Scottish Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
With the clocking ticking down to The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, a stellar cast assembles at Dundonald for the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open. Dundonald Links was converted for military use during the second world war and lay dormant until Kyle Phillips was called in to redesign and remodel it. It finally reopened in 2003 and is a magnificent links course, featuring narrow fairways, gorse, pot bunkers and rolling terrain. In other words, it is a truly fitting venue for the Scottish Open and an ideal test for players preparing to take part in The Open at Royal Birkdale.
For years, the tournament was held at Loch Lomond, a magnificent course that bore no relation to the links test the players would face the following week. In 2010 it was won by Edoardo Molinari, in 2011 by Luke Donald, in 2012 by Jeev Milka Singh, in 2013 by Phil Mickelson (who would go on to win The Open at Muirfield the following week), in 2014 by Justin Rose, in 2015 by Rickie Fowler and last year by Alex Noren, who went on to have a stellar year that has continued in 2017.
Fowler is back in the field and will head to Birkdale as one of the favourites to secure his maiden major. He has already proved to himself that he has the game to win the world's oldest and most important major golf tournament. Fowler will be hoping that the wind blows at Dundonald because that is precisely what he will expect to find at Birkdale.
Many of today's top players only know one way to play the game and that, essentially, is to hit the ball miles into the sky - that is all well and good when the sun is shining, the temperature is in the 80s and the wind is flat calm. But put them in a situation where they have to cope with a 20-25mph wind and they will struggle. Fowler is not that player. He copes well in the wind because he understands how to manipulate a golf ball. He has a fantastic imagination and is able to play knockdown shots, stingers, hold the ball up into a crosswind and play the course. In other words, if the need is for him to land the ball short of the green and allow it to run up to the hole, he will do that.
He is in excellent form just now and will have been fired up by Brooks Koepka's memorable win at the US Open. With Sergio Garcia's victory at The Masters, Fowler is left with the title of best current player not to have won a major. He is ambitious and it hurts him that he has been unable to cross the line.
Rory McIlroy will, of course, be the star attraction and the big conundrum. Nobody swings the golf club better than McIlroy but another season is in danger of petering out for a man whose world ranking is on the slide, especially after his missed cut at the Irish Open, where he was defending champion. His problem is that he doesn't cope well when the wind blows because he struggles to keep the ball low. Sure, he won The Open at Hoylake but the weather during those four days was not typical – there was hardly any breeze. He is a magnificent striker of a golf ball and his driving is something else, regularly hitting the ball beyond 300 yards and finding most fairways.
And yet... He simply hasn't played enough tournament golf in 2017 and there continue to be worrying signs about his putting. When he is good he is very good. When he is bad, he is simply awful. And you cannot win major championships unless you walk onto the greens with confidence. There is little wrong with his putting stroke, and that can only be good news. The problem, it seems, may lie between his ears. When he misses a couple of putts early on, his shoulders sag and you can simply see the confidence ebbing away.
He is a serial winner, however, and will not be too concerned about a victory at Dundonald affecting his chances at Birkdale.
Don't rule out the defending champion. Noren has become a world-class golfer since winning this tournament in 2016. He has played a fair amount of golf in the United States this season and looks right at home in that company. It is surely only a matter of time before he picks up his first victory on the PGA Tour, and nobody would be surprised if he were to succeed Henrik Stenson as Open champion at Birkdale. Stenson spent weeks walking on air after that amazing triumph at Royal Troon but he has had a disappointing season. However, the Swede will be inspired at the prospect of defending his title and he will be looking forward to playing in front of a passionate and enthusiastic Scottish gallery at Dundonald. Stenson wears his heart on his sleeve, and the Scots love that. Don't be at all surprised to see him back in the winner's circle this week.
Away from the action, there is going to be plenty to keep the huge galleries entertained. The Red Hot Chilli Pipers will be playing in the Championship Village after play has finished on Friday night, while on Saturday the music comes from Glasgow-based Roddy Hart and the Lonesome Fire.
It all kicks off on Tuesday with the Hero Challenge – an exciting one-hole knockout contest featuring some of the tournament’s star golfers, including Stenson and celebrities including Strictly Come Dancing star Thom Evans and ex-Westlife member Brian McFadden will entertain the crowd with their own knock-out contest. The exciting night golf event made its debut at last year’s British Masters as Frenchman Levy triumphed in the sudden-death shoot-out hole under floodlights and in front of 3,000 fans.
Keith Pelley, Chief Executive of the European Tour, said: “The inaugural Hero Challenge proved hugely popular with players and spectators last year, and we are delighted, with the support of Hero MotoCorp, to expand the concept to three tournaments this year, starting at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
“We have embraced shorter formats like the Hero Challenge and the recent GolfSixes tournament to appeal to new audiences and this one-hole straight knockout contest provides fast-paced entertainment, whilst showcasing the considerable skill of our players.”
To Win: Henrik Stenson. Surely ready for another win
Each Way: Rory McIlroy. Will surely be there or thereabouts
Each Way: Rickie Fowler. Will relish the challenge
Henrik Stenson. Will be lifted by the fans
Rory McIlroy. It is all about the putter
Rickie Fowler. Relishes links golf
Alex Noren. Now a genuine superstar
Branden Grace. One of the best links players
Rafa Cabrera Bello. Always seems to be in contention
Graeme McDowell. His game is made for links golf
Andrew Johnston. How can you not root for Beef?
Andy Sullivan. Showing encouraging signs of good form
Martin Laird. Scots would love a home winner
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