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.
Date: May 20, 2021