Following Phil Mickelson's lead, top players seeking a claret jug hone their links game at the Scottish Open
ABERDEEN, Scotland (AP) -- From Darren Clarke in 2011 to Phil Mickelson in 2013, the last three winners of the British Open have honed their links-course game at the Scottish Open a week earlier.
So perhaps it's no surprise that trend has lured many top players to the northern tip of Scotland this week, not just for a tilt at the $850,000 top prize but also for some practice of the type of shots that will be required at the year's third major at Hoylake.
Mickelson is a Scottish Open regular who won the tournament last year before going on to capture the claret jug at Muirfield. He will face competition this year from the likes of Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Luke Donald and fellow Americans Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler when the tournament gets underway at Royal Aberdeen on Thursday.
The Scottish Open has regained its luster after a couple of lean years with weak fields, which comes as no surprise to Mickelson.
"I really believe coming here and playing the week before the Open, playing in a great links test like this, is a real asset, an asset for players from overseas to get acclimatized to the time and really get acclimatized to these conditions," Mickelson said on Wednesday.
McIlroy played with Mickelson for the first two rounds at Muirfield last year and saw close up how attuned the American was to links golf.
"Phil definitely opened the eyes of a lot of guys," McIlroy said. "He was ready. He was sharp."
After three years at Castle Stuart in Inverness, the Scottish Open has relocated east to the par-71 Royal Aberdeen, founded in 1780. It's the world's sixth oldest golf course.
Mickelson is a big fan of the old Scottish courses -- and of Scotland in general. And he has learned to embrace the quirky challenges that characterize links golf, such as playing in fierce winds and dealing with the unpredictable bounce on undulating fairways, which is some feat given his Californian roots.
He mastered it in that stunning two-week span last summer, culminating in a 6-under 66 on the final day at Muirfield that allowed him to pip Lee Westwood for victory at a third different major.
Mickelson said he wants some "terrible" weather this week to test his game.
"I would love to be able to get out and play in that stuff that I never get a chance to back home, and have actually started to play pretty well in over the years," he said. "I've played some of my best golf in bad weather."
McIlroy has had mixed success in Europe this season, winning the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth -- the European Tour's flagship event -- in May in the midst of his high-profile split with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki but then missing the cut at his home Irish Open a month later.
McIlroy hasn't played at the Scottish Open since 2009 because he felt Loch Lomond and Castle Stuart -- the last two venues -- didn't provide a "true links test."
Royal Aberdeen promises to be much more penal, with rain and wind forecast on Thursday, and that's something McIlroy is relishing.
"I'm trying to adopt more of that mindset, especially for these couple of weeks a year," he said. "Back when I was 15, 16, 17, playing links golf all the time, it wasn't anything to put your wet gear on. Now, we're so spoiled playing in great conditions."
Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open winner, ended a yearlong title drought with a victory at the Quicken Loans National on the U.S. PGA Tour two weeks ago.
Former top-ranked Donald won the Scottish Open in 2011 and will partner with Mickelson in the first two rounds this year.
Nick Faldo, a six-time major winner, is also in the field and will be playing his first regular European Tour event since 2010.