It’s one of the most keenly anticipated weeks of the year, what many call the ‘real’ start of the new golf season, and it’s happening this week in… Ayrshire?
That’s right, forget what you’ve read about Augusta National and its Masters Tournament teeing off the new golf season. Why? Because the new campaign is already underway, with the Scottish Boys Championship taking place this week at West Kilbride.
No fewer than 256 of the country’s most exciting young golfers have gathered at the prestigious Ayrshire links to do battle for the first major title of the Scottish golf season.
And whilst the world’s best players all try to win the Green Jacket at the Masters nearly 4,000 miles away, prospective tour stars of tomorrow will be trying to take their first steps towards one day making a living from the game.
It’s the starting blocks of stardom – and it’s rather compelling.
The Scottish Boys Championship has been played since 1935. David Blair of North Berwick won that inaugural tournament at his home course, which, indeed, staged the tournament every year until 1975. Since then, it has visited six other venues: Dunbar, Royal Aberdeen, Murcar Links, Southerness, Monifieth, and, this year’s venue, West Kilbride.
There are some well-known names on the trophy, too. Ronnie Shade won it in 1956, Colin Gillies did likewise in 1983, and Andrew Coltart got his hands on the silverware in 1987, but only after Stuart Bannerman of Murcar took him to 37 holes in their final at Dunbar.
The incentive, therefore, is for this year’s batch of players to add their name to that impressive list of past champions.
Who will win is anybody’s guess. That’s the beauty of matchplay. One thing is for certain, however: the trophy will be going to a new home this year. That’s because the defending champion Bradley Neil has decided to sit out this year’s tournament. The Blairgowrie ace, who defeated St Andrews’ Ewan Scott 4&2 at Monifieth last year, has decided to focus on men’s tournaments this season.
The door, then, is ajar for a new champion and we’ll know who he is by Saturday night.
Of the 250-plus kids in the field, many of them are playing in it for the first time. Declan Henderson of Musselburgh is in that camp. He was followed during his second round match against Cameron Black of Cardross by dad Brian and granddad Ian.
Declan, 16, has only been playing golf for three years but, in that time, has seen his handicap tumble from 18 to three. He’s clearly got the knack for the sport, which explains why he is giving golf and not football – he’s pretty handy with a ball at his feet, too, apparently – his full attention.
“It was his decision to enter this week,” said Ian. “It caught us a bit by surprise but he’s been doing well with his golf for a while now.”
Although still a relatively newcomer to the game, Declan is targeting making a living from the game long-term but, short-term, he’s just getting used to playing in events like this. “If he wins, then great,” added Ian. “But, if he doesn’t, we’ve told him to accept it graciously, shake his opponent’s hand, and wish him all the best.”
Black ultimately beat Henderson by one hole.
One player being watched perhaps a little more closely than others in the field is Michael Lawrie (Pic: Kenny Smith). That’s understandable, though, when your old man is former Open champion Paul Lawrie.
Michael is playing in the tournament for the third time this year and is aiming to go at least one better than last year, where he reached the third round.
He’s clearly a better player this year than he was 12 months ago. Just look at his handicap. He’s off two now, as compared with five this time last year. “I’ve been working hard on my game with Billy Fyfe and I’m just taking every game as it comes,” he revealed.
I asked Michael if he feels under extra pressure to perform given that he’s from such famous golfing stock. “A wee bit,” he smiled.
Dad was there (pictured above with caddie David Kenny / Pic: Kenny Smith) to see him dispatch of Cameron Blair of Musselburgh and said he was impressed by the talent on display. “Some of the guys in the field this week are as low as scratch, or maybe off one or two,” he acknowledged. “Well, that makes them better players than I was at that age.”
Lawrie’s handicap was five when he turned professional in 1986. By contrast, the highest handicap in the field at West Kilbride is 5.8.
The man is charge of ensuring this week goes off without a hitch is the Scottish Golf Union’s tournament controller, Daniel Sommerville.
Since assuming the role in 2012, Sommerville has been responsible for staging numerous SGU events but admits that the Scottish Boys Championship holds a special place in his affections. “I know it’s Masters week but I always feel a bit of a special buzz at this event,” he noted. “You can feel the excitement amongst the players, whether it’s their fourth time playing or their first.”
For the players, the tournament started on Monday. For Sommerville, though, it all got underway the previous Friday. “We need to get everything set up and look at pin positions and all that kind of thing, so it’s important to get here early,” he added.
Between SGU field staff, committee members, and volunteers, Sommerville has a team of between 25 and 30 people helping to run the event. Even with those numbers, though, it can still be a long week.
“I’m staying in a hotel just up the road from the club and have my alarm set for 5.20 each morning,” he laughed. “It can be quite tiring as the week goes on but it’s all about making it special for the players. That’s what our focus is on.”
Over the years, the Scottish Boys Championship has always been well supported by the Scottish golf media. That might not sound like much, golf being their bread and butter, after all. However, when you consider that it usually clashes with the build-up or aftermath of the Masters – or, is the case this year, the tournament itself – the very fact that the tournament gets covered at all tells you all you need to know about the high regard in which it is held.
The Scottish Daily Express golf correspondent, Jock MacVicar, is one of those who has picked Ayrshire over Augusta this year. Affectionately referred to as the ‘doyen’ of Scottish golf writing, to say that MacVicar has covered the event a good few times before would, in his own words, ‘be something of an understatement’.
Steve Scott of The Courier is also at West Kilbride this week. His efirst Scottish Boys Championship was in 1994 - when Inverallochy’s Steven Young won at Dunbar - and, in his opinion, the appeal of the tournament is quite clear.
“I think it’s the freshness of it,” says Steve. “You have a whole new field every three years and it’s exciting to see new young players emerge. Plus, it’s the start of the Scottish golf season. Everyone’s full of optimism and looking forward to a great year in prospect. I know some people think the date isn’t the best but, if they were to change it, I’d be pretty upset.”
Watching the action at the West Kilbride, it’s safe to say all of those taking part are very talented. Not perfect, by means, but talented for sure.
They’re also equipped with all of the latest gear. Headcovers for TaylorMade SLDR drivers, the new Callaway Big Bertha, and the latest Scotty Cameron putters decorate the bags of just about all and sundry. Clearly, these kids’ parents are determined to spare no expense in helping them establish footholds in the game.
It was also interesting to note the lack of conversational chatter between the competitors out on the course. Perhaps that’s because they’re teenagers. Perhaps it’s because they were in the zone. But beyond “Where did that finish?” after blind approaches, “I’m playing a Titleist two” on the first tee, and “That’s fine” for the (very few) concessions that were made, the players didn’t appear to have much to say to each other on the course.
Off it? Well, that’s a different story. Little groups of players huddled together around the scoreboard checking on how everybody else was getting on as handfuls of eager parents – dads, mainly – waited around to see their sons tee off.
Mistaking me for a tournament official (easy mistake to make), one young guy came rushing up to me in a bit of a panic. “Do you know what time I’m off at?” he asked. “I think I’m meant to be away next but I’m not sure.” I explained that I wasn’t involved in the staging of the event and suggested he check with the tournament office.
As he scuttled away, the panic continuing to rise, I felt my head start to shake in disbelief that a player couldn’t know what time his tee time was what would, arguably, be the biggest event of his season. But, almost immediately, I had a thought for Rory McIlroy and what he must have felt on the Sunday of the 2012 Ryder Cup. You might recall he needed to hitch a ride to the course from the team hotel in an unmarked police car after getting his times confused.
Such silly wee blips can, quite clearly, happen to the best of them. And that’s what all 256 of the players this week are ultimately striving to be: the best. Good luck to them.
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