If yesterday is anything to go by, the stellar field that will contest this year’s Scottish Open are in for both a test and a treat when they take on Royal Aberdeen next month.
I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity of playing the historic Balgownie Links yesterday and to see first hand some of the challenges that await the likes of Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter, Rickie Fowler and defending champion Phil Mickelson.
At present 24 of the world’s top 60 have confirmed that they will take part, with more expected to confirm their participation before entries close. And there is no doubt in my mind that Royal Aberdeen will be a worthy host of such immense talents.
It is a considerably different prospect from Castle Stuart, the Inverness-shire club which has hosted the tournament for the past three years. Whereas Castle Stuart has wide, flat fairways, Royal Aberdeen is much tighter and more undulating, with severe penalties for those who veer offline. The rough is lush and thick – the result, perhaps, of a mild winter and good growing conditions so far this year – and, in places, it’s tantamount to shot penalty.
'Royal Aberdeen is a classic links in every sense of the expression.'
Putting the ball in the right places, then, will be of utmost importance. If only it was that easy, of course.
Royal Aberdeen is a classic links in every sense of the expression. That means it has plenty of bumpy, billowing fairways and either blind or semi-blind shots, particularly on the fabulous front nine (arguably the finest nine-hole stretch in golf). That equates to unpredictable bounces and, if the course is dry, some hard kicks.
Consequently, what looks like the correct line from the tee might, in fact, be the wrong one. Patience, brains, vision and creativity will be rewarded. Smacking it high and smacking it straight probably won’t.
It’s also worth mentioning the wind, as it is one the links’ great defences. An almost ‘nine out, nine back’ layout, Balgownie runs largely parallel to the North Sea. As a result, when the wind gets up (as it often does, according to locals), certain shots can require either three clubs more or three clubs less.
I played the front nine into the wind yesterday and, by the time I reached the seventh, I was feeling a little sorry for myself. It’s a humbling experience hitting driver into a par-3 or being 150 yards from the flag and not knowing if hybrid will be enough. But that’s links golf and, naturally, the back nine played wind-assisted, so it was hardly a slog.
Stand-out holes? In truth, any one of the front nine fits the bill, but I especially liked the second, which is framed by towering dunes and is an awesome sight from the tee. The par-3 eighth is another gem, too. Miss the green and you’ll likely play your next shot from one of the nine bunkers that guard it. It’s simply brilliant.
'Anyone who turns up expecting something similar to Castle Stuart is in for a nasty shock.'
It will be interesting to see how players adapt to the challenges that Royal Aberdeen poses. Anyone who turns up expecting something similar to Castle Stuart is in for a nasty shock. Scoring won’t be as low, that’s for certain, and the winner will be the man who isn’t afraid to hit some ugly shots.
As preparation for the Open the following week, it will do the job nicely so long as the wind doesn’t blow too hard. Guys like Rory and Phil view the Scottish Open as a place to tune up, not be beaten up.
All things considered, this year's Scottish Open is shaping up to be a fascinating spectacle.
Royal Aberdeen: Have you played it?
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