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The annual warm-up event to The Open Championship has once again attracted a fairly decent field who will battle for the £3,250,000 prize fund at the beautiful Castle Stuart Golf Links. After a two year exodus the event returns to this stunning track alongside the Moray Firth which hosted the 2011-13 renewals won by Luke Donald, Jeev Milkha Singh and Phil Mickelson respectively and, with typically changeable Scottish weather in the forecast, we're in for a real treat this week.
The field for next week's Open Championship was all but decided last week with Greg Chalmers, Marcus Fraser, Alex Noren, Callum Shinkwin, Richard Sterne and Brandon Stone all grabbing a late spot at Royal Troon, however there still remains one final chance to qualify with the top 4 non-exempt finishers inside the top 12 here this week also earning themselves a start next week. Some differing objectives in Scotland then - many will be using this as a straightforward warm-up on a scoreable links track, whereas others will be holding onto the faintest of hopes that a lofty finish can see them gain a late, late entry into golf's oldest Major.
With the Greenbrier Classic having been cancelled due to damage caused by recent flooding in the area, the Scottish Open is the only event being played on either the PGA or European Tour this week.
Castle Stuart Golf Links, Inverness, Scotland. Designer: Mark Parsinen & Gil Hanse, 2009; Par: 72; Length: 7,193 yards; Water Hazards: 7; Fairways: Fescue; Rough: Fescue; Greens: Fescue, 10' on the stimp.
Course Overview. 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. Luke Donald's winning total of 19-under from just 3 rounds in 2011 prompted a few changes and 150 yards was 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. Jeev Milkha Singh was victorious in 2012 in somewhat more testing conditions over the weekend, however 17-under was still reached; Phil Mickelson and Branden Grace reached the same score in 2013 before Lefty went on to triumph in the play-off and I'd expect that winning score to be in the same ball-park this year on what is a pretty straightforward track for the top professionals. 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 in this part of the world.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's Scottish Open that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well at this event: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Top 20 Finishes.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2015: Rickie Fowler, 22/1; 2014: Justin Rose, 14/1; 2013: Phil Mickelson, 22/1; 2012: Jeev Milkha Singh, 100/1; Luke Donald, 10/1; Edoardo Molinari, 70/1 . For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 5 years based on the 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the area is here. Breezy conditions on Thursday and Sunday are likely with wind speeds reaching 15-20mph; slightly calmer on the middle two days although a mixture of sunshine and showers is expected throughout.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the past 3 winners at Castle Stuart gives us a little more insight into the type of player suited to this test:
Fairways are wide and relatively easy to hit here, particularly if there's any moisture in the ground as we should expect this week after a soggy few days in Scotland. Jeev Milkha Singh hit nearly 70% of fairways on his way to victory in 2012 however that ranked only 55th in the post-cut field which underlines that compiling a score on this layout is predominantly about the second shot and in. Mickelson and Singh ranked 3rd and 2nd respectively for scrambling and Luke Donald made just two bogeys all week in 2011 to underline the fact that minimising mistakes through an excellent short game (or hitting virtually every green as per Donald) is imperative to compiling a contending score.
Here's some views of the course from those previous renewals at Castle Stuart:
Marc Warren, 2013: "Yeah, I think imagination probably comes into it a little bit more, the links style and seeing how the wind affects the ball a lot more here. Just use imagination a little bit more, something I really enjoy. I enjoy hitting it right‑to‑left, left‑to‑right, high, low, and this golf course allows you a bit of room off the tee to be able to do that and try to set up some good angles into flags, which they can tuck away here with all of the undulations on the greens."
Matteo Manasserro, 2013: "The course, it's a nice course. Not that difficult off the tees, but then it becomes really tricky around the greens. With the great weather that we are getting it's going to be tricky around the greens, and if you can get your driver in shape, if you can hit the ball quite a long way, it helps. But you've got to be sharp around the greens."
Paul Lawrie, 2012: "No. It's obviously unfortunate because you want links to play hard and fast and running with no rough ideally. No rough at all would be perfect, but you're not going to get that. So every course that I've played lately, links course, has been quite soft and quite green. And you can see the scoring at the Irish Open. You're not going to get that kind of scoring if it's playing hard and fast, but it was still a magnificent test. Don't get me wrong. But no, we want it hard and fast and playing as hard as you possibly can and having to sort of bounce balls at the green instead of landing it in with a 5‑iron and stopping it there, that's not links golf. I haven't played the course this week yet. I play in the pro am this afternoon, so we'll see what the course is like, but I hear it's quite soft, as you can understand. But I'm sure it's in magnificent condition, as it always is here, so looking forward to it. But you want it hard and fast. There's no question."
The key for me this week will be finding those players with the game to succeed on a scoreable links track that only really gets demanding as players approach the green. Recent wet weather and the risk of a little more rain should make the fairways play wider still and for me this will come down to who performs best on and around the greens whilst minimising bogeys. A decent record on coastal tracks is a plus for me and those with previous positive performances in events such as the Alfred Dunhill Links, which tends to present a low winning total on 3 scoreable links tracks, is also worthy of note.
Bookmaker Offers. A number of bookmakers have extended their each-way terms again this week plus there's a couple of other offers out there:
My selections are as follows:
The predictor No.1 selection deserves support here and any time that Branden Grace tees it up on a scoreable links track he has to be seriously considered. Victories on his home track of Fancourt Links on both the European Tour and Sunshine Tour is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tangible form displayed over the years from the Pretoria man with further victories at the Dunhill Links and twice in Qatar, which is also an exposed affair that's windy most years, also on his CV. 4th at Chambers Bay and 3rd at Whistling Straits last year on links-style tracks in the most elevated of company further reinforces the argument that this type of test is one upon which the 28 year-old thrives and a play-off defeat here to Phil Mickelson last time Castle Stuart was used is simply the icing on the cake when it comes to his credentials.
10 wins from 256 starts is an excellent return in the context of professional golf and, as we've seen in the past, Grace's wins tend to come thick and fast when he's on song. 5 wins worldwide in his breakthrough year of 2012 was followed by another 3 in quick succession at the start of the 2014/15 season and, after a quiet spell, he's seemingly back to his best this year with wins in Qatar and at Harbour Town on the PGA Tour already tucked away. 5th at Oakmont and 10th last week at Firestone both featured top-10 GIR performances on tough tracks and a return to a more free-scoring layout here in Scotland could well see the World No.10 unleash some of his most devastating golf. The price is no bargain I grant you, however Castle Stuart is perfect for Grace to add yet another trophy to his cabinet if he putts well this week and a field-leading 1.63 putts per GIR last time he played here suggests to me that's a distinct possibility. RESULT: T29
Looking for links between the three winners here at Castle Stuart, namely Luke Donald, Jeev Milkha Singh and Phil Mickelson, might seem like a wild goose chase on the face of it. Dig a little deeper though and aside from that fact that each were winners of multiple events prior to lifting the trophy here, all three had also recorded top-20 scrambling ranks for the two full seasons prior to their success. Castle Stuart has plenty of run-off areas and tight lies from off of the putting surfaces that require a deft touch and if that trend is to continue then the winner will come from one of just three players, namely Chris Wood, Jamie Donaldson or Bradley Dredge who all fit that same criteria. I'll cover Dredge further down my preview and, for me, Donaldson's game isn't in the right place overall to win this, however the same can't be said about BMW PGA Champion Wood who arrives here in the form of his life and sitting inside the top 25 in the OWGR.
As the lanky Bristolian has matured as a golfer so he's moved away from being a player that can only be considered on the tougher grinds on the world circuit and today he's capable of contending on a whole variety of tests. Wins at 23-under (2012 Thailand Open), 18-under (2013 Qatar Masters) and 15-under (2015 Lyoness Open) dispel any myth that he can't produce birdies on scoreable tracks and with the euphoria surrounding his biggest career victory at Wentworth a few weeks ago finally dying down, the 28 year-old can get back to the task at hand this week and all but secure his Ryder Cup debut should he win here this week. Twice a top-5 finisher at the Open Championship early in his career, whilst this isn't going to be a gnarly, Open-style test, the terrain is clearly still of the same variety and Wood's wider links/coastal form over the years has been excellent. A form line of 15/7/9/4 over his last 4 attempts at the Dunhill Links is positive and he was a losing quarter-finalist at last year's Paul Lawrie Match Play held in Aberdeen. Last week's 11th place finish on the inland links-style Le Golf National track in Paris followed a creditable 23rd on US Open debut and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Wood challenging for this title despite 3 average course efforts from 2011-13. RESULT: WD
I'm keeping faith with Raphael Jaquelin this week despite his missed cut in France when I fancied he'd continue his progressive good form that previously saw him finish 8th in Sweden and 4th in Germany. 12 months ago at Gullane it was Rickie Fowler who broke our hearts when a flying finish denied us of a 250/1 winner with Jacquelin backed from the start, however the fact remains that the 42 year-old plays his best golf with a bit of sea air in his nostrils and Scotland, and the Scottish Open in particular, has been a happy hunting ground for him in the past. 8th at the Open in 2011, 3rd at the Dunhill Links in 2003, 2nd at the 2004 Irish Open (County Louth) and 2nd in Estoril in 2007 (Oitavos Dunes) highlights a player who's comfortable on this type of terrain and 5 top-10s in his last 10 Scottish Opens, including a 2nd and 3rd in 2009 & 2010 respectively before last year's effort, suggests he's more than comfortable playing in this part of the world. His most recent 2 wins on the European Tour have both come on tracks close to the coast (Sicily, 2011 and Valencia, 2013) and with progressive course form of 49/16/8 I see no reason to drop him here after missing the weekend on last week's exacting test in Paris. RESULT: T39
A couple of outsiders to finish my selections, both of whom have excellent records in Scotland. First up Marc Warren who finished 3rd here in 2012 having led by two strokes with just a handful of holes to play to ultimately disappoint the home crowd; although his current form doesn't look great on the face of it, there are one or two indicators that another decent week isn't that far away. The 35 year-old has been saying in a few interviews of late that his game is close and that he's not getting everything that his play deserves out of his golf at present - certainly opening rounds of 70 and 66 at the K-Club which put the Glaswegian in pole position going into the weekend hardly sounds like he's in disastrous form and an opening round of 67 in Sweden and closing round of 66 in Austria are all promising...promising that is if you can excuse the poor rounds that are dragging him down overall. One thing that's remained consistent over the past few weeks though is that his putting prowess is back close to its best, ranking inside the top-7 for putts per GIR on each of his last 3 paid weeks including last week in France. Perhaps a return to his homeland will provide the spark required for the 3-time European Tour winner to produce 4 competitive rounds - victory at the 2007 Johnnie Walker, 5th at the 2011 Dunhill Links, a semi-final appearance at Paul Lawrie's Match Play last year and three top-4 finishes in this event over the past four years suggests to me that if there's any week for him to produce a big finish it will be this week. RESULT: T62
Finally I'm taking a small punt on Bradley Dredge to keep the Welsh flag flying high as his nation's football team continues to excite at Euro 2016. Perhaps success by association with the heroics of Bale, Ramsey et al is a little tenuous, however despite missed cuts in three of his last four events, the season-long form of the Cardiff man is worthy of respect with the highlights being 7th at the Shenzhen International, 4th in Qatar and 2nd in Ireland and I feel the bookmakers have been a little hasty in writing off his prospects of an each way place or better here. The 42 year-old is an excellent putter with an outstanding short game rating 5th currently for Scrambling on the European Tour which backs up season-long rankings of 1st and 18th on the same count over the past two years. It's now approaching 10 years since Bradley last won on the European Tour (Crans, 2006) however he has a decent record in Scotland with runner-up finishes over the years at both the Dunhill Links and Johnnie Walker Championship and has a couple of top-12 Scottish Open finishes to his name on other courses used for this event over the years. Fact is that Dredge saves his best golf for events closer to home with three further 2nd place finishes in Ireland and another in Wales over the years and I can see him lifting his game once again this week. RESULT: T29
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