Casey, Donald, Poulter & Westwood lead English charge at Scottish Open

Lefty won this event last year before winning the big one the next week
Lefty won this event last year before winning the big one the next week
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Lefty won the Scottish Open last year before going on to win the Open itself. Alex Johnson looks at the runners and riders to see who has it in them to do the first leg of that rarefied double.

The last four Open Champions have played in the Scottish Open prior to their major win.

Unlike the first two major championships in golf, the Open Championship is pre-empted by a significant challenge that stands alone.

With Hoylake already on the minds of the golfing world, this week brings the Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen.

Those with designs on the Claret Jug do not have far to look for the positives of a week in the Highlands as final preparation.

Royal Aberdeen is officially classed as the sixth oldest golf club in the world. Alongside the likes of St Andrews and Muirfield, it presents the typical signature challenge of 'true links golf' in the country feted as the home of golf.

At just 6,867 yards, Balgownie is undoubtedly short by modern professional standards.

Skirting along the North Sea on the outward nine and through narrow undulating fairways after the turn for home, Aberdeen has much to protect itself even from the game's best.

Tricky greens, pot bunkers and punishing rough will help, but the biggest leveller could be a howling Scottish breeze.

The chance to hone the skills required for Hoylake have enticed a strong field to Aberdeen, but one statistic may also be playing a part in attracting the likes of Rory McIlroy to the event for the first time since 2009.

The last four Open Champions have played in the Scottish Open prior to their major win.

A year ago, Phil Mickelson took things a step further.

'Lefty' won the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart before going on and winning the Open itself at Muirfield.

The contenders teeing it up this week show the esteem in which this tournament is held. Make no mistake, this is no curtain raiser.

In Scotland are 23 players from the world's top 60, ten Major champions, eight former European number ones, and just less than 100 European Tour tournament winners.

The defending champion will hope a return to these shores can bring about a change in fortune.

Mickelson has not posted a single top ten in any event in 2014, missing the cut at both The Masters and Players Championship.

His long-standing quest for US Open glory failed to ignite at Pinehurst in June but the American has proved the doubters wrong before.

A year ago, the experts said the left-handers high ball flight and 'sunshine' golf were simply not compatible with links golf.

Mickelson declared his closing 66 at Muirfield as "one of the best rounds of his career" after he came from five-shots behind Lee Westwood on Sunday morning to win by three.

Never afraid to go for glory, Mickeslon's risk/reward policy has got him into some scrapes.

In recent times he has been let down by his putting.

If he can regain the confidence with the short stick, the five-time major winner is likely to contend once more in Aberdeen.

McIlroy comes to Scotland for the first time since 2009 in the hope of proving he too can master links golf.

The Irishman stated this week that any player contending at Aberdeen would move on to Hoylake brimming with confidence.

His previous regular European Tour start brought victory at Wentworth in May and McIlroy is one of the few players capable of catching fire and dominating a tournament.

Justin Rose arrives on the back of his victory in the Quicken Loans National on the PGA Tour.

Rose has been in consistent form this season and claimed a deserved success at the demanding Congressional Country Club two weeks ago.

That layout represented a true 'major-like' challenge and Rose looks well placed for a strong summer showing ahead of the Ryder Cup back in Scotland in the autumn.

Rose secured his maiden major a year ago, holding his nerve to win the US Open. For many of his compatriots, major success remains a holy grail.

A quartet from that category join Rose in Aberdeen this week.

Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey ensure England is not short on potential winners.

The resurgent Casey may feel he is best placed to mount a bid for success.

Winner of the Irish Open in 2013, Casey has come back from an injury nightmare that caused his game to slump alarmingly.

He has had chances to win this season, notably at the Memorial Tournament, and after a slow start in Germany last week recovered to finish just outside the top 20.

Westwood continues to cut a frustrating figure. Thoroughly consistent, his ball-striking decrees a player that should boast multiple major titles.

Now in the twilight of his career, Westwood knows more than most that the time must come sooner rather than later.

An outstanding record at Augusta National notwithstanding - 7th this year - the links challenges presented during the British summer are surely the most likely to yield a major breakthrough.

Winner of the Malaysian Open in April, Westwood has missed the cut on his previous two starts and looks best watched in Scotland with an eye on Hoylake in a week's time.

For Poulter, the proximity of the Ryder Cup intensifies the spotlight.

Without a win since the 2012 HSBC Champions in Shanghai - gained in the afterglow of the 'Miracle at Medinah' - Poulter is many people's idea of a locked-in captain's pick for European skipper Paul McGinley.

However, like all those currently outside of automatic qualification, he will be determined to issue a timely reminder.

Top twenty finishes at both the Masters and US Open show Poulter is one of those that can be described as "not far away" from his best.

Back-to-back top ten's in the Open Championship would also suggest July is a month where Poulter excels.

Donald has enjoyed considerable success at this event, including a victory at Loch Lomond five years ago.

The former world number one has made a nasty habit of blowing his chances early in the week - evidenced in the manner he missed the cut at Pinehurst last month.

Joining Mickelson in the American challenge this week are Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker.

Whilst Fowler's runner-up finish in the US Open was further evidence of a growing maturity in his game, questions marks remain over his ability on a windy links golf course.

Northern Ireland's Michael Hoey is sure to be suited by the challenge presented in Aberdeen.

Securing his place at Hoylake courtesy of finishing 7th at the French Open last Sunday, Hoey was inside the top ten at his national Open and returned a 15-under par total at BMW International Open in Cologne to make up his last three starts.

That sort of form suggests he will add to his five European Tour successes, a haul that included joy in Scotland at the Alfred Dunhill Championship.

Should a home challenge materialise - seeking to bridge the gap to Colin Montgomerie's Loch Lomond win in 1999 - then two players are better placed than most.

The intricacies of Royal Aberdeen hold no secrets for Paul Lawrie and Richie Ramsay, with both players hailing from the Balgownie links.

Current form suggests they may struggle but they will not lack for support.

The shadow of the Open Championship casts itself over the Scottish Open but the recent stats suggest the Hoylake winner will be lurking in the Highlands this week.

Can any of the pretenders emulate Mickelson's July double and set themselves on track for a Claret Jug by sampling Scottish success. 

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