INVERNESS — The last two players to lift the claret jug prepared for the British Open by honing their links game at the Scottish Open the previous weeks.
Darren Clarke played at Castle Stuart before winning golf’s oldest major in 2011 at a wet and wild Royal St. George’s. Ernie Els captured the Open title at Lytham last year just days after playing four rounds on the Moray Firth coastline.
Some of the world’s top golfers may, therefore, eventually regret turning down the opportunity to play in the Scottish Highlands this week before making the short drive to Muirfield for the British Open.
Els and four-time major winner Phil Mickelson are the only players from the world’s top 25 who’ll be competing in the Scottish event, backing up Graeme McDowell’s recent assertion that the tournament has "lost its prestige."
"Castle Stuart probably hasn't been a strong enough course the past couple of years," the 2010 U.S. Open champion said, perhaps ignoring the course's record of providing ideal preparation for Els and Clarke.
McDowell's remarks have been rebuffed by his fellow players.
"I don't want to get into an argument with Graeme," said Scot Paul Lawrie, the 1999 Open champion and McDowell's Ryder Cup teammate last year, "but I think everyone was gobsmacked at his comments."
Padraig Harrington, who won the British Open titles in 2007 and '08 after playing the Irish PGA on links at Wicklow's European Club, also disagrees with McDowell and was keen to highlight the benefits of Castle Stuart.
"It's not going to be drudgery this week or a tough slog, yet you will be asked to hit plenty of good shots out there," Harrington said Tuesday. "It's ideal preparation for an Open Championship -- you want to be playing links golf, links conditions.
"I believe in being competitive before a major, that's what helped me win my three. You can spend all day on the range, hitting shots, but it's not the same as hitting one shot, having just one go at it."
Luke Donald (19 under over 54 holes) and Jeev Milkha Singh (17 under) both shot low to win at the Gils Hanse-designed, par-72 Castle Stuart in 2011 and '12, respectively, and a benign weather forecast for this week suggests another four days of good scoring.
With very little wind expected and the sun beating down, the course could be there for the taking.
"It should allow the players to drive the ball that little bit farther, but in turn I think they will have to be a little more cute when going for the pins," said Stuart McColm, the general manager at Castle Stuart.
Els will be aiming for a good warm-up ahead of his defence of the Open title on a Muirfield course where he raised the claret jug for the first time, back in 2002.
The 43-year-old South African is in good form, having won the BMW International in Germany last month for his first victory since reeling in an imploding Adam Scott at Lytham last July. He is also a two-time winner of the Scottish Open, both of them coming at Loch Lomond when the tournament was played on a parkland course.
"If I can win it a third time next week, it would be the perfect platform for my defence of the Open," Els said.
Mickelson and Harrington were placed in the same crowd-pleasing three-ball for the opening two rounds, while Els will play alongside Marc Warren, the Scot who blew a three-shot lead in the final round last year to hand the title to Singh.