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.
The last time I played here, the course wasn’t yet open - in fact, the clubhouse hadn’t even been built - so a lot has obviously changed in the six and a half years since then - not least of which is Castle Stuart’s current status as a world ranked layout which has hosted three Scottish Opens in recent times.
I don’t understand those who find fault in the generous width of the fairways here. Although the course has held top professional events, it was surely designed for ordinary golfers of a competent playing ability - the ones who’ll make up 95% of the players who tee it up at Castle Stuart and who’ll look for an enjoyable high-end golf experience that doesn’t leave them beaten up as they walk off the 18th green, having spent a large proportion of their round playing out of bunkers and looking for lost balls.
The course was presented immaculately (which is not really a surprise I suppose when you see green keepers walking the fairways, hand repairing divot marks) and it was an absolute delight to find firm and fast fairways and green surrounds that allow a running approach shot to greens constructed with proper fescue grasses -- just like it should be on ALL links courses!
Although the par threes at 11 and 17 are very good holes, I think the back nine is more subdued than the front nine, where all the best holes are situated for me. The opening three on the shores of the firth are simply sensational, the fiendishly-bunkered 6th is a potential card wrecker and the short par four 9th, one of the few that require an aerial approach to the green, is a fabulous hole with its elevated green fronted by a beautiful sandy waste area and backed by the chic art deco clubhouse.
With expansion plans for Arnold Palmer’s new course, lodges and a Dormy House in an advanced stage, it’s only a matter of time before Castle Stuart’s reputation is further enhanced when it becomes a 36-hole destination of some distinction on the Scottish golf scene.
The fairways are quite wide, providing multiple choices as to how you approach the greens. The bunkering has also been carefully planned. Most are natural in appearance but often also partly revetted and occasionally supported in places by large sleepers.
There is rough alongside the fairways but not the sort where you will be constantly looking for balls and then using brute force to hack out with a wedge. To quote Mark Parsinen, the ‘hitch-up-your-kilt’ type shots are few in number.
Castle Stuart doesn’t just look like a links course – it plays like one. Having free draining sandy soil certainly helps but in addition the designers have been careful to use fine fescue turf grasses that will ensure plenty of run on the fairways. As the plantings of gorse, broom and heather mature the transformation will be complete.
This review is an edited extract from Another Journey through the Links, which has been reproduced with David Worley’s kind permission. The author has exclusively rated for us every Scottish course featured in his book. Another Journey through the Links is available for Australian buyers via www.golfbooks.com.au and through Amazon for buyers from other countries.