Castle Stuart the perfect prelude to The Open

Ernie Els with the Claret Jug after winning the Open last year. Picture: Getty

Ernie Els with the Claret Jug after winning the Open last year. Picture: Getty

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IF THE past two years are anything to go by, the winner at Muirfield next week will be warming up for the 16th Claret Jug joust at the East Lothian course in the Highlands over the next four days.

The Scottish Open’s switch from long-time home Loch Lomond to a links course in Castle Stuart paid dividends for Darren Clarke in 2011, when he played at the Inverness venue the week before becoming Open champion.

And it was a similar story 12 months ago as Ernie Els sharpened up his seaside skills on the banks of the Moray Firth then finished like a train at Lytham to pip Aussie ace Adam Scott in the world’s oldest major. Both Clarke and Els are back at Castle Stuart hoping the tried and tested formula can pay off again, the latter heading to Muirfield as a double defending champion after winning the last Open there in 2002.

Els only confirmed his place in the line-up for the Aberdeen Asset Management-sponsored event a week ago, having earlier indicated he was going to take a three-week break after winning the BMW International Open in Germany.

He’s already been at Muirfield a few times over the past fortnight in preparation for next week’s test but Els doesn’t want to run the risk of feeling rusty for the season’s third major.

“We’ve got a hell of a run through from The Open to the USPGA, then the FedEx Cup in America and so forth,” said the South African as he decided to keep his name in the Scottish Open line-up.

“But you’ve got to be able to hit a golf shot under pressure. You can only practice so much and do all your drills etc so many times. I am a professional golfer and I’ve got to do things that feel right for me – and I feel it’s right to play in the Scottish Open.”

Joining Els and Clarke among seven major winners in this week’s field is American ace Phil Mickelson, a great supporter of this particular event.

When Barclays ended its backing two years ago, many felt it would have been the end of the Scottish Open road for Mickelson as he’s sponsored by the banking giant.

But, to his credit, the current world No. 8 retained his support last year and is back again for another crack at the title.

Mickelson admitted heading into last week’s Greenbrier Classic on the PGA Tour that he was still hurting from losing out to Justin Rose in this year’s US Open at Merion.

At the same time, though, that week was a reminder that ‘Lefty’ has the potential to add to his haul of four majors.

And, if he can get a decent display under his belt at Castle Stuart, then Mickelson might well be the man to keep that run started by Clarke and Els going.

Others in with that chance include Italian duo Francesco Molinari and Matteo Manassero. Pipped in a play-off here by India’s Jeev Milkha Singh 12 months ago, Molinari is clearly suited to this particular course, which has been described as being in “awesome condition” by three-time major winner 
Padraig Harrington.

It’s also a place where 
Manassero could well follow up his PGA Championship title triumph at Wentworth in May and lay down another marker for next year’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.

With 19 Scots in the field, there’s a decent chance the event’s third staging at Castle Stuart could produce a first home winner since Colin Montgomerie at Loch Lomond in 1999.

Lothians star Stephen Gallacher will launch his bid to achieve that feat with Mickelson for company in the first two rounds.

He played with Mickelson in the final round in The Open at St Andrews three years ago.

Gallacher, of course, is 
already in next week’s Muirfield line-up – one of ten Scots to have secured places so far.

If that’s to get even bigger, though, it will take a home player to come out on top on Sunday as the R&A reduced the spots on offer through the Scottish Open to just one this year.

That makes it a tall order but, if one home player deserved that, then surely it would be former Dunbar assistant David Drysdale after he missed out in a play-off to make it to Muirfield in the European IFQ event at Sunningdale.