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.
Castle Stuart is located on the south coast of the Moray Firth between Inverness and Nairn.
The duneland was first identified as golfing land generations ago, but it took developer Mark Parsinen (who developed Kingsbarns), and designer Gil Hanse (who created the Olympic course in Rio), to bring the project to reality in 2009.
This is a lovely golfing site, and I think the design and the development have been extremely well handled.
Clearly Mark Parsinen has had a large say in the way the course presents, and Gil Hanse has produced a remarkably professional, and at times very clever design which places him in the very upper ranks of modern age golf architects.The course starts both nines with 3 spectacular holes right along the shore of the Moray Firth before heading inland and to higher levels for the remaining holes.
Normally an architect would bring the course to a dramatic conclusion at the waters edge- not start there, so I was keen to see how the routing developed... The whole course has that lovely modern links feel, with wide fairways framed with gorse, broom, heather and sea marram.
And the rough includes patches of wispy fescue and tracts of bare sand, so the errant ball can oft be found.
The bunkering is attractive as well as strategic with light vegetation giving the traps whiskers or eyebrows on occassion.
You will also encounter fake bunkers with small revetted walls and vegetation giving the appearance of a bunker from a distance.
The greens had significant movement, and we had some very interesting putts, but nothing anyone considered overdone.Mark Parsinen states that Castle Stuart was built with the concept of 'error and recovery' in mind.
His theory is that even the professionals continually make errors, and that recovery is perhaps the most interesting part of the game.
To this end in catering for Joe Public he has opted to offer a course where the errant shot is often found, and that the recovery shots give hope, but are rarely straightforward!
The course has a number of different teeing grounds on each hole, but even so the longer hitter needs to balance the long but sometimes offline drive with an accurate approach or recovery.
If anything it is the approach shot that is more crucial. So the course caters for all type of player, surely the sign of good design?
The other thing I particularly liked about Castle Stuart was that I could read the hole from the tee, intuitively identifying the options before me, and what the designer was asking from me.
The holes used the lie of the land, and had little in the way of hidden dangers... And each hole was a separate chapter in the same book, not sighted until you had completed the previous hole, a different delight to discover on turning the corner, yet all true to the theme.
Perhaps the standard dropped ever so slightly for the inland holes 14 through 17, but I am not convinced it wasn't just the fact that I was getting weary after so many days on the road...
Certainly the course is visually striking, one of the most picturesque I know. The one major drawback is the long uphill walk from 12 green to 13 tee. Talk about heart attack hill!
Castle Stuart has many very fine holes.All six of the water holes are gorgeous, and a joy to play.
Of these the short 4 third hole with its wild promontory green, and the short par 3 eleventh with green set against the beach were favourites.
The par 3 fourth hole with Castle Stuart as a backdrop is very pretty, and I thought the par 5 sixth hole which plays back into the corner of the property a level above the third and fourth holes was very clever with skyline green and bunkering appearing to project out into the Moray Firth.
In the back nine the par 5 eighteenth was beautifully bunkered and fitted into the landscape perfectly- just a lovely finishing hole.And the Art Deco clubhouse is a standout- unique, yet cosy and practical.
Make sure you allow some time to relax there after the round. All in all Castle Stuart ticks all the boxes for me, and becomes a personal favourite. And it is a nice contrast to Royal Dornoch up the road.
Castle Stuart is a "Travelling Golfer must play!"
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review
Last July, i stopped i've had the opportunity to stop for a few hours in Inverness and used it to play a round on the magnificient track at castle stuart.
Over the past ten years i have played some of the finest courses in the UK and especially in Scotland which is my favourite golf destination.
I must say that this course deserves all the awards and accolades received across the years.
From the welcoming staff to the stunning area, from the driving range area to the beautiful first tee, everything in Castle Stuart will be engrave in my mind for the next ten years at least !
The only reason i do not give a 6 is.... The Club House Architecture !! ;)
Is there anything at Castle Stuart better than eating a bowl of chili inside after a day spent playing in the wind and rain?
The golf course. It is very good.
I do not think it is in the same league as the grand historical links courses because the fairways are too wide, however, it is the second best new course built in Scotland behind Kingsbarns. And one could make the argument it is better than Kingsbarns.
This course is so wonderfully routed and situated that it begs the question of how did it take so long to build a golf course here?
And it is living proof that Gil Hanse can build a masterful golf course if he is given the right piece of land, unlike Inniscrone in Chester County, PA, which is horrific due to the land he was provided.
I liked nearly everything about this golf course with the exception of the fourth hole, the uphill par 3 that just does not seem to fit the character of the other holes, the short 14th, and the 16th, another short par 4 that has no bunkers and no character to it.
On a clear day the views are so amazing that it can be distracting. Your eyes keep wandering to watch the ships on the blue water next to you. The views are amazing.
The green complexes are interesting and sometimes terrifying such as on the short par 4 third hole. Miss this green and you will definitely be scrambling.
For me I thought the best holes were 2, 3, 5, 9, 10, 11 and a fine 18th par five although one could argue the fairway is too wide for a finishing hole.
The condition of the course is always excellent and it is fun to play no matter what the weather is. The green side bunkers can be very difficult and even when there is not a green side bunker truly coming into play such as on 11 there is so many other obstacles added that it makes it imperative to hit the green with your approach shot.
The greens are not particularly difficult to read but they can be difficult to one putt from five feet or more to make birdie or save par and due to the size of some of them, getting the speed right is necessary to avoid a three putt from 30 feet or more.
Whether you are up on higher ground or on the handful of holes below the ridge near the water, you will enjoy them.
If you are heading north into Scotland, Castle Stuart is an absolute must play.
Finally, Inverness is a lovely small city and Nairn and Dornoch are lovely small towns.
A friend of mine pointed out a glaring omission in my review which is the sixteenth hole. He is a little stronger in his critique of the hole than I am. I do agree with him that a golf course of this caliber should not have a hole on it as bad as this one is. Yes, architects always need to decide which hole on a golf course becomes the transition hole back to the clubhouse but generally that occurs on holes 12-15. The sixteenth at Castle Stuart feels like a transition hole at best. It is a driveable par 4 that is so wide there is no definition to it and the green is also pretty routine. I almost feel like one should just walk this hole rather than play it, as it is still good for the view. It is not as bad as 17 on Cabot Cliffs or 4 on Quirvira, but it remains a mystery to me as to why more was not done to this golf hole as it diminishes the rest of the course.
Mark, I have very much enjoyed your reviews of American courses that I will never play, and British courses that i have and will play.
However, I will take the liberty of responding on behalf of 10+ handicappers, and giving a match play perspective which in my experience is different to North Americans who (may I be so bold) tend to play against the card.
I have yet to play a course where the fairways are too wide!
The fourth is an enjoyable mid to long iron gathering interlude with a nice castle backdrop.
The closing few holes are great for match play especially in strong wind, the sixteenth inviting a drawn drive but with jeopardy short left and long, seventeenth daring you to risk the death to the right, and eighteenth with waste short waiting to gobble up an imperfectly hit second.
We agree on the chilli however !
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.
Being a bit picky this evening; I like the 8th for its bowl green and pleasurable anticipation waiting to see where your tee shot alights, and i wish more courses had such a flattering warm up area with perfect strikes launched into a downhill range from the artificial grass. My positive expectation may only last for one tee shot, but there are no excuses !grass
I would characterise Castle Stuart as professional rather than commercial - their settled team can't do enough for you.
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 rating.
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.