The annual warm-up event to The Open Championship has, once again, managed to attract a field of top quality players who will battle for the £500,000 first prize at the beautiful Castle Stuart Golf Links for the second consecutive year. Unlike the previous Scottish Open venue Loch Lomond, Castle Stuart is a links course that will provide a relevant test ahead of the demands of Royal Lytham & St Annes next week, although I'd expect scoring to be far, far easier this week in Inverness than it will be next week in Lancashire.
Castle Stuart course architect Mark Parsinen, who brought us the equally impressive Kingsbarns course which forms part of the Alfred Dunhill Links tournament each year, finished the course in 2009 which is located on the Southern shores of the Moray Firth between Inverness and Nairn. Last year's wining total of 19-under from just 3 rounds prompted a few changes and 150 yards have been added overall to the length, however at a touch under 7,200 yards this par 72 won't trouble the field in terms of length. A few of the wide fairways have been nipped back a little and some additional bunkers have been placed strategically around the course, however after the wettest British summer in living memory and further rain inevitably forecast, the fairways are likely to be soggy and the greens receptive - all of which points to another low winning score. Let's not forget though that this is still a links course and imagination, strategy and a strong short game will still be required around the greens for those who fail to find the dancefloor, plus wind and rain are always an unpredictable (or perhaps wholly predictable!) factor.
Backing players the week before the Open is always a dilemma - will they want to exert themselves and potentially scupper their chances at Royal Lytham? Luke Donald must surely learn from his victory here last year which then saw him miss the cut at Sandwich. 2nd favourite here Padraig Harrington has a strong shout next week too in my opinion, so I'm going to put my faith in the 3-time European Tour winner Francesco Molinari this week on a course he's playing for the first time this week. Backing Francesco is never a smooth ride as he misses so many short putts he can have you pulling your hair out at times, however his sublime tee-to-green game means that he gives himself far more chances at birdie than most other players (Lee Westwood aside) and the course changes and condition can only play into the younger Molinari brother's hands at Castle Stuart.
For me, the Italian is far more at home when the scoring is low despite the fact that you'd expect his precision game more suited to more of a grind. His first 2 wins came at -23 (2006 Italian Open) and -19 (WGC HSBC Champions) so he's not afraid of going low, plus his most recent victory in Spain came with a spectacular final round 65 to steal the title on Sunday. He almost repeated that feat last week with a Sunday 64, ultimately finishing one shot shy of Marcel Siem's winning total despite an opening double bogey - when the putts do drop, Francesco is a very, very dangerous player. The 29 year-old currently sits in the final Ryder Cup automatic qualifying position and a win here is eminently more achievable this week than next in my opinion - expect Francesco to play a prominent role in proceedings this week. Molinari was trading at 22/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: 2nd, Lost Playoff
Whilst Castle Stuart is by no means a long course, its setup does encourage attacking play and there are very few players who are more aggressive than the Belgian bomber who is already a winner on the European Tour this season and who finished 3rd here on debut last season. If we're looking for form players then Colsaerts fits the bill perfectly - 6 top 10s to add to his 2012 victory are testament to that - plus 11th last week in France was an excellent return for a player whose game is far more suited to a low-scoring affair than a grind.
4th at the Links at Fancourt (which he should have won in all honesty) is good form for this, and with his 2012 success already tucked away he can now play with the freedom that breeds low scores. If this event does turn into another birdie-fest then Colsaerts will feel right at home - he secured his long-awaited first victory in China last season at -24; -14 in this event from 3 rounds was also a strong return, plus -15 at the Alfred Dunhill Links is also of relevance. -12 in Sicily this season, -13 in Dubai and -18 in China all suggest he's got the game to succeed here this week and, like Molinari, he'll be massively motivated to make the Ryder Cup team which he sits just outside of the qualifying positions at present. Colsaerts was trading at 22/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: T36
Last week's tip hit the front a little early at Le Golf National - he reached Marcel Siem's winning score of 8-under early on Saturday afternoon before a weather delay seemingly changed his fortunes and he drifted back down to a tie for 17th by the end, however I'm willing to give the young South African another chance this week on a setup that will also benefit his attacking play. After 2 missed cuts, Coetzee's top 20 in France will have got the competitive juices flowing once again for the talented 25 year-old and he'll quickly shrug off the disappointment of last week and arrive in Scotland with renewed ambition to add a European Tour title to his 4 Sunshine Tour victories.
Coetzee's most recent Sunshine Tour victory came in February when he shot an incredible 27-under to take the Telkom PGA Championship: he's most at home when a strong double-digit under par score can be made and there's a bit of width off the tee - after a run of events on tighter & tougher courses, I wouldn't be surprised to see George cut loose here and make a real challenge for the Scottish Open crown. Coetzee was trading at 49/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: T52
50/1 about a player who has already won 3 times on the European Tour seems a tad generous to me and I see no reason who Grace can't make the frame again this week. He's already proven himself on a links-style setup with his victory at Fancourt where he beat a strong field, plus a winning total of -21 in China in April proves he's got the attacking prowess to score heavily when the situation and conditions allow. He's quite rightly quietened his schedule down a little since those victories and 17th last week after a missed cut in Ireland will have blown away the cobwebs ready for this week's challenge. He was putting beautifully in France once again - the relative freedom from the tee here will play into his hands on course debut as he challenges for an incredible 4th title of 2012. Grace was trading at 59/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: T68
It was a toss-up between Scotland specialist Gregory Havret and Soren Kjeldsen for this final slot, however after careful deliberation I've opted for the Dane who has the added incentive of a place at the Open Championship up for grabs if he can win here, or be the top non-exempt player to finish in the top 5 this week. This extra motivational factor shouldn't be underestimated and is always an interesting side-show as Hazel Irvine peruses the leaderboard over the weekend. The 3-time European Tour winner - who already has a Scottish victory to his credit at Gleneagles back in 2003 - has been up and down in terms of form this season: after a stretch of 7 events where he finished inside the top 30 in each, notching 3 top-5 finishes along the way, he went completely off the boil in June. Last week's top 10 in France then was a welcome return to form then for the 37 year old. When the putter complies Kjeldsen is well capable of compiling the kind of score which will contend here - 20-under in China last year behind Nicolas Colsaerts is a great example, as was his -14 total in Dubai earlier this term in a strong field - so it was encouraging to see his putting stats improve drastically in France to 12th/17th in the field for putts per GIR/total putts. With his excellent tee-to-green game that's the sort of formula which will produce the birdie chances required to succeed here. Kjeldsen was trading at 159/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: Tied 5th
Our tips, picks and predictions for the 2013 edition of this event will be published here on the Tuesday before the event - bookmark this page and come back soon!