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Can the Ryder Cup save Scottish golf?

The gauntlet had been thrown down a few months ago.

Photograph: Alamy
Photograph: Alamy

No sooner had he been unveiled as the Team Europe captain for the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles than Paul McGinley was swiftly encircled by a salivating Scottish press corps and bombarded with inevitable kilt-shrouded questions about home representation. McGinley, the highly likeable and always obliging Irishman, soon had his inquisitors cooing like pigeons on an electric fence as he issued an upbeat rallying cry to the golfing tartan army.

"I would love nothing more than to have at least one Scot in the team but when we played in Ireland in 2006, a quarter of the team [McGinley, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington] were Irish," he said. "So that's the challenge now for the Scottish lads; to get 25% of the team from the home country."

It was a statement full of optimism; an address designed to stir up some patriotic fervour and generate positive headlines. On that front, it was a masterstroke. The reality, of course, is slightly different. Qualifying for the Ryder Cup is hellishly difficult and for those players outside the world's top 50, without direct access to the biggest events on the global stage, it can be a monumental task. Paul Lawrie's rousing assault on the qualifying process for the 2012 match at Medinah showed just what can be achieved when players finally tap into a rich vein of form and consistency. Languishing well outside the top 100 at the start of the journey, the former Open champion picked up two victories during a renaissance that saw him clamber up to 27th in the world and return to the Ryder Cup arena for the first time in 13 years. Some 15 months on, Lawrie, with just one top 10 finish in 2013, has slithered down the pecking order.

At the time of writing, the Aberdonian was 70th on the European qualifying points list, with the top four making up the first automatic places in the 12-man team. Stephen Gallacher, the highest ranked Scottish golfer at the end of the year, was floating about in 33rd place. If the Scottish cheerleaders behind the ropes are going to have one of their own to root for in Team Europe at Gleneagles, the players will need to hit the ground running in the new year.

The clock is ticking. When the first ball of the Ryder Cup is struck on September 26, the biennial battle will, in effect, have come full circle. It was at Gleneagles, after all, where a challenge match between the professionals of Britain and America took place in 1921 as part of the Glasgow Herald 1000 Guineas Tournament. It planted a seed out of which the first Ryder Cup would grow six years later in Massachusetts. Scotland, the home of golf and cradle of this Royal & Ancient game, has not staged the transatlantic tussle since 1973. When the bidding process began to take shape well over a decade ago, that fact raised the eyebrows of one influential figure.

"I was amazed at the poverty of aspirations in Scotland," recalls Henry McLeish, the former First Minister, in the insightful publication Jewel In The Glen. "Why were we not doing this? Why were we not doing that? Why hadn't the Ryder Cup been here since 1973? I was saying to myself: 'We're the home of golf and we've been this long without the Ryder Cup.'"

The wait will come to an end in nine months' time. In the 41 years since the Ryder Cup was last held in Scotland, the scrap for the little gold chalice has developed into a multimillion-pound bandwagon. It will rumble in to town for a week, but the impact should be felt for years to come. The foundations for a flourishing future have been laid, of course. The Clubgolf programme, the junior initiative set up a decade ago as part of the Ryder Cup bid, has introduced almost 300,000 nine-year-olds across Scotland to the game and continues to attract envious glances from afar. Ted Bishop, president of the PGA of America and one of golf's big-hitting power brokers, has gushed his approval, declaring that: "I wish we had something like this in America."

At a time when club membership numbers are falling, the need to grow the game at grassroots is paramount. Without a thriving club scene, young talent cannot prosper. Without a new generation coming through, Scotland's competitive standing suffers.

"There is evidence that Clubgolf is producing new members for clubs," noted Hamish Grey, chief executive of the Scottish Golf Union. "Some 50% of boy members and 61% of girl members started the game through Clubgolf."

With funding from the Scottish Government guaranteed until 2018, Clubgolf is a key component of the Ryder Cup legacy. Similar pledges have been made in professional competition. The Scottish Open will continue to be backed by sponsor Aberdeen Asset Management and the Government until 2017 in a deal that will swell its purse to £3.5 million. The Women's British Open has backing until 2019 and will be played in Scotland four times in that period, and the Ladies Scottish Open has support until 2018.

Ireland and Wales, the Celtic nations that hosted the Ryder Cup in 2006 and 2010 respectively, both suffered lingering hangovers after the big bash, as dwindling finances led to tournaments dropping off the schedules.

"The key is not to stop once the Ryder Cup is over," said First Minister Alex Salmond. "I'm not decrying what went on in Ireland and Wales but it's a lesson we wanted to learn from. It's not stopping the day after we celebrate the next European win at Gleneagles."

Nothing is guaranteed in this game, of course. Will there be a Scot in McGinley's line-up? Who knows? The one certainty, though, is that the Ryder Cup is a golden opportunity that Scottish golf as a whole will be eager to grasp with both hands. n

The Ryder Cup takes place at Gleneagles, September 23-28. Visit rydercup.com

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