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.
We played Castle Stuart last week as the final stop on our trip playing Tain, Golspie, Brora and the two Royal Dornoch Courses.
With the weather spot on and an excellent bacon roll and coffee with views over the Moray Firth excitement was high. This was definitely the most 'holiday golf' destination on our trip with the complimentary strokesaver, tee bag, trolleys and range balls. Having paid the scottish golf rate of £110 things were feeling good.
Post round however it was a bit of a let down - fantastic views and a fun golf course to play, let down by pace of play.
Starting with the positives. The views are excellent and it is a course well worth a walk without even playing. The way that the course plays on two levels, by the water and on the raised levels with views uninterrupted works fantastically well. The front nine, in particular holes 1 through four along the waterfront and towards the castle at 4. The third hole, a short par four will punish anything long or short and left as balls gather into large hollows - our group of three each had 40y putts up and onto the green (think Valley of Sin at the Old Course).
The back nine starts very well with 10 through 12 along the water. The par 3 11th was probably the best of the short holes as you knock a nine iron straight towards the water. Once you climb up towards the higher ground played from 13 through to 18 a series of less memorable holes follow (13->16) albeit with stunning views. 17 and 18 feel near identical to the Castle course at St Andrews with scoring opportunities if shots are played to the right side of the fairway.
Generally a fun course to play every few years with beautiful views from almost every hole. The course was in very good condition whilst wide fairways and sympathetic rough means most balls are found and scorecards are not ruined. Expect monster (three) putts and undulating greens and surrounds.
The downside - taking 4h 40 to play as a three ball is ridiculous. Having played every other course on our trip in sub 3h 30 in much more challenging conditions. This was a very disappointing end to the trip and we spent 5/6minutes waiting for most shots. We were told by the pro shop that 4h 30 is the target time and politely to stop complaining. Questions need to be asked about deeming such a time as the target.
Worth a visit if you want a day out and are happy to wait for every shot whilst admiring the views - take your clients on a corporate golf day.
Avoid if you value a decent pace of play.
Harsh rating considering that you seemed to highlight a lot of major positives about the course. You might have just caught Castle Stuart on a busy day or maybe there was just a problem fourball ahead of you? We’ve all had rounds spoilt by “those guys”. It seems a little savage to drop your rating to a 3.5 ball score based upon one round of slow play. Would your rating have been different if it took three hours?
You omitted to mention the beautiful views of the Castle, Stuart
Sorry, but I have to agree that 3.5 balls is a peevish rating for a course that the rest of your review would indicate you find at least a 4.5.
We've all been annoyed by a slow round - over 5 hours at Birkdale for us once, stuck behind a corporate, but still gave it a top rating since the course is great and would love to return at a quieter time.
We generally play Castle Stuart early in the season and 3:45 is about right with the up and down, factoring in a nice cup of soup at half way !.
Noting the responses about my review being harsh - my course rating would be higher if the accepted pace of play was higher. However in evaluating a course there are other factors that contribute to the experience of the course including the expected time it takes to play.
Should the target be 4h and it ended up 4h 30 due to others taking ages despite encouragement to speed up, then I would rate as a 4. The course does not advertise that it expects a round to take 4h 30 and when we asked for some enforcement action to be taken our feedback was given short shrift.
The name of this site is called: Top100GolfCourses. -- Not Top100GolfExperiences.
The focus needs to be centered around the actual architecture. Yes, it pains me as well when rounds of golf crawl along and when complicated, at times, by a management approach firmly placing it head in the sand. But, the bottom line is at what level is the arrchitecture?
If and when pertinent arguments are made in this area is the only meaningful aspect when weighing the merrits of what the course provides or fails to deliver.
If slow play is then used as a rationale -- how about we go forward i with other topics. What about the quality of the range balls; was the locker room attendant prompt and courteous,; was there snacks / drinks provided for players at the turn; were you greeted by someone when you arrived and did they take your bag promptly? And on and on it goes.What does any of that have to do with the overall architecture of the course?
In my opinion, the credibility of a reviewer is to spend his/her efforts on stating why a course works - or does not work -- from the architecture and the elements tied directly to it. For example, routing is a part of that -- so is design balance, shots encountered, conditioning, etc, etc.
Let me stress this again to ensure all I am not minimizing the displeasure with slow play. But sidebar topics are not the CORE of what this site is about. I have had rounds at Bethpage Black where rounds can sometimes stretch to 5.5 hours -- or more. Yes, management deserves rightful shame but the Tillinghast llayout still shines brightly from what the design provides and should be judged solely because of that.
I suggest people go to the Top100GolfCourses section entitled, "Ranking and Rating." The central criteria are clearly spelled out. I did not see slow play mentioned as a mechanism to downgrade a club or on the flipside -- raise a course's standing because speed of play is under 3.5 hours.
People can have whatever opinions they wish to have -- but when posting to this site what interests me is reading the critiques -- both excellent,fair and poor -- that delve into the heft of the architecture and learning from those arguments made on why a course works or fails to deliver.
Just that simple.
In response to M. James Ward's above response. You suggest that the original reviewer reads the "Ranking and Rating" section of the web site. In that section it states that 'visual appeal and enjoyment' contributes to 30% of the review. The pace of play is certainly a contributory factor to enjoyment and, as such, it should be acceptable to downgrade a rating based on slow play.
There is a danger with excessive criticisms of reviews that the "ratings police" discourage golfers from interesting and helpful (for me anyway) submissions.
Thank you MJW and Dewi for your comments, it is clear that my review of Castle Stuart has generated a reasonable debate. I'd like to provide some more detail and context...
For a few years I have used this site to help plan golf trips or to answer the question of "I am in X where should I go and play if i can find some time?". I have benefited from this site over time having read numerous reviews and so wish to provide some feedback to hopefully help others in a similar situation to mine. If one golfer is assisted by me then great.
Addressing a few of MJW's points:
- I appreciate that for many pure course architecture is the only measure to use however I am trying to provide a more rounded approach that users similar to myself and not purely focused on the architecture would find useful. I am complimentary of much of Castle Stuart and its challenges, it's also noted that several holes were less memorable.
- It is suggested that by factoring in pace of play on course it is similar to factoring in aspects of the club such as range balls. That is to me a slippery slope argument that I disagree with. The range balls, range of food or quality of locker room towels are reflective of the club and solely affect the off course experience. The club's acceptable pace of play and action or inaction in respect of this directly affects a golfers on course experience and so is not comparable to factoring the quality of range balls in to a review, thus i believe fair to include in a course rating.
- You suggest that users review the ranking and rating section, I have. My interpretation of this is that the rankings of courses is focused on the expert rater, certainly not touring golfers like me. I suspect that any user of this site will see that my view of CS differs from the norm albeit I have made it very clear why. Hopefully a golfer will read my review and make their own mind up based on their priorities. I would bear this in mind as a user of the site whilst recognizing that more information and feedback is helpful. If every user of the site was forced to only comment and review courses purely on architecture, would it be as valued a resource by golfers worldwide?
- When submitting a review, you are encouraged to consider whether the course is: drop everything to play (6) > worth a week away to play (5.5) > worth flying in to play (5) > worth an overnight stop (4.5) > worthy of a full day out (4) > worth playing if you are in town (3.5) and so on.... I was in town already, as disclosed, and left CS feeling that I would not make a full day out including travel to play, hence reviewing as 3,5. If i played it again and it was a quicker and less frustrating experience then it would rate higher. Is it worth doing a full day out to leave a course frustrated by reasons other than your play? Not for me thanks.This website states that course reviews are subjective and that it would be impossible to remove this, furthermore that "we (Top100) would like to hear what you think". I hope that I have done so.
I’m with MJW on this one. Do I consider the comfort of my seat or the person with the crinkly 750 gram crisp packet when reviewing a movie ? One day to the next this will differ if I change the cinema but the essence of what I’m doing, watching a movie, stays the same. Playing a golf course and reviewing the golf course is the essence of what I’m doing on this website. Not the food, the pace of play, the green fee, the grumpy pro shop staff. If you mark down, what is generally accepted to be a 5 ball course due to pace of play, to 3.5 balls then I assume you mark up 2.5 ball courses to 4 balls if you get around at your own pace? This is not what a golf course review website needs.
Thanks to everyone for commenting. Slow play is frustrating for everyone – even slow players. It is unfair to Castle Stuart to continue this debate on their public course page. Every club in the world has experienced slow play at one time or another. No further responses to Stuart H’s review post will be published.
An absolutely spectacular setting for a golf course. If I was to be critical of the course itself, I find the holes up the hill away from the water to be a bit bland and uninspiring compared to the holes by the water. The holes that hug the coast are brilliant and a lot of fun. The ones a bit further inland and up the hill not so much.
I also found the clubhouse to be one of the best I’ve visited. A really nice touch is the little windows at eye level in the shower. I liked looking out the window down the moray firth whilst getting showered. Very cool!
Completely, completely lost on me I am afraid. In terms of the aesthetics: you are either a massive fan of infinity greens with water backdrop or you are not. Don't get me wrong some water backdrops are stunning, but I do not think there is anything particularly attractive about the piece of coast that CS is on nor do the numerous infinity greens stir me at all.
There is zero links charm to the course, and indeed for me it did not play like a links course at all. It is not remotely of the feel and experience of a Dornoch, St Georges, Cinque Ports, Saunton, or Enedoc to name a few other recently played links tracks by way of comparison. It tries hard with the mounds and furrows but they all feel very man made.
There was not one hole on the course which seemed to me great in any way, and indeed I found the wide fairways very uninspiring.
Added to this... these are expensive rounds - was it 200 per round, with your Americans helicoptering in so why is the food simply awful in the clubhouse? There is nowhere else to eat anywhere close, and it would be a great end to a days golf to actually eat good food in a civilised setting - not (what should be) a 2 pound burger in a lidl bap.
America does Scottish links perhaps and it does not work for me on any level.
How this is ranked world top 50 is beyond me. Herd mentality? I grant you, I'm no Jack Nicklaus so excuse me if a sophisticated eye is not lending to my assessment but I find it hard to believe that I can have missed that much?
Jim - Opinions are very personal and no doubt reflect how you felt on your visit. I’ve used this site for many years and used recommendations to build golf itineraries across the world. I’ve never felt the need to reply to a review before but reading your view on Castle Stuart and the hospitality made me want to offer my thoughts.
The course may not be your cup of tea but personally I find it a great and fun place to play golf. I’ve just returned from there with a party of eight golfers who had a wonderful time. Maybe not the heritage of other signature Scottish courses but a good course with some amazing views.
The hospitality we received was top-notch and the steaks were served perfectly done.
Maybe you just had a bad day on the links.
Thanks Richard, I am not saying this is a poor course, just not deserving of its 6 star accolades and most of all world top 50 status.
I would add that other players in my group shared my view.
Interestingly 2 of our group were more used to American style courses and generally bought in to it much more and also the infinity green theme.
What we were unanimous about was the poor food in the clubhouse for the type of package the club was presenting.
One thing I will say is that the greens were excellent.
Thanks for your feedback - all of these things are as you say subjective - and far better and more knowledgable golfers than myself are fans...
Jim, seems you had to go back to March 2010 before you found a review which echoed your sentiments.
On a late autumn afternoon I had the privilege of playing at Castle Stuart, Rarely have I had such a feeling of being at one with nature on a golf course. Castle Stuart may just be the most beautiful place to play golf in the whole of Scotland with views over the Moray Firth from virtually every hole, I would say that the first eleven holes are as close to perfection as anywhere I have played. Perhaps only the front nine at Royal Aberdeen is as good as that at Castle Stuart. The first three holes run right alongside the Firth with the third green virtually in it! The short 4th is delightful and the 5th a great par 4. They are followed by four more fine holes. For the back nine the course turns east and the superb 10th is followed by the highlight of the round the par 3 11th. This is simply a wee masterpiece. The rest of Castle Stuart does not (could not?) reach the standards set by the earlier holes but they are still good and one's eye is constantly drawn to the views east to the Black Isle and Fort George and west to Inverness and the Kessock Bridge.
Golf at Castle Stuart is not cheap but I would urge all golfers to save their pennies and make sure they play here at least once. You will not be disappointed.
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.