It's a tastier Northern Open with
leading amateurs in the field
FROM TODAY'S THE SCOTSMAN NEWSPAPER
By Martin Dempster
The presence of amateurs in the Northern Open field is nothing new. The Bookless Cup, for the leading non-professional, has been claimed by some decent players over the years, including George Murray, who is set to become a European Tour card holder next season.
However, this week's Aberdeen Asset Management-sponsored event, which tees off today at Meldrum House, Oldmeldrum outside Aberdeen, should certainly provide a template for similar tournaments going forward as we start to see tangible signs of a healthier relationship between the Scottish Golf Union and the PGA Scottish Region.
Instead of throwing mud at each other - one side, admittedly, has been more guilty in regards to that - these two organisations appear, on the surface at least, to finally be seeing eye to eye on matters and the decision by the PGA Scottish Region to hand out nine invites to some of the country's leading amateurs for one of its showpiece events should certainly be applauded.
Michael Stewart, the Scottish champion, is one of the players to benefit and so, too, are fellow SGU squad members Ross Kellett, David Law, Philip McLean, Kris Nicol, Greg Paterson and James White. Jordan Findlay, the runner-up to Stewart in the SGU's flagship event this year, and Scott Larkin, an Aberdonian who finished in the top 10 on the Scottish Order of Merit, have been given the two other SGU spots, while also in the field are a couple of Meldrum House members, Colin Brodie and Nick Robson.
With Wallace Booth and Scott Henry, two of the country's aspiring young Tour professionals, having been added to the mix as well, thanks to invites handed out by the event's new sponsor, Aberdeen Asset Management, the composition of this week's field is, with all due respect to the regular Tartan Tour parishioners, a lot tastier looking than it could have been.
Both Booth and Henry know from experience the value to be gained from amateurs getting an opportunity to test themselves against Scotland's leading home-based professionals.
Three years ago, they were in the SGU side that beat Bernard Gallacher's Tartan Tour team in the Bunkered Matchplay Challenge at The Carrick, where Henry holed the winning putt in a play-off against Paul McKechnie after earlier beating the two-time Scottish PGA champion, Colin Gillies, in the final match of the day to force the sudden death shoot-out.
It hurt the professionals to lose that event and it's a great pity that it fell by the wayside after just two stagings as the concept of bringing the two set of players together every second year in a Ryder Cup-style contest certainly seemed to appeal to all those involved.
Personally, I see much more benefit in the talented Stewart, for example, guaging his game against the likes of Craig Lee, the defending Northern Open champion, 2008 winner Chris Doak and other leading Tartan Tour players such as Chris Kelly, Greig Hutcheon, David Orr and Jason McCreadie than reading too much into how he gets on in next year's Barclays Scottish Open at Loch Lomond, where a place for the Scottish champion is now the norm.
While Shane Lowry (Irish Open), Danny Lee (Johnnie Walker Classic) and Pablo Martin (Portuguese Open) all won as amateurs in recent seasons, more often than not these players are out of their depth in European Tour events, which is why an exercise like the one this week can be much more beneficial in the long run for those with aspirations of reaching the promised land.
Lee and Doak are both good examples of players who showed they were good enough to get on to the European Tour but couldn't stay there. And, in Hutcheon, one of his playing partners in the opening two rounds at Meldrum House, Stewart will see someone at close-quarters who won three times on the Challenge Tour but just hasn't quite been able to make the step up to the next level.
The amateurs, of course, will be playing purely for experience and pride this week. Yet, if recent events on the Challenge Tour are anything to go by, it should come as no real surprise if one of them were to win. Andreas Harto, a Danish amateur, triumphed in the Tour Championship in Germany and, a couple of events later, Romain Wattel, the young Frenchman who claimed the Scottish Stroke Play title at Glasgow Gailes earlier in the year, emulated him in Strasbourg.
"Obviously seeing some of the guys winning this year is a big eye-opener as we have played with them before and beaten them," noted Stewart heading into his first appearance in a professional event.
"However, these [Tartan Tour] guys are playing well on a consistent basis, which is something that is hard to achieve. It's a very strong field, so if you want to win you will have to be at the top of your game. But, if one of the top amateurs here this week plays well, then they have a great chance of winning, including myself."
Even before the opening tee shot is struck at Meldrum House, there can surely be no doubt that we not only want to see more of these 'mixed' events but, just as important, they can help enormously in the effort about to be made to improve Scotland's success rate when it comes to players making the transition from amateur to professional.
IN a week's time Colin Montgomerie will be the Scottish sporting personality in the spotlight as he prepares to lead his European team into battle in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, where it can only be hoped that a golf event is going to be the only thing on his plate in the final countdown to such an important occasion in his life.
Before then, however, Martin Laird deserves the support of his nation when he flies the Saltire in the Tour Championship, the final event of the money-spinning FedEx Cup series, in Atlanta, where the action gets underway on Thursday.
Over the past couple of years Scottish golfers have been conspicuous by their absence in most of the big events and, sadly, for the second Ryder Cup running there won't be one facing up to the Americans in a playing capacity in Wales at the end of next week.
Yet, it's a measure of how well Laird is doing on the US PGA Tour that he's among the 30 players still left standing in the FedEx Cup while the likes of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington, Stewart Cink and Vijay Singh, amongst many other big guns, have all seen their races come to an end.
The Scot has already won just over £1 million this season, having come close to that mark a year ago, when he won on the circuit for the first time. And, if he wins at East Lake on Sunday, he could be £7.3 million richer - £875,000 being the first prize with a further £6.5 million going to the overall winner of the series.
Laird has certainly taken his place at the top table in world golf and, with Stephen Gallacher also looking as though he can start kicking on and Richie Ramsay set to step up his bid to build on last year's South African Open success by having a winter base in America, it will disappointing if, in two years' time, we're heading into another Ryder Cup without a Scot in the European team ranks.