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Castle Stuart provides valuable links warm-up for world's best at Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open

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Last year's highly anticipated debut of critically acclaimed Castle Stuart Golf Links, in its first year of hosting the Scottish Open, was rudely truncated by rain of biblical proportions.

This year, despite an unseasonably cold and rainy summer even for Scotland, the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open has been graced with relatively benign weather and player-friendly conditions – the sort of conditions, in fact, that await next week at The Open Championship at the equally green and soft Royal Lytham & St Annes.

Scores were low here, but players are raving about the links tune-up they're experiencing at Castle Stuart.

In a pre-tournament interview, Padraig Harrington stressed the importance of warming up the week before The Open on a links.

'I was a big advocate when The Scottish Open was at Loch Lomond,' explained Harrington. 'I said, look, I want to play links golf that week. If you move it to a links golf course, I'll be there. They have done that, and I couldn't see myself not playing in The [Aberdeen Asset Management] Scottish Open now because it's on a links. It's ideal. Having it on a links golf course gives you ideal practice.'

Clearly, Harrington's view is shared by many, but there are exceptions. In fact, the highest-ranked U.S. player in the field, Phil Mickelson, is ranked currently #16, meaning that the eight higher-ranked U.S. players decided they could do without a linksland work-out (as did a few Euro players, including world #2, Rory McIlroy).

Phil's spot in the field was not assured, however. Earlier this week, I was chatting with a member of the tournament invitation committee over haggis and $2200 a-bottle single malt Glenglassaugh whisky (I kid you not) at the posh, centuries-old Culloden House. He told me that the committee was holding one invitation in their back pockets in case they got a last-minute call from a big name.

'We thought we'd probably hear from Lee [Westwood],' he confided. But When Phil missed the cut at The Greenbrier, we got a call from him the next day [while Westwood made the cut in France]. I'm not sure what we would have done if they'd both called.'

So you think Phil is just over here for a pre-Open family trip? Think again. The day I arrived — the second day of the tournament — I was hosted by Aberdeen Asset Management for a round at former Walker Cup host Nairn Golf Club. As we were leaving the car park, guess who pulled in for a late evening round? Mickelson.

Phil had shot a 73 on the opening day, and a 64 on the second day, and he wanted to get in some more linksland work. The rumpled fairways of Nairn, about twenty minutes from Inverness, provided just the ticket, while the fairways are narrower and the greens smaller at Nairn as well. Phil did take a buggy out for his Nairn round, though, to 'conserve energy.'

Did the extra links work help? On Saturday Phil followed his 64 with a round of 65 and to crawl within three strokes behind Molinari (he would finish with a 74 on Sunday to finish T-16), who would eventually lose in a playoff to Jeev Milkha-Singh.

Just as important, he's having a great warm-up for next week's Open Championship.

Click here to view tee times in the Scottish Highlands on GolfNow.com.