Ever since winning the 2015 Scottish Open at Gullane Golf Club, Rickie Fowler has looked forward to the tournament’s return to Gullane this summer, but not for obvious reasons. Sure, it's always special to go back to the site of one of your crowning achievements, but Fowler had another goal in mind when he returned to the west end of the village of Gullane in East Lothian, Scotland: a visit to North Berwick. He checked that off his list on Monday – playing with a push-cart, no less, and drawing a small, but respectful gallery.
"I'm hoping to get over there," Fowler told me in advance of the trip. "My coach growing up, Barry McDonnell, his grandfather [John Gilholm Sr.] was the head pro there back in the day. I hear it is an old-school links course."
This corner of the world also is home to famed Muirfield, site of 16 British Opens, most recently in 2013. Fowler's six degrees of separation is just another reminder of how deeply-rooted the game truly is to Scotland and how indebted American golf is to the early pioneers who brought the great game elsewhere.
The membership at Gullane hasn't forgotten Fowler's heroics, either. He birdied three of the final four holes to claim the title, and a place in club lore. Honor his exploits with a plaque? Not here. No, they named a bar after him.
"To be taken in – felt like a local after we won – and now to have the bar named after us, I should just get a place and become a semi-part-time resident here," Fowler said with a smile.
He wouldn't be deprived of golf options. Gullane alone is home to three golf courses without names, but simply numbers that reflect their age. No. 1, whose architect is unknown, was established in 1884 and is the oldest by 14 years. It is paired with a handful of holes from No. 2 to form a composite course for this week's Scottish Open.
No less than Bernard Darwin in The Times in 1934 called it "one of the most beautiful spots in the world." It is carved into the ancient links turf, with pot bunkers, wispy grasses and smooth-running greens, with breezes off the Firth of Forth. Unseasonably warm and dry weather has the composite course playing fast and firm. With receptive greens that have been watered, scores could go low. But that hasn't diminished the admiration for this week's test.
"I believe it to be the best links golf course that is not on the Open Championship rota," said Italy’s Edoardo Molinari, the 2010 Scottish Open champion.
© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
World Cup fever takes over early in the week at the Scottish Open as Spain’s Pedro Oriol turns Gullane Golf Club into a makeshift pitch.
Gullane first hosted the Scottish national championship in 2015, and the swift return reflects how well the club was embraced as a tournament venue by players and fans. (Gullane also will host the Ladies Scottish Open on July 26-29.) It was a bold move for the European Tour to select Gullane, a club that had never hosted a big event of any kind in the modern era due to the two-lane road running along the 18th hole and the layout being perceived as a tough climb and less than spectator-friendly.
"It was audacious," said Geoff Shackelford, a course architect and golf writer. "I'd say it was probably one of the five most unusual places for golf in the last century. I don't think they ever thought it would be the success that it was. It was a total home run."
Think of Gullane as a miniaturized version of St. Andrews in its communal feel. With its starter's hut situated in the center of town, Gullane begins in the town, plays over a dune and then disappears out to the beach before returning.
"It ticks all those boxes when you want to go play in Scotland," Australian touring pro Geoff Ogilvy said.
"You can walk down the street there with your clubs on your back and you don't feel like an idiot there," Shackelford said. "You feel a part of the community."
The Scottish Open has elevated its stature in recent years for one very simple reason. From 1996 to 2010, the championship was played at Loch Lomond Golf Club, a fine layout in its own right, but an American parkland style course that was miscast as the prelude to the British Open.
"I have always gotten a lot out of the Scottish Open, going back to when I started playing at Loch Lomond well over a decade ago," American Phil Mickelson said. "But now that it's on links golf, I get even more out of it. I think the players that come over really enjoy it. I've been getting acclimated not only to the time change but also the links-style golf. It led to success in the following week's performance, as well."
Mickelson, who in 2013 became the first golfer to win the Scottish and hoist the Claret Jug in successive weeks, is right. Six out of the past eight winners of the British Open have taken part in the Scottish Open before earning the title of “Champion Golfer of the Year.”
American Matt Kuchar has become a mainstay at the Scottish Open, playing seven times during his career and recording three top 10s, including a runner-up finish at Gullane in 2015. Last year, a T-4 nearly propelled him to the British Open title. Kuchar, a tennis aficionado, considers warming up by competing on a links-style course as important as a competitor for tennis' premier grass-court title at Wimbledon using the annual Queen's Club Championships on grass as preparation for the Grand Slam tennis event that follows.
"You don't play a clay-court tournament the week before Wimbledon," Kuchar said.
That's part of the attraction for a field that includes 17 of the top 50 (tee times). Masters champion Patrick Reed returns for a third straight time, and Charley Hoffman, Kevin Chappell, Luke List and Harold Varner III are among the American newcomers. The history, setting and charm of Gullane make its place in the Scottish Open rota well deserved.
"Anyone who wants to win the Open and likes to play the week before an Open," Ogilvy said, "you couldn't ask for anything more."
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @adamschupak