This week marks the 33rd successive year the Scottish Open, currently sponsored by Aberdeen Standard Investments, has been staged in the prime slot of the European Tour schedule.
The event has zealously guarded the prized week before The Open Championship for three decades, through several changes of venue and sponsor, even through times when there was no sponsor and the prizefund was fairly modest.
This week the field – which will definitely be the best in Europe so far this year and quite possibly the best on the European Tour all year, outside the majors and WGC events – will play for $7 million as one of the elite Rolex Series.
But the deal with Aberdeen Standard, the Scottish Government and the Tour runs out next year. And this slot is being looked on with covetous eyes.
Last week at Lahinch the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open was played, and ranked 100 points behind what we’re likely to see at The Renaissance Club on the Official Golf World Rankings’ strength of field measurement.
The Irish is also a Rolex Series event, but there was talk from Dubai Duty Free CEO Colm McLaughlin last week of bumping up the prizefund even further, to $10 million – which would make it the richest tournament on the European Tour, and just about on a par with the WGC events.
That might have been just be a bit of blarney, but it’ll definitely turn heads at the European Tour offices at Wentworth, and might start a bidding war for this prized slot in the schedule.
The Irish Open was by some distance the poor Celtic cousin to the Scottish for a couple of decades. Often played without a sponsor, it flitted about the schedule and never attracted the calibre of player the Scottish could claim in the prime slot and with money coming in from financiers like Barclays Bank and Aberdeen Standard.
Rory McIlroy re-energised his native event by initially putting his own money into it, and then by attracting McLoughlin to come in and bankroll the event back into the big time.
To digress briefly: this is why the ire directed at Rory from some of the Irish press and public by declining to play in the Irish at Lahinch this year – and playing at the Renaissance instead – is grossly unfair.
Whatever his reasoning – and it seems solely because he has reasonably deduced his preparation for the Open at Portrush is better served playing in Scotland this year – the Irish Open would be surely be still floundering financially without his active intervention.
But anyway, Rory’s choice is likely to be just for this one year.
Meanwhile, the one area where the Irish Open has consistently outperformed the Scottish even in the fallow years has been in bodies through the gates.
This year at Lahinch, somewhat isolated on the west coast between Limerick and Galway, was no exception.
The total gate for the week of 86,000 was actually slightly down on last year at the similarly isolated Ballyliffin in County Donegal.
There’s nothing new in this; even when it had no sponsor and no top names, the Irish golfing public has religiously and enthusiastically showed up in huge numbers to support their national championship.
But now, not only does the Irish have those crowd numbers, it also has the money.
Unlike Scotland, they’re not setting in stone the need to play on links, and it’s likely the next edition will be nearer to the main population centre in Dublin, no doubt making it more attractive to entitled and spoilt tour pros who don’t fancy venturing too far out from “civilisation”.
It’s all gearing up, surely, for a serious campaign to get the pre-Open week.
What can Scotland do? Well, 33 years is a tradition of sorts, although we know that previously the Swedes and others came quite close to snatching away the premier slot in the past.
Ireland shares the convenience of easy travel to the Open the following week. It has plenty links courses – as we examined a few weeks ago, Scotland appears to have run out of pure links to host this week’s event.
And Scotland compares badly in crowd numbers. No Scottish Open during these salad years under the ASI banner has attracted more than 60,000 spectators for the week.
We need to up our game in crowd numbers. But recent years have shown that there is unquestionably a limit to the numbers of people willing to attend golf events here. We’ve got the Solheim Cup and the Dunhill still to come this year, even if the Open is in Ireland.
And money will talk. One hopes that ASI’s enthusiasm remains, but could the same be said of the Scottish Government input?
There have been tangible benefits to the Scottish economy from investment in golf, but there are multiple demands on strained resources in a time of political upheaval we’re currently experiencing. It wouldn’t be surprising if money was directed to equally – and even more – important causes.
I’m sure discussions are well advanced between the various parties in Scotland in advance of the end of the current deal in 2020. But it’s not going to be a rubber-stamping exercise, and the tour now has alternative options.