eight Americans here, including the likes of world No 8, Matt Kuchar and recent US Tour winners, Gary Woodland, Brandt Snedeker, Ryan Palmer and Brendan Steele.
“This is the strongest field this tournament has ever had and it will continue to get stronger,” said Mickelson, before going on to explain why more of his countrymen will make the trip across the pond a week earlier. “It reminds me of when one of the tournaments in the States in Charlotte started about eight years ago. A lot of guys didn’t go the first year. They waited to get the feedback. And it was so positive everybody started to play there. That’s what’s going to happen here.”
Mickelson’s confidence is based not only on the aptness of the test, but also on the quality of the arena. Castle Stuart only opened two years ago and in terms of the historic links doesn’t even command foetal status. But already Golf World, the leading American magazine, has called it “the best course built in the British Isles since the Second World War”. Mickelson is not about to argue. “It’s one of the best golf courses anywhere in the world,” exclaimed the 41-year-old. “I think it enjoys that type of status and it’s the creation of a modern-day architect, which I’m not usually a fan of. There are some great ones, like [Ben] Crenshaw and [Bill] Coore, and I think Gil Hanse is also one of the greats who recognises that golf is not about longer and is not about harder.”
Instead Hanse, the American who with the developer Mark Parsinen transformed this startling piece of land overlooking the Moray Firth, places the emphasis on the “F” word. Not the one which rings around every 7,600-yard monster, but “fun”. “Yeah, he recognises golf should be about fun, creativity, challenges, memorable shots,” said Mickelson. “It doesn’t have to beat you up all the time. Gil Hanse has it right and other architects should learn from him. It should almost be a prerequisite to play Castle Stuart before you’re allowed to design golf courses nowadays.” Mickelson’s conviction is that small can be beautiful. At 7,050 yards and with a par of 72, the layout is a veritable pygmy compared to most other championship venues. Yet what it lacks in yardage it makes up for in options. “Longer and harder is not better; it’s just longer and harder,” he said. “Our modern architects have this feeling that equipment has changed the game and therefore they have to make every hole long and hard and totally unplayable for the average player. Unfortunately that’s driven a lot of people away from the game. I think it’s one of the leading reasons why participation has been down. I mean, a lot of these courses are unplayable for us. But everybody would enjoy their round here.”
While the cynics might contend that Mickelson is bound to stress the positives, seeing as he is on the sponsors’ bankroll, this is plainly a subject close to his heart. There can also be no doubt what a victory here would mean to Mickelson. It is a somewhat remarkable stat that a player of his calibre has never won in Britain.
He was beaten in a play-off at the 2007 Scottish Open by France’s GrEgory Havret and the nearest he has come to winning the Open was at Troon in 2004 when finishing a stroke off the play-off contested by Todd Hamilton and Ernie Els. Indeed, that performance stands out on an Open record sheet which is otherwise appalling. In his 16 other appearances, the four-time major winner has not managed one top 10. Will Castle Stuart help to address one of golf’s stranger anomalies?
“I think it is going to have a big positive effect on my performance next week,” said Mickelson, who spent Sunday and Monday at Royal St George’s. “But it’s a real challenge for me to overcome the obstacles. I’ve always played high through the air. To be able to play along the ground, keep the ball under control, drive it through the cross-winds... well, I’ve kind of embraced those challenges the last couple of years. I feel if I can master them and win at this level on this style of golf course, I’ll become a complete player.”
The cast list out to stop Mickelson is ominous. Lee Westwood has the chance to usurp Donald as No 1 - even finishing fifth would be enough if Donald comes outside the top 25 - while an enthralling sub-plot will be to see whether Colin Montgomerie can extend his run of Opens to 22 years. To qualify for Sandwich, the 48-year-old must at least finish in the top five. Whichever way one looks at it, all roads lead to Sandwich. From the Highlands to Kent, the links are now there.
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