It almost seems criminal for the European Tour’s Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open to switch venues from Castle Stuart in Inverness to Royal Aberdeen, one year after peaking as an event of huge significance. Not only did Phil Mickelson win his first event ever on British soil, in dramatic fashion (and televised back to the U.S. on NBC) but he also went on to win The Open Championship the following week. A final plus was the host course itself, the photogenic (read: TV-friendly) Castle Stuart, a 2009 Gil Hanse/Mark Parsinen design that climbed quickly to its current rank of 56th in Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the World. So smitten was Lefty after his first trip around the course in 2011 that he gushed, “It should almost be a prerequisite to play Castle Stuart before you’re allowed to design golf courses nowadays.” That said, the new Scottish Open site, Royal Aberdeen, is hardly a weak sister. If it’s not quite as eye-candy ready as Castle Stuart, it more than makes up for it with history and authentic links-like terrain.
So, why move the event at all? Check out the name of the title sponsor. Yep, money talks, loudly. The company is indeed based in Aberdeen and its CEO is a member of Royal Aberdeen. Hey, the venue is fine with me. I first played it in 1993 and most recently played it on back-to-back days in the summer of 2012, less than a year after it served as host to the Walker Cup, where Great Britain and Ireland edged the Jordan Spieth-led U.S. squad 14-12. Tom Watson scored a playoff win here in the 2005 Senior British Open with a paltry 4-under-par 280, so if the breezes blow, par will be a good score, even with a back tee yardage that only measures 6,885 yards. Narrow fairways and ligament-snapping rough add up to a slope of 145.
Royal Aberdeen’s appeal starts with its setting. Its longer, and superior, front nine skirts handsome dunes that separate it from the North Sea. Its zigzagging, slender fairways, often with blind landing areas are beautifully framed by heather, gorse and long grasses and menaced by the occasional burn.
Still, it’s the club’s history that elevates Royal Aberdeen among connoisseurs. The sixth-oldest club in golf, dating to 1780, Royal Aberdeen boasts several historical firsts. The club possesses a ballot box that dates to its origin. Two holes are cut into the top of the box. When a man was proposed for membership, existing golf society members had three months to consider the application. Members would drop colored balls into the Yea or Nay holes, with a single black ball enough to derail a candidate.
In addition, it was Royal Aberdeen that established the rule in 1783 that limited the search for a lost ball to five minutes. Given the rough then and now, it was a sensible edict.
While the club/society dates to 1780, the club has only been at its present location since the 1880s. I love Peter Alliss’ description of why the club relocated from its heart-of-the-city digs: “Golf between the Rivers Don and Dee goes back much further, but the club moved to its present location at Balgownie in 1888, tired of competing for the use of the original linksland with cricketers, footballers, herring fishermen drying their nets and even turf-cutting to repair the race course.”
In the monkey-see, monkey-do department, it’s evident that many of game’s big names are following the lead of Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Mickelson, who all played the Scottish Open the week before The Open, then won The Open, versus the approach hewed to by Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, which was to skip any event before a major. More than 20 of the world’s top 60 have signed up, including defending champ Mickleson, Els, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Rickie Fowler. After passing on the event the past two years, Rose said “I’m really looking forward to playing the Scottish Open again. It should also provide the ideal preparation for the Open. I’ve not played as well as I would have liked in the Open over the last couple of years and so, having seen what Phil did in 2013, I was keen to change my preparations.”
Added Poulter, “I’ve heard positive comments about the quality of Royal Aberdeen and can’t wait to play a good, old-fashioned links course the week before Hoylake.” For fans of classic links golf, the Scottish Open is a treat — we get an extra four days of golf in its purest form.