Only one course of action was open to American developer Mark Parsinen once he’d overseen the triumphant opening of Kingsbarns—scour the coastline of Scotland to find a suitable place to develop another world class layout that might even outshine its illustrious predecessor.
Parsinen feels he has discovered just such a special site on the southern shores of the Moray Firth, between Inverness and Nairn at Castle Stuart and from what we’ve seen previewing the course in the Autumn of 2008 (and, it must be added, with absolutely no fear of sensationalising the issue) it will make as massive an impact on the golfing scene (opened in the summer of 2009) as Kingsbarns did in 2000—yes, you read that right first time—it is that good.
The opening three holes on each nine run away from the clubhouse along the edge of a raised beach by the side of the Moray Firth, offering spectacular views across the water to the Black Isle. In order to reach shore level from the escarpment above, a thrilling drive must be struck from tees cut into the cliff side down to the fairways below on holes 1 and 10—a heart-pumping way to start both the outward and inward half.
As with so many modern designs, clever mounding ensures most holes are played in isolation to the rest, with the next hole only revealed after the current one has been played. Another eye-catching feature throughout the entire layout is the use of expansive, wild-looking waste bunker areas to fringe the sand capped-fairways and green sites, adding a wonderfully natural feel to the course.
Holes 4 to 9 and 13 to 18 are played more inland, with each loop ending on either side of a clubhouse that sits on the edge of the cliffs. One of the best holes on a sensational front nine is the 552-yard, par five, 6th which is played to a long, narrow green that sits between a pair of beautiful waste bunkers. On the more elevated back nine, the testing 220-yard 17th on top of the cliffs is a really daunting prospect to play so late in the round.
Castle Stuart now offers some serious competition to both Royal Dornoch and Nairn when it comes to attracting visiting golfers, but that can only be a good thing for the Highlands where they seem determined to raise the golfing bar of excellence as high as possible.
In January 2011, Castle Stuart was confirmed as the venue for the 2011 Barclays Scottish Open, which for the previous 15 years Loch Lomond had hosted—click here to read more. Unfortunately the 2011 event was hit by unprecedented summer storms that forced a foreshortened 54-hole tournament. The rain delays, however, did not dampen Luke Donald’s form. The world number one cruised comfortably to victory claiming his first Scottish Open title by four shots. India’s Jeev Milkha Singh won the 2012 event, beating Italy’s Francesco Molinari in a play-off. Phil Mickelson won an exciting sudden-death play-off against South Africa’s Branden Grace to claim the 2013 title and then went on to win the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield to claim his fifth major title.
While the old standards are certainly my favorites the newcomers such as Castle Stuart are no slouches. Had the pleasure of playing here on a sunny, windy day and it was a treat. The variety of holes, wind conditions, and the scenery were spectacular. Played the "sister" course Kingsbarns a few days earlier and would give it the nod over Castle Stuart by a nose but both were a treat and strong examples of how moving considerable amounts of earth can look natural.
Each time I play here, I appreciate the widespread design variety more and more. The location is stunning, the golf course is enjoyable to play for all levels, the mowing lines are superbly presented offering such gorgeous contrasts of grasses – and of course the playing surfaces are top notch.
Both nines offer a wonderful routing that takes you on a journey close to the water’s edge and then up high on the ridge overlooking the firth. Almost every course that Gil designs just gets better over time, and the mix of shorter holes playing tough into the wind plus longer holes playing downwind is a complement to the routing that he discovered. As expected, the blind shots throughout the property are fun to navigate and contribute to a very memorable world-class experience.
While this certainly isn’t a hidden gem, it is certainly worth every effort to play and embrace the gorgeous encounter.
Along with Kingsbarns another stunning example of what new course design can add to the wonderful history of Scottish golf courses.
The walk down to the first is breathtaking, as are many of the other holes.
Obviously you must play St Andrews and Prestwick and Dornoch etc etc etc but the new courses are also superb.
Wow! All that needs saying... Wow!
Wow, indeed, couldn't agree more. Aside from the Old Course, Castle Stuart is my favorite.
You don’t need to think strategically to play Castle Stuart but to play Castle Stuart you need to think strategically.
The above summarises this modern links perfectly and in my opinion is a sign of greatness. Castle Stuart is great.
It’s a thinking man’s course for sure but the more naive golfer will still get maximum enjoyment from this wholly manufactured course, albeit their score may suffer in the process!
The poster boy for modern links golf delivers with a bang; visually, strategically and in pretty much any other way you can think of.
Wide from the tee, but certainly not overly generous as is often quoted, it requires a golfer to get into position with their tee shot, by choosing their route, in order to attack the green from the correct angle. The design is exceptionally clever in that it will challenge the elite (it has hosted the Scottish Open multiple times) but remains infinitely playable for golfers of lesser ability.
The large, perfectly contoured, greens and the expertly sited run-offs help deliver a collection of green complexes which I don’t think is matched outside The Old Couse at St. Andrews and perhaps a couple of other esteemed venues.
Critics could argue that at times Castle Stuart pushes the boundaries just a little too far but I like to play my golf on the edge and this is why I love the course so much.
There are so many devilish recovery shots to be played which I think is crucial for a course to be regarded amongst the very elite. And by devilish I don’t mean hard – I simply mean that they create a disparity in the golfers mind about how one would like to play the shot compared to how one should play the shot. Redemption is always possible if you miss a green – thanks mainly to an abundance of short grass - but further punishment is always just around the corner if your execution or decision making is not sound.
Double-decker layered in a similar manner to Kingsbarns and located hard against the Moray Firth it is a breathtakingly beautiful golf course with numerous ‘wow’ moments during the round. Infinity greens and vistas abound – at times you feel like you are walking a tightrope before firing into an abyss.
The bunkering, certainly from a visual perspective, adds to the style and the turf is so tight, sandy and simply made for good golf.
The routing is very good too and ensures the course flows well, especially considering you have upper and lower holes with only a steep walk to the 13th tee a little cumbersome.
The questions that the course (par 72 & yardage 7,009 from the tips) continually asks from the tee and on approach are outstanding. There are several holes which I would deem world-class; the 2nd, 3rd, 9th, 10th, 11th and 18th. These have all got it very right from both the tee and into the greens. Each one gives you options from the tee and depending upon your choice, and the execution of the shot, you will be rewarded or penalised for your next stroke accordingly.
There are a number of other holes which are more conservative from the tee but have outstanding green complexes; the 6th, 14th and 16th are three that quickly come to mind. The simplistic but brilliantly strategic nature of the 16th in fact is so good that this ‘tame’ 335-yard par-four with no fairway bunkers can be a soul-destroyer for even the best golfer. Perhaps the widest fairway on the course will lull you into a false sense of security on the tee but if you do not fire down the right-hand-side you will have an immensely difficult shot over a deep gully for your next; that birdie you were hoping for on the tee can quickly become an irksome bogey.
The only hole I didn’t much care for was the 8th. The green complex is quite interesting once you get to it but it lacks the visual punch and strategy from the tee as well as being slightly out of character with the rest of the holes. That aside I found very little else to dislike.
I’m not really a fan of the commercial set-up at Castle Stuart and prefer the olde-worlde charm of an established, historic links any day of the week but there’s no denying that from the first-tee to the 18th green Castle Stuart is up there with the very best.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Castle Stuart is the younger brother of Kingsbarns. The Gil Hanse design is less than ten years old but has already made quite a name for itself and has hosted tournaments like the Scottish Open, Adopting the Castle Stuart name from the nearby castle that dates back to the 17th century and the land was granted to the Stewart family by non other than Mary, Queen of Scots in the mid 1500s. The history is interesting with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites, insurrections and conspiracies. The castle was in neglect for a couple of hundred years until one of the Stewart descendants bought, restored and converted it into a luxury hotel.
The course is fantastic with the first 3 holes on the Moray Firth. The first is an inviting par 4 with a wide fairway, but appears much tighter due to water right and gorse covered cliff on the left. The 2nd hole is the first par five and while big hitters can get home in two, the risk reward probably does not justify it. Better to hit your second shot short right. The 3rd hole is a driveable par 4 but it has a very trying elevated moguled green. The 4th hole is a par 3 going inland with the real Castle Stuart in the background. The design gives the illusion of the green as a floating island but there is much more real estate available for less than optimal tee shots. The 6th is one of my favorite inland holes a long par 5 that really isn't reachable, thus you should play for your preferred wedge distance. Be wary of the fairway bunker about 80 yards out from the green. This is a long skinny affinity green with bunkers on both sides. The par 4 7th conquered all of us. Not sure what kind of advice to give on this one, but hit a good drive and hit the green and you should be fine. The 8th is a long par 3 with a multi-tiered punchbowl green. The right yardage off the tee is critical, if you are on the wrong elevation look out. The 9th is a short par 4 with the preferred line the right side of the green and be forewarned about the false front.
The 10th-12th are Firthside once again. The 10th is opposite hand of the 1st. The 11th is a short cute par 3. Fun little hole. The 12th is an uphill par 5. If you keep your ball in play there is not a lot of trouble. However, after putting out take a deep breath and hitch up your britches because you have a long uphill walk to the 13th tee. The 13th-15th are okay. the 16th is potentially driveable however beware of being long as you cannot see the bunkers. The 17th is a beautiful par 3 heading west towards Inverness. It will probably play a club shorter than it appears. The finshing hole is a dogleg right par five. On the tee aim at the Scottish flag left of the strangely designed clubhouse (how that got approved is beyond me). It has a two tiered fairway and the green is huge. Which of course is easy to hit and thus easy to 3 putt. Castle Stuart is a wonderful course that I heartily recommend, I would pay to play it again!
A well written and positive review - captures the essence of CS.
The rating given by this reviewer is not commensurate with his own sentiment though - “a wonderful course” only gets a Top100 4-ball “good” rating.
Surely “very good” or even “excellent” would be more appropriate for what is one of the best new courses in the British Isles!
I'm also a little confused about the ranking.
As an aside, the club house is beautiful to my eye, modern yet classic appropriately for the course, and the best designed golf facility I've been in with the best team.
Played here on consecutive days in August and have to say a top quality experience on and off the course. Friendly, relaxed atmosphere in the clubhouse, with great food and service. They let us run a tab over the two days and even were happy to store our clubs overnight. Practice facilities were as you would expect but the real jewel is the setting and course itself. Beautifully routed along the Moray Firth with wonderful vistas, the designer has pulled off the trick of players feeling completely alone on each hole. Very rarely can you see any other hole on the course. This is a second shot course and thus very playable for most handicaps. Driving areas are generous but hitting the greens is fiedishly difficult, yet alone close to the hole, protected as they are by humps and hillocks, closely mown fall off areas and hogs back greens. The result is that you can easily leave a 40yd plus putt and have to aim well away from the flag. Positioning off the tee to provide the best approach angle is vital. Not cheap so look out for seasonal offer and deals, but has become a 'must play' golf experience and one to tick off the list.
10 years ago when Caslte Stuart first opened I was lucky enough to enjoy an early visit which I loved. It’s amazing to revisit now that the course has matured over the years.
This time around I was fortunate enough to catch it in not only perfect condition on a perfect day but also in the height of the gorse blooming season. There is no way I could do the experience itself justice, it’s just that awesome.
I also love the course. It does everything right from an architecture perspective. It has plenty of width for everyone to enjoy but rewards the correct tee shots based on the day’s pin position. The style of bunkering is natural and ties in perfect with the terrain as do the greens and surrounds. The turf is of superior quality and highly promotes the use of the ground game as do most holes.
I’m a fan of the highly acclaimed Kingsbarns by the same owners but for me Castle Stuart has grown into the better of the two courses.
My favorite holes are #1, #6 and #11.
Put Castle Stuart on your must visit list you won’t regret it.
Review summarises Castle Stuart very well - they’ve done a very good job there.
Is there an argument for reversing the nines as another reviewer has suggested here? I’d love to play it that way around to see how the round and routing flows differently
Per the suggestion to reverse the 9's, 10/11/12 would be a tough opening 3 holes ! I really like the current flow, 1/2/3 would be a bit samey in the middle of the round.
Having recently completed play on Castle Stuart on a chilly October day I was very impressed with the course and believe it is among the best routed courses in the world along with Cypress Point, Pine Valley, Carnoustie, Sunningdale, and Royal Portrush.
The architect, Gil Hanse, starts the routing out with three holes along the water, takes the golfer away from the water, brings you back again, takes you inland once more and finishes again back along it! The mark of a good architect and golf course is how the holes they design away from dramatic settings play. You could argue it is hard to design poor holes when you have great dunes and water views (as Castle Stuart has in abundance). Hanse takes maximum advantage of the land contours and a particularly noteworthy hole away from the water is the challenging dog-leg right par four thirteenth. The fourth hole is also a standout, a par three that is framed beautifully against the ancient actual Castle Stuart in the distance.
I haven’t played many of his courses, but I do like Hanse's philosophy, which strikes the correct balance between being challenging, yet at the same time is fun for all skill levels. He gives a tiger line for those who want to be aggressive, but also leaves open less challenging lines for those without pinpoint accuracy. Hanse strikes the correct equilibrium and understands that greens can't be too tricked up in a wind-blown links environment; on the other hand, they are not pushovers either, with subtle contours and breaks. My two favorite holes are the par four 10th and the par three 11th which play along dramatic dunes land along Moray Firth. This is a must play golf course.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
I guess the good thing about big budget modern projects on good land with nice views and top architects is that it's difficult to put a foot wrong. And they haven't here.
Course was perhaps a bit soft, but that could also be because it had rained a fair bit leading up to us playing there - rather than its relative youth. It definitely wasn't target golf though as there was plenty of room for creativity.
Played it twice and the second round was understandably more rewarding than the first as we had a better idea of the required strategy, especially with shots into the greens. And as the fairways are pretty generous, the course tends to give you enticing shots into the greens hole after hole. I could hit up into the 9th all day long.
Felt the course wanes a bit around holes 13 & 14, but otherwise the rest was very good.
Of the new links that I've played, I think it compares well with the likes of Bandon and Pacific Dunes, which is pretty high praise. A place I will return to.
A note on the advertised green frees: They were crazy high for October, I think £195. However, we also got a deal via Highland Golf Links for £329 for 3 rounds and 2 nights B&B. An excellent course at an excellent price is always a bonus. BB
Nice review, but we really like 13 & 14, seemingly straightforward but tough to make par with the confounding approach shots and fun green surrounds. Agree ref the Highlands golf deal in March/October - best value experience in golf for 2 rounds at Castle Stuart, 1 round at Royal Dornoch, 2 nights at the lovely Royal Golf Hotel in Dornoch. We visit every Spring, love the friendly welcome and can't understand why it isn't packed.
That's a fair point Dan. 13 & 14 may feel a bit like the "arse-end" of the property to me (many courses have one as they piece the routing together), but their greens were still good fun, especially 14. Missing right on either one not a great idea