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 felt he had 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 saw previewing the course as it was growing in during Autumn 2008, we had absolutely no doubt that it would make as big an impact on the golfing scene as Kingsbarns did when it was unveiled eight years earlier.
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. 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.
Aberdeen Asset Management took over sponsorship of the event the following year and both the 2012 and 2013 editions of the tournament were decided by a play-off after the leading players finished tied on the same 17 under par total of 271 for four rounds. In 2012, India’s Jeev Milkha Singh beat Italy’s Francesco Molinari then Phil Mickelson from the United States overcame South Africa’s Branden Grace in sudden-death twelve months later.
The Scottish Open has since moved around the country to different venues but it returned to Castle Stuart in 2016, when Sweden’s Alexander Norén claimed his fifth European Tour title with a one-stroke victory over his nearest challenger, England’s Tyrrell Hatton.
The Castle of Stuart. What turned out to be the star of the show of an immense week of Golf in the Scottish Highlands. Castle Stuart pops from start to finish.
The hospitality and welcome were top drawer - folk can't do enough for you. The iconic 1930's Art Deco style clubhouse stands proudly at the high point of the property overseeing the fantastic landscape set below it.
Both nines start at the low points right down on the Moray Firth, hugging the shoreline and Holes 1 & 10 go in opposing directions. The opening couple of holes feel tight and claustrophobic as you weigh up the tee shots but this is part of the illusion the architect has created as landing zones on both holes afford plenty of sympathy.
The holes along the firth are stunning, water shimmering in the crisp, afternoon sun. The course has the feeling of being arranged in tiers or shelves that gives the player the perspective that they are almost always playing adjacent to the firth.
Castle Stuart has the perfect mix of tough holes and chances to pick up shots - so many "half-par" holes are utilised here. The flow to the routing is excellent, you are taken on a modern Golfing adventure but there are never more than three tough holes in a row - namely 13-15 are the real fasten your seatbelt stretch where pars are at a premium.
The journey around this layout moves you in such a fashion that you take in many of the spectacular local landmarks as you walk to tee boxes and greens and everything in between. On the 4th tee you are met with the stunning backdrop of Castle Stuart itself beyond the green, a 17th century tower house that lay derelict for 300 years before being restored in the 1980's. As you approach 13 green you get the wonderful reveal of Kessock Bridge in the distance, a 1km long suspension bridge that connects Inverness to the Highlands.
A brilliant line from the yardage book reads:
"Castle Stuart reflects an appreciation that the game of Golf is more about error and recovery than it is about perfection. Its ethos is more about redemption than punishment"
Loose shots find trouble here, often in the form of awkward, clever contouring, wispy fescue grasses or rugged, sandy, waste areas but allow varied, fun and interesting opportunities to recover with sound course management and execution. Lost balls are a rarity, there is generous space off the tee but certain routes to the greens are much favourable and advantageous than others.
Some of the finest modern contouring has been used around the greens that act as a brilliant defence to anything but well-executed approach shots and indeed short-game recoveries from greenside. Castle Stuart strikes a very satisfying and often-elusive balance of being manageable for the higher handicapper yet still providing a stern enough challenge for the scratch player.
Hanse has created some wild putting surfaces - every single one being thought provoking and challenging to some degree with a special mention to the greens at 2, 8, 13 and particularly 14 for their flamboyance.
The clever design also gives the player the perspective that the greens are much closer to the water of the firth than they are. This infinity aspect is particularly noticeable on 6, 7 and much of the homeward nine.
The 18th is a magical closer. A par 5 that really tempts the player to go for glory in two blows as the lay-up alternative appears far from straight forward visually when in truth, again there is much more room once you make your way towards the green.
Gil Hanse was clearly given a superb piece of land by the late Mark Parsinen (Kingsbarns) on which to work his craft, but wow has he excelled in the execution of this fine layout!
I played Castle Stuart for a second time last weekend. It was very nice conditions for an October day in Scotland and I was very surprised by the firm links conditions at this time of year. The course played beautifully and I was very impressed with the smooth roll and speed of the greens.
I was having a debate about the merits of the course in comparison to Royal Dornoch, which we had played the day before. It mainly centred on the wide fairways and the ease of which you could play off the tee. For me this was part of the fun of the place. It is not very tight and demanding, but lets you be aggressive and get your driver out a lot. The course for me is exciting in it's approach play and green complexes which can be very tight with devilish run offs. The question from the tee then becomes, should I hit a driver, or where can I hit that would leave a good position to attack the pin. Distance was not always the answer. As I found to my peril at the beautiful short par 4 3rd that has to be mentioned. The 10th and 11th were a great par 4 and 3 with beauty and demanding green complexes. I thoroughly enjoyed the long par 3 17 too.
I think the course could be completely different depending on the wind obviously, but also depending on pin positions. With such undulating greens and large complexes, the holes and tactics would have to be changed dramatically on many holes where precision was rewarded with a straight forwards putt, but being a little off could lead to a world of trouble.
Overall I think this is a very playable course with a lot of options on how to play it. That in my book makes it thoroughly enjoyable and with some incredible views and conditions, I think most people will appreciate it.
If I could choose one place to play golf forever, Castle Stuart would be on the shortlist. I am lucky enough to have played it 4 times this year, over 3 different days, and each time it was majestic.
The only thing is lacks is history - tails of Old Tom, old battles, Seve doing something magical - and you really shouldn't fault something just for being new, can you?
For me, short par 4s with strategy choices are the best holes in golf, and there's a plethora here to challenge you. The green complexes are superb, with lovely run-offs if you land it in the wrong place. And the framing of the greens - it felt like 17 infinity greens (it wasn't quite that, but not far off!) and one framed by the castle.
It is just superb, I can't recommend it enough.
The Covid pandemic has been a misery for everyone but offered us one tiny slither of solace because we were able to postpone our golf trek to Scotland from April until July at no extra cost.
We had signed up to a special deal through Castle Stuart Golf Club, entitling us to golf there, Royal Dornoch and Nairn and two nights’ accommodation at the excellent Culloden House Hotel near Inverness.
The clubs and hotel are hugely down on reservations because American tourists are not allowed in the country and that meant we had two of the top courses in the world almost to ourselves.
So, after the delights at Royal Dornoch and the toughness of Nairn, we completed the trilogy at the magnificent links of Castle Stuart where Mrs W literally had the best round of her life.
Everything about this former Scottish Open venue is top-notch from the moment players arrive at its ship-shaped clubhouse.
As first-time visitors, we were given a welcome bag on our arrival and directed to the superb warm-up facilities where there are literally barrels of balls.
Then on to the ginormous practice green with slopes so steep that countless times the ball ended up at my feet after being struck upwards.
Finally, we were instructed to take the path between two bushes and, on turning the corner, our breath was taken away.
The views over the Moray Firth from almost every hole are stunning. I don’t believe it can be seen from the 4th but, hey, its backdrop is the castle itself.
A chap at our hotel had promised us we would not lose balls at Castle Stuart but that seemed a tad rash when standing on the first with the gorse to our left and water to our right.
Nevertheless, it was negotiated successfully and the hits kept on coming – from both the players and this superb track.
The premium memories may be the views but the condition of the course should come a very close second.
I haven’t played top-quality American links but imagine them to be similar to this – manicured tee boxes, intricately mown fairways and green complexes which have plenty of curves but can be read.
Every hole has nuances which can trap the errant but give players a chance.
We were later told that Castle Stuart prides itself on being ‘women friendly’ and certainly Mrs W took every opportunity it offered, growing in confidence as she did.
This included the second, a terrific par five with an island of rough in the middle of a fairway which winds down to a sloping green in front of water.
The fifth was a favourite too. A bending par four which we nailed in unison and I ought to give a shout out to the ninth – another curving hole back towards the clubhouse where the green entrance is narrow and accurate decision-making and execution are required.
I confess there was one lost ball on the remarkable tenth – a short par four from an elevated tee with a green protected by bunkers in front of the firth. I sliced my shot into the bushes to the right and it was never seen again.
The course then has an uphill section with a testing par five before a very steep walk to the 13th, probably the highest point.
The final two holes were among the strongest in my view – the 17th is a long par-par three with a slither of fairway to a huge green and the 18th is a superb par five whose approach requires a delicate weave around a cavernous dune to the right.
To be honest, my description cannot do Castle Stuart justice. The place is a golfing heaven and the people were very friendly (including the green staff who were unfailingly polite and interesting).
We might just have to sign up for that deal again if it exists in the future.
In the land where golf began, it has been reasonably rare that new links courses have appeared across the past century. There are the old guard, many of which are well over 100 years old. But in more recent times there have been a number of top quality links courses added to the Scottish back catalogue, with Kingsbarns, Dumbarnie Links and Castle Stuart heading the charge.
When you arrive at Castle Stuart on the southern shore of the Moray Firth, you realise just what an impressive piece of golfing land Gil Hanse and his team had to work with. The real conundrum was how to best utilise the undulating shoreline site? The theory was to route the course to take advantage of the incredible views in all directions and to frame many of the holes as if they were a painting, highlighting a different backdrop or landmark. The vindication that this was achieved is the amount of times on the course you feel compelled to pull out your camera.
From the nautical feeling Art Deco clubhouse that sits on a higher part of the property, you are able to see across the Moray Firth and north toward Royal Dornoch, which was heavily studied in the design of this course. You have no indication however of where the course is or how it will look from this vantage point.
The design principles were to encourage variety of strategy, craft expansive fairways that mean less need to search for golf balls and to offer the severest of examinations when it comes to reaching the green sites. In the guide book, it references the need to elicit hope from the golfer that the next shot will be a good one, not disengage them with unrelenting difficulty. That is a theory that sits well with my golfing heart and Castle Stuart achieves its aim.
Links courses often begin with the odd weaker hole but you are straight into the thick of it here. As we turned away from the water on to the 4th tee, I felt that maybe the best of the course was behind us, only to be greeted by the most wonderful par 3 with the castle as the backdrop, a picture perfect hole if I’ve ever seen one.
The ingenuity of the routing is the loose figure of eight arrangement that brings you back to the water at the start of both nines, like a rollercoaster following every contour of the property with the clubhouse situated in the middle of the site. As we reached the half way hut, we were asked what we thought of the course. After offering our unanimous praise, we were told that the best was yet to come, which left me somewhat aghast. However the man spoke the truth and the run 10-14 has absolutely everything you could ever want in a seaside golf course. Drama, views, difficulty, elevation changes and a couple of wondrous green sites. The dog leg 13th is the signature hole and the green is the highest point on the property. It is a place to take a moment and ponder where you might rather be while realising there is no longevity in that past time. The 14th green is downright naughty and having played the hole now, I realise just how much strategy and placement from the tee really is everything.
For me, the only weak hole comes at 16, a driveable Par 4 where their seems little jeopardy either from the tee or on approach. The view from the left side of the green however still leaves a sweet taste in the mouth and Castle Stuart can be forgiven for having one average hole as the other 17 are stupendous.
There is no doubt this is one of the best and classiest courses in the U.K. and a bucket list course that you’ll want to come back to play again and again. I very rarely go back to play courses in a hurry but this is one that I’ll be making a beeline for again in the near future.
Nice review, but from repeated personal experience three 16th can hurt you depending on the wind, either running through into the heather and bunkers, or an imperfectly struck approach being rejected into the runoff left leaving a very tricky chip.
I have now played Castle Stuart five times and every time I play it my appreciation grows. “Visual experience” is the first section in the yardage book introduction and rightly so. The views are stunning, so much so that the phrase “uplifting for the soul” was used on more than one occasion within our group.
It is also an incredibly enjoyable course to play. Wide fairways give you the comfort to reach for the driver without too much fear of losing a ball. Yet the course is not easy. It is a classic second shot course where narrow greens, severe run-off areas and bunkering places a premium on accuracy especially when the wind is up.
The course starts at sea level with what appears to be an intimidating tee shot with gorse down the left and the sea down the right. However in practice the landing area is more generous than it appears, a feature that applies on a number of the holes.
The overall layout of the course is strong with the first 3 or 4 holes on each nine at sea level before rising up to holes perched above. The uphill walks from the 4th to the 5th and 12th to 13th help to get the heart-rate up and remind that healthy exercise is one of the great aspects of this sport!
On every hole there are stunning views, with numerous infinity greens adding to the visual spectacle. There is great variety with regular changes of length and shape of hole as well as changes in direction. There is barely a weak hole on the course but rather than run through them all I’ll just pick out a few of my favourites.
The 3rd is a classic risk-reward hole - potentially drivable in favourable conditions but with bunkers, a rocky beach or a tough chip from below the green (with the rocky beach beyond) if you miss. The more conservative approach is to play short of one or both bunkers and have a wedge straight down the length of the narrow green.
The 11th is the pick of the par 3s (run close by the 17th) played from an elevated tee to a well-protected green with the Moray firth beyond and to the left.
The 18th is an enticing downhill par 5 requiring a good drive to give the chance of getting home in two. You then have the opportunity for glory, hitting over the scrub and bunkers to set up the chance of an eagle.
Any opinion on how highly a course rates depends critically on how much you weight various factors, but particularly enjoyment versus challenge. Clearly there is overlap between these factors as a course is unlikely to be enjoyable if it doesn’t present some kind of challenge. However, in the past at least, some official rankings were heavily focused on how tough a course is, which is the wrong metric in my view.
Great courses such as Portrush, Dornoch, Carnoustie and Muirfield provide a stiffer strategic challenge and have more great golf holes. However Castle Stuart (alongside its brethren of Kingsbarns and Dumbarnie) typically have more stunning views and are more enjoyable to play. I love Muirfield to bits but if you have a bad day with your driver there then you can spend half your time hacking about in thick rough, which is not fun.
There were 11 of us on our trip (ranging from 6 to 15 handicap) and all were of the view that Castle Stuart is one of, if not the, most enjoyable courses they had played. One of my friends noted that if he had to play just one course for the rest of his life then this would be it. I am inclined to agree. Praise does not get any higher than that.
Castle Stuart is a modern links course, its very playable and good for visitors who haven't played before. As with the likes of Cruden Bay there is a lot of hidden shots there and where you need local knowledge. Castle Stuart doesn't have that, you can see where you need to land the ball on the fairway.
The views of the Moray Firth for the course are amazing, if you get it on a flat calm day it will make it even better. In my opinion that aren't any weak holes but there are definitely some stand out holes. The par 3 11th is one of my favourite holes in golf and the short par 4 3rd is also another favourite with the infinity pool (sea) behind the green. Condition of CS has always been very good every single time I have played it.
Clubhouse and practice facilities are very good and staff are always very welcoming and friendly. Would definitely recommend to play here if you haven't before, they have previously offered Scottish Golf members a discounted price and if you are lucky enough to have an IV postcode there is further discounts.
This is a modern, very playable, absurdly scenic, by any measure very good golf course....but not necessarily one I would choose among the first if I went to Scotland.
I will not give a detailed rundown of its best or worst holes as others have done that so well already. My contribution will instead be to offer a(nother) perspective to anyone considering CS for their next trip. In that respect, do know that I have played all courses in Scotland currently ranked above Castle Stuart and most which could aspire to be ranked on a similar level.
My take-aways are these:
1) I would not go to this area without playing Dornoch and Brora. Both are unique designs and experiences in a way Castle Stuart is not,
2) Having those two icons on your list, Castle Stuart is a very worthwhile third course on an Inverness-centered itinerary as it provides variety, and relief, thanks to its width, but I would also consider going to Nairn, if I was looking at playing a Championship links course. (read many of the very good detailed reviews on both CS and Nairn on Top100 if you are unsure)
3) If you are looking at adding a third course and budget matters to you (we know it does not matter to some, but in the real world for someone in your group the total bill might be of more than casual importance) I would even consider the experience of playing across the water at Fortrose & Rosemarkie, (CS is a far superior course, but you are just as likely to remember your round at F&R)
4) If your trip involves going to/from the area from Aberdeen (an airport with many more connections in normal times), I would also prioritise Cruden Bay (currently ranked 11) before CS, again because CB is unique in a way CS is not.
5) If you have managed to play all or most Scottish courses ranked above CS and are looking at where to go next, I would also prioritise Prestwick over CS, again because of its unique architecture. (I would perhaps concur that CS has fewer good or average holes than Prestwick, but who is looking at the better average score when choosing where to go on a trip?)
6) If budget is not a consideration and you know that your likely companions on the trip love Kingsbarns, forget all of the above and prioritise CS. The quality on offer is so high that five balls almost feels like a minimum rating.
Before delving into the design discussion for the purposes of transparency I've played the course on three different occasions -- two coming after the Scottish Open was played there and the other time during a visit right after an Open Championship.
To be totally clear -- Castle Stuart is a very good course -- echoing the same words Mark White used in his commentary. However, from having personally played over 2,000 courses globally and a representative sample of the key candidates in Scotland I don't view the layout worthy of a top 100 global ranking. Far too many people weigh in with a top 100 endorsement and really have not played much globally to provide a robust and a comprehensive overall perspective.
Being a world top 100 course demands much more than "very good" moniker. A top 100 global position mandates exceptionalism. It would be a stretch to state all of the top 100 world courses are bulletproof, however, it is fair to say being in such high lofty company requires architecture that etches itself indelibly on the memory banks and showcases a rich brew of compelling holes of the highest order.
Naturally, plenty of advocates state the rightful beauty of Castle Stuart because of its close proximity to the Moray Firth. But, there are a host of other courses globally with waterways of all different types near to their property line but often in many instances the close proximity is more eye-candy than strategic import.
As has been stated by quite a few others -- Castle Stuart possesses extremely generous fairway widths. On the face of that -- such a situation is most welcomed. But, width for width sake is not nearly as important unless the attainment of specific positions in the fairways is crucial for approach play efforts.
The opening two holes at Castle Stuart are good but hardly at the epic level. That changes massively with the irresistibly delicious par-4 3rd. While the hole is not at the Mount Everest level as the 10th at Bel-Air -- it is by no means an also ran. The shotmaking requirements are of the highest order and the marriage between the rush of emotions and the need for air-tight execution is riveting. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the outward half -- while very good -- does not come close to the benchmark demonstrated at the 3rd.
The par-3 4th is clearly attractive but it would hardly merit anything more than honorable mention when the elite mid-length par-3 holes in Scotland are weighed together. Yes, I loved the backdrop of the Castle but again it's the eye-candy dimension surpassing the internal design attributes which are simply above average but hardly noteworthy.
Others have stated the merits of the par-5 6th and it's likely the second most significant hole on the outward side -- the center-placed bunker one encounters with the 2nd shot that clearly must be avoided. Ditto the bunkers bracketing the green. The green at the 8th is also special and the ending par-4 9th close out the front nine in fine fashion.
The inward side has been rightfully described as "subdued" by Jim McCann and I agree with his diplomatic lexicon. The par-4 10th starts the nine well and the par-3 11th is a gem worthy of marquee status with the 3rd. The stretch of golf from the 12th thru the 16th is above average -- but hardly spellbinding at a world class level. The par-3 17th has plenty of teeth especially when the wind is whipping about. And the closing par-5 18th is long on length but frankly is absent on the architectural interest meter. The fairway width at the home hole is too wide without really adding much to the strategic calculus and relying more in the view of the Moray Firth.
Castle Stuart has been the beneficiary from having been seen globally in its host role of the previously held Scottish Open. No question, having Phil Mickelson among the roster of champions clearly helps - especially when he won The Open the following week at Muirfield. Plenty of venues have been given a clear boost via television exposure when world class players compete -- that's not earth-shattering news. Countless number of golfers can see what's happening and then book a future bucket list visit with that in mind. However, exposure alone does not constitute architecture heft. I can name numerous cases where that come to mind -- Torrey Pines / South, Firestone / South, Baltusrol / Lower, Olympic / Lake, The Belfry / Brabazon, etc, etc. Anyone who downplays the impact of visibility is truly kidding themselves. Hosting events does not automatically convey architectural art of the highest order. Discerning eyes can see through the smokescreen that television too easily conveys.
Candidly, as an aside -- t also helps Castle Stuart to be just minutes from the Inverness airport. You come out of the arrival area and are on the 1st tee in the blink of an eye.
When I read certain people stating Castle Stuart is on the same category of greatness with the likes of Royal Dornoch I have to question their reasoning. -- if not their sanity. Dornoch is simply a tour de force masterpiece and rightly among the highest of courses globally.
Before the ensemble of pro-Castle Stuart partisans bark back at me -- I will once again state the obvious. Castle Stuart is a very good course and a must play when in the area. It deserves plenty of attention but if someone truly believes the course merits a 53rd position in the world I would respectfully advise them to get on a plane -- after the pandemic passes -- and visit a number of other courses.
Far too often the word "great" is thrown about in a mindless manner to such a degree that its appropriate usage is diluted. Credit Gil Hanse, and more specifically the late Mark Parsinen, for introducing a modern marvel of a layout -- but not a vintage one meriting the rarified air it occupies now.
M. James Ward
Amazing views and a very good golf course, very playable - wide fairways, little rough, tough greens with lots of roll offs. Great overall experience from range to the bar and most importantly some amazing golf holes - like the 10th. But for me a little impersonal, something didn't feel quite right. I would rather play Dornoch (of course) or Nairn but also think I rather play Golspie, Fortrose or Brora when in the area esp from a value for money perspective.