The picturesque scene at Loch Lomond will be the first stop of two important weeks in Scotland.
It happens maybe half a dozen times a year. Just occasionally, when you know where and when to look, the PGA Tour, wonder of wonders, ceases to become the center of the golfing universe. The so-called and highly-lucrative "Middle East swing" through Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar is one of those times, as is this week and next -- a foreign fortnight, if you like.
While the world's biggest, richest and most important circuit is busy staging inconsequential events called the John Deere Classic (tractor pulling or golf?) and the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee, a brace of proper championships are taking place in Scotland.
"To be honest, this is probably my favorite two weeks on the golfing calendar," says Ernie Els, twice a winner of the Scottish Open and once Open champion. "No, make that definitely my favorite two weeks."
Welcome first to the Barclays-sponsored Scottish Open at Loch Lomond, a great title played for by a stellar line-up of golfing luminaries at one of the world's most beautiful places and, not coincidentally, on a pretty good golf course, too. Given all of those pluses, it is no coincidence that the highest-ranked major champion active this week has chosen to golf his ball on the picturesque western side of Scotland rather than in Moline, Illinois -- a place one American journalist this week called, "the southern section of nowhere."
"This is a better field than you get for normal U.S. tour events, for sure," world No. 6 and 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy told the Scotsman newspaper. "It's a great tournament on a better golf course than we play most weeks on the U.S. Tour. Everyone worldwide has great respect for this tournament. It's pretty high up there and it seems like it gets a better field every year."
That's certainly true this time around. The field gathered on the 'bonnie banks' is as deep as it has ever been. Undoubtedly helped by the stipulation that every player aiming to make the top-60 in the European Tour's new-fangled Race to Dubai must play at least two of his minimum 12 tournaments within the European continent, the Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish design on the edge of Scotland's biggest puddle attracted a host of star names. Ten are winners of at least one of golf's four most important events and 26 of them are ranked within the world's top 60. Even a knight of the realm arrived in the shape of former Ryder Cup captain, Sir Nicholas Faldo. Thankfully, he came to play and not make a speech. Then again, it would have been nice to catch up with the various activities of his seemingly multi-talented children; then again (2), maybe not.
In the bigger picture, this intermittent international aspect of the golfing calendar is surely welcome. Or, at least, it should be. Too much of any one thing can never be good for any business, not least professional golf. Things do seem to be shifting in the realm of course set-up on the PGA Tour -- and may do so even more when the new rule banning U-grooves kicks in on January 1st -- but there remains a disturbing and rather tedious sameness to the questions asked of the players on a week-to-week basis.
The mind goes back to the still-recent sight of Tiger Woods missing the green on a par-3, replacing his club in his bag and reaching immediately for his lob wedge. From as much as 190-yards away, the world number one had no doubt about the shot he would next be asked to play. Any semblance of imagination and flair he might bring to the process would, in effect, be pointless. By dint of the long grass close to the putting surface -- golf's most boring hazard -- he knew he'd be reduced to playing the same relatively mindless hack available to everyone else, no matter his talent level.
Not that Loch Lomond, which is easily the best inland course in Caledonia (a title not that hard to attain), represents too much of a change from the PGA Tour in terms of green speed and softness. Any prospect of bouncy, seaside golf will have to wait until next week's Open at Turnberry, even if early reports on the length of the rough and the greenness of the Ayrshire resort's fairways offer little hope of balls spending as much time on the ground as they ideally should.
It is, of course, the ball and the inordinate lengths top players can now launch it off the tee that has led to such tactics from the R&A, no matter how often the blue-blazered officials shrug and blame the weather. They know only too well that long grass, added to a bit of wind, a drying course and a host of new bunkers "strategically" placed on either side of the fairways at -- what a shock -- driving distance, will effectively take the driver out of the hands of most players. Thus, the R&A (combined with the USGA) will continue to disguise their initial inattention to advances in ball technology, a look away that has since forced so many clubs to spend millions of unnecessary dollars on course "improvements." Watch out for an almost endless stream of hybrids and long irons off too many of Turnberry's tees.
Sadly, all of the above will -- yet again -- reduce the field to playing a bastardized version of links golf, one where hack-out rough replaces the couple of inches of semi that is enough to promote both temptation and doubt in the minds of even the best players. If that is so, we are going to be treated to the depressing sight of a missed fairway being inevitably followed by a big heave-ho back into play then a wedge to the green from 90 yards or so. In other words, the U.S. Open all over again.
Come to think of it, maybe everyone should just have stayed in America after all.