Martin Dempster: Nicola Sturgeon could hold key to Scottish Open future

So, what now for the Scottish Open? The contract for the event has expired in the midst of an economic disaster due to Covid-19 and, as always seems to be the case, future venues are proving a headache.

Tuesday, 6th October 2020, 9:34 am
England's Aaron Rai, left, won the last staging of the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open under its current contract but Aberdeen Standard Life chairman Sir Douglas Flint, right, is hopeful a new deal can be struck for the Rolex Series event. Picture: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
England's Aaron Rai, left, won the last staging of the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open under its current contract but Aberdeen Standard Life chairman Sir Douglas Flint, right, is hopeful a new deal can be struck for the Rolex Series event. Picture: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

The most important thing to get sorted, of course, is that contract, with last week's event at The Renaissance Club having been the ninth under a partnership involving Aberdeen Standard Investments, the Scottish Government and the European Tour.

In that time, there can be no denying that the stature of the tournament has grown, having been helped in that respect by it earning Rolex Series status, and, even with no crowds on this occasion, it still had that feeling of something special.

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Negotiations about a new contract between those three parties are "ongoing" and the good news is it appears that any concern about Martin Gilbert retiring last week as ASI's chairman potentially being harmful is unfounded.

Yes, golf-mad Gilbert has been the driving force behind the company's unparalleled support of the game in Scotland and its golfers, from grass-roots level all the way up the ladder, but, crucially, others in the boardroom see the value that golf can bring to a global brand.

"As a business person, you’ve got to be clear on the economics," said Sir Douglas Flint, chairman of Standard Life Aberdeen, having previously been the group chairman of HSBC.

"When I was at HSBC, the two sports we did were rugby and golf because they fitted with the demographic and values. Golf more than anything because of its universality through all spectrums of society.

"The challenge is always: what are the other things you could do that might be better? Golf fitted and it was very effective. But you’ve got to separate loving golf from whether it fits with the brand and the target audience.

"I think, candidly, that golf fits with a wealth business and a trust business. The values in golf are probably among the highest of any sport. It’s got a lot of really good credentials, so I hope it (those talks about a new contract) will work."

That certainly sounds positive, but equally important is the Scottish Government's role in that partnership and who knows if the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is keen to provide the same support going forward as her predecessor, Alex Salmond, did when the chips were down in the past.

"Without Government contribution, this event would have been lost," said Gilbert, not telling us anything new during a chat at The Renaissance Club on Sunday but, at the same time, hammering home the message about just how close the Scottish Open was to losing its coveted pre-Open Championship slot on the European Tour schedule.

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"In 2012, it was going to go to Stockholm and then Alex Salmond intervened and made sure that we saved the event for Scotland. This and Wentworth (the BMW PGA Championship) are the big events (on the European Tour). This one always has the strongest field."

Due to Covid-19, that actually won't be the case this year, but you don't have to be a genius to know that the Americans, as well as other top players from around the world, will be back at the Scottish Open if it returns to its traditional spot next season and, quite frankly, it would be shocking if that slot is lost in the foreseeable future.

"The NBC contract is very important," observed Gilbert of a development that coincided with the event being held on links courses following spells at both Gleneagles and Loch Lomond. "Apart from The Open, this is the only European Tour tournament on terrestrial TV in America."

The event really has got so much going for it, which is why its future should be secured and the sooner the better, with now the time for the R&A to be asked again if it would be willing to loosen its “grip” on Open Championship courses in the home of golf.

Under Peter Dawson's reign as R&A chief executive, European Tour bosses were told that those courses were "out of bounds" for the Scottish Open, but it would be interesting to know if that view is actually shared by his successor, Martin Slumbers.

As is now going to be the case with the AIG Women's Open, it would be fantastic to see the Scottish Open being staged at Carnoustie, St Andrews, Muirfield and Troon - yes, Turnberry, too - in years to come and why not?

In most cases, there's a 10-year gap or more between Claret Jug stagings at venues used for it and, even with the R&A women's major now having been added into the mix, there would be opportunities for the Scottish Open to be fitted in.

Think about it. How beneficial would it be for the new wave of young stars in the men's game to get the chance to get a taste of these top courses, say, two or three years in advance of The Open being held there?

We've definitely seen some evidence of the golfing bodies and tours working much better together in the Covid-19 world, and here's a chance to show that is indeed the case when it comes to Scotland's top courses and one of the main events used to showcase it to the world.

The Scottish Open is indeed bigger and better, but here’s hoping it can be even bigger and even better.

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