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.
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
Castle Stuart was the first of the courses I played on a week-long tour of Northern Scotland during Spring of this year and it was an extraordinary way to start. A mere five-minute drive from Inverness Airport means that it’s now an easy place to get to, and the welcome we received on arrival was well in excess of what I anticipated. A personal reception from one of the members of staff together with a trolley, practice balls to use on the range and a goody bag at the start of the round are all included within the green fee. You’re then greeted with the amazing view from the locker room on the upper level of the clubhouse, a perfect way to whet the appetite.
Whilst this may be academic since this is a course review website, it’s lovely to receive such a welcoming start to the day. I’m therefore happy to report that the course itself lives up to that welcome. From the outset, it’s one strong hole after another. The opening three holes are played along the beautiful shoreline adjacent to a gorse-lined bank to the left of those holes. Following this, you have the iconic par three 4th playing towards the castle itself and then come an array of holes that provide options off the tee, infinity greens over the Moray Firth and a combination of blow-out and bearded bunkers along the way. I won’t go into detail on every hole, but the closing two holes of each nine will both stay long in the memory and are representative of what Castle Stuart has to offer. Neither of them are particularly difficult to make par, even for the mid-handicapper, but present
a risk if you’re going to try and push the boundaries and attempt to make birdie. The 9th is a brilliant short hole playing back towards the art-deco clubhouse to a raised green with a monster of a bunker to catch anything pulled left and then another similar waste bunker by the green. The 18th again has the same features of the large waste bunker and the clubhouse backdrop, but this time it’s a reachable par five and appropriately finishes with one of those infinity greens.
The views across the course are spectacular, whether it be for those opening holes on each nine that are played adjacent to the sea and beach, or the higher ground that offers beautiful views across the firth to the Kessock Bridge. Where many coastal courses are a slight let-down when they move inland, Castle Stuart continues to deliver with continuously beautifully crafted holes. There’s been an acute eye for detail with the course design here.
I have to be honest and admit that whilst I thought the course was superb, it wasn’t to everyone’s tastes of those I spoke to whilst touring the local area. I heard some views that the course doesn’t feel natural and that it’s overly manufactured. This all comes down to your own specific tastes. It might not quite feel like the genuine article, but as new courses go, I can’t fault anything they’ve done here. No amount of course prep and design can accelerate “Father Time” when it comes to replicating true links turf. Otherwise, the course conditioning is excellent, but time is indeed still required before the course starts to feel like a genuine links, hence why Dornoch will continue to lead the rankings for Northern Scotland for the foreseeable.
The green fees at Castle Stuart through the Summer are fairly extortionate so I must make the point that we played the course as part of the Highland Golf Links Stay & Play package which includes accommodation and rounds at Royal Dornoch and Nairn. £365 for a stay and play package for three of the best courses in the country makes for fantastic value. Whilst I’d like to see how the course plays if given the opportunity to brown out over Summer, considering the weather in Scotland is unpredictable at the best of times, playing in April with significantly reduced green fees is highly recommended for those on a tighter budget.
I had high expectations heading to Castle Stuart, the same as I did before playing Kingsbarns which went above and beyond what I was expecting, and Castle Stuart delivered. The day we played was a very cloudy day with a reasonably strong wind. I could see that on a perfectly still day the course would play relatively easy off the front tees, especially with a number of the bunkers being removed (I have to question that decision). But all in all, the scenery beats any other course I've played, and the majority of the holes will live long in the memory. What should be the least interesting hole on the course is the Par 3 4th that offers little views of the Moray Firth but is perfectly placed to have the castle sitting directly behind the green and it's a sight to behold. The pictures don't do it justice.
The course itself plays fair but definitely requires tactics and smart golf.
I think it says a lot for Scotland that the recently built links courses are as good, if not better, than the ones riddled with history and prestige.
Just a quick comment ref the removal of the bunkers which we were interested by, having ping ponged between bunkers across the green at 6 several times !
Apparently the owner Mark Parsinen asked caddies where players picked up and made changes appropriately. Great idea and for me sums up the Castle Stuart philosophy.
Stunningly beautiful course which is eminently playable as it give room off the tee. Very rare in a course that there are no weak holes. Clearly some are better than others – 5, 7, 8, 11, 17 & 18 are very strong and aesthetically pleasing. Superb clubhouse also. Warning – the walk between 12th green and 13th tee is tough !
Rather than clog up the reviews with another one of mine, played today on first day of season. Great nick, lots of gorse removed for sight lines and that bloody bunker on the right hand of 6 has gone - apparently half of all scratched holes happened there, shows their customer focus. Decent number of players for opening day, the word is evidently spreading !
One of the biggest compliments that can be given to Castle Stuart is that playing this golf course makes you really appreciate the importance of strategy in the game, even for a mid-handicapper not versed in the theory of golf architecture.
Thus, in many holes, it becomes evident (often once finished) that there is an angle or position from which the approach is clearly more affordable. And, on the other hand, although the error, either in the strategy or in the execution of the shot, is penalized, there is always an opportunity for forgiveness (perhaps we find here a Catholic reminiscence, if we become transcendent). In any case, that forgiveness will always bring out the best of the player's skill.
To this must be added a privileged scenario, an exceptional attention to detail (but without giving a sense of artificiality) and a more than friendly staff. Maybe the only criticism, a green fee price a bit too high.
As for the course, it has to be noted for its wide fairways, which allow to choose different routes, and its green complexes, almost all of them interesting and diverse. In addition, the conditions of the course are ideal for thinking golf (fast running surface and hard greens) allowing the choice for terrestrial or aerial way to access the green.
There are so many interesting holes that it is difficult to highlight some, but I especially liked the passage from the 3th (wonderful short par 4) to the 7th and, after that, the short 11th, 14th and 17th.
In short, Castle Stuart deserves to be, in my humble opinion of occasional golfer, on the same level as Royal Dornoch, both in design and in terms of pure fun.
And, as far as it can be described as more artificial, apart from that is something not apparent, it is a small defect when the final result gives off intelligence and good taste.
MMA, Barcelona, Spain.
Simply outstanding. It may not have the history of its illustrious neighbours but in my opinion it's better - course is breath taking and in great nick, the staff could not be more helpful and the facilities are excellent - which is where it knocks spots off the local competitors. When we played it felt like we owned the course, whereas at RD it's rammed. If you get a chance, stay, you won't regret it.