There’s an alarmingly dramatic feel to this week’s Aberdeen Standard Investments Ladies Scottish Open, which precedes the AIG Women’s Open, and it’s all down to the ASI advertising material. It features a stormy sky over the Renaissance Club and three menacing-looking golfers – Catriona Matthew, Charley Hull and Georgia Hall – seemingly set to rob a bank.
To such an extent does the advert make a virtue of the line “Played Behind Closed Doors” that plenty of fans will have an irrepressible urge to be there. And should that apply to any of the Muirfield members next door, these worthies might experience a touch of what it was like for women in the days when their club looked suspiciously on all comers. Save, of course, for male members and their black Labradors.
This Scottish fortnight is likely to stand out in the annals of the women’s game, starting as it does with the Scottish Open and moving on to Royal Troon for what is the UK’s only major – men’s or women’s – of 2020. “Everyone, from Martin Slumbers (the chief executive of the R&A) down, is driven to provide a major of fitting significance,” said Johnnie Cole-Hamilton, the R&A’s chief executive for championships.
Each of the two events will be held in a bubble – or “bio-secure zone,” to use the Scottish Government’s preferred terminology – with the players switching from one bubble to the other at the end of the first week.
Ross Hallett, who is Cole-Hamilton’s opposite number at the Scottish event and a senior vice-president of golf at IMG, stressed that no one will be allowed into the tournament/hotel bubbles other than those who are accredited as players, caddies or officials. “Those inside the Scottish Open bubble will be staying inside it until they switch to the Women’s Open edition,” Hallett said. “The rules apply to everyone and if, in the case of the players, any of them should exit the bubble at one tournament or the other, sanctions will be administered by the LPGA, the LET or one of the other governing bodies.
“For the past couple of months,” he continued, “the degree of collaboration among sponsors, the R&A, the Scottish and UK governments, the LPGA and the LET has been amazing. Things could never have worked so well had that not been the case.”
Cole-Hamilton echoes the above sentiment. He said that he is expecting nothing other than cooperation from the players. That, coupled with an understanding of how all the regulations are for their good and the good of women’s golf overall: “We fully expect the women to adhere to the rules when it’s so important to them to be back playing golf again.”
Should anyone complain to Cole-Hamilton that they want a brief leave-of-absence from the Troon bubble to visit an auntie up the road, this official only needs to tell her of his own position. His parents, both of whom are in their 80s, live in Troon itself and he will not be able to see them.
Cole-Hamilton is no different from Hallett in being a thoroughly affable man. He keeps the principles attached to the Troon end of the operation open on his desk, with the first five on the list all concerned with keeping the Troon bubble well and truly sealed.
The sixth and final item concerns how officialdom will wrap the tournament up if things aren’t going according to plan. “Of course we’re hoping it won’t be necessary but we have to be prepared for everything,” he said. “We’re all working in a completely different way from usual. None of us has any experience of running a serious championship without a crowd and it’s been a challenging exercise all along.”
Both the Ladies Scottish Open and the Women’s Open boast great fields, given the circumstances, with Hinako Shibuno, the defending champion at the Women’s Open, featuring in both – even if she has her reservations about making the trip. “I’m feeling anxious and stressed about COVID-19 but I realise that it’s only the defending champion who can do the defending,” Shibuno said. “Underneath, though, I’m really looking forward to what’s to come.”
Cole-Hamilton says that Shibuno has been the best of ambassadors for the R&A. However, he did not want to be drawn on whether top golfers the world over should take a leaf from her book and go about their golf in a more obviously cheerful manner. Instead he proffered an appropriate analogy from tennis. “No two champions are the same,” he said. “Both Björn (Borg) and (John) McEnroe were great champions in their own way but they couldn’t have been more different.”
The women from the East may know more about being in bubbles than their Western rivals, the reason being that they are well used to being shepherded from one Asian event to another in what amounts to a bubble. And with several tournaments played in their part of the world this summer, they will be comfortable by now without a crowd. Shibuno, for one, will be continuing to revel in a bit of peace and quiet after the fame she had thrust upon her following her British triumph.
Her sister competitors in Scotland may benefit from the peels of laughter which lace the Japanese golfer’s play while, in the case of Troon, every competitor might delight in the merry waves which will come their way from small boys traveling on the Prestwick-to-Ayr train that runs alongside the 11th fairway.
According to Kieron Stevenson, the head professional at the course that hosted the 145th Open Championship, it is nothing if not brutal.
Carly Booth, who won the Scottish Open in 2012, has got round the problem of having no family members watching her by persuading her brother, Wallace, to be her caddie at the Renaissance. Hull, however, will be doing her usual thing of seeing and hearing precisely what she wants to see and hear. Just as she has the imagination to be able to envision a wall of trees from Woburn, her home course, to a frighteningly barren links, she probably will arrive at both events armed with her own virtual crowd.
Who will forget that 2013 Solheim Cup in Colorado where, with the crowds giving her a bit of stick at the same time as they were cheering on the Americans, Hull convinced herself that it was the other way round.
Meanwhile, Charley being Charley, she probably will view the tournament bubbles as extra rings of safety on the golfing front, especially when it comes to the Troon rough. According to Kieron Stevenson, the head professional at the course that hosted the 145th Open Championship, it is nothing if not brutal.
“Far tougher,” he said, “than it was for Henrik Stenson, Phil Mickelson and the rest in 2016.”