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 course is truly amazing! I agree with most of the comments made regarding the fairways but I do not feel that this detracts from the course at all – after all, Augusta and St Andrews are pretty wide open? In fact, the fairways are pretty similar to the Old course; play safe and you have a more difficult line into the pin, play to the correct part of the fairway and you will be rewarded. The 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 9th, 14th, 15th holes are classic examples of this. I'm a plus handicapper and played it in benign conditions for the first time and was disappointed to shoot 72, next time I played it in a 20 mph wind and had one of my best ball-striking rounds in ages and shot 75. So I would suggest that the course is fair rather than too easy.
It's worth visiting their website before you play to understand the thinking behind the course design – I promise this will enhance the experience. Everything is done to take account of the sight lines, severity of punishment and the risk and rewards. Yet it still looks very mature for its age. It's remarkable that they have managed to incorporate so many infinity greens into 18 holes (13 at my count). These make approach shots so much fun.
The course is from the same guys who brought us Kingsbarns. The best compliment I can give them is that this place blows Kingsbarns out of the water because they have taken everything that was good from their design there and implemented it at Castle Stuart. The main weakness of Kingsbarns was that it had too severe greens – links greens don't need to be full of hillocks!! Castle Stuart's are large and undulating but in general have gentle slopes which can shoot an approach shot off in the wrong direction if played carelessly but that gives you an opportunity to 1 putt from inside 20 ft, to 2 putt from 40 ft and provides an almighty challenge to 2 putt from outside that range. Also, Kingsbarns has a couple of non-holes such including the par three 8th, and the impossibly difficult 15th which, although spectacular is an all or nothing 220 yrd carry to a stupid shallow green over the North Sea. The best comparison to Castle Stuart is the 4th hole which by itself is nondescript but is made better by some intelligent contouring and the Castle as a backdrop. The 17th at Castle Stuart is a brute into the prevailing wind much like the 15th at KB but at least here they give you a bail out to the left which will mean a safe shot is possible but a very difficult chip is left to set up a par.
You can tell that I am a massive fan but don't let that sway you, you must see this for yourself. In my Scottish top 3 behind Muirfield and only just behind Dornoch.
Things I really liked. Great service and atmosphere. You WILL feel relaxed. The condition. For a new course, it's excellent. The fairways are consistent, and though the greens are not yet perfect, they are more than adequate for a place that charges such high fees. Only some areas of rough still need to knit. There has also clearly been much planting of mature heather and bushes that has aged the course more quickly than other recent developments I've seen. The setting. Ultimately, this saves the course for me. It's up there with the best. You can't help but overlook most of the bad points when you're in a location like this. The green surrounds. While I like tightly bunkered greens, The philosophy here of using slopes, tight lies and run-offs ensures much fun for shots finishing just off the putting areas. The first 4 holes. I want to finish on a high, so I'll discuss them later.
Things I'm indifferent about. Bunkers and sleepers. I like the look of the large waste areas, however, there is a reason that most courses made a transition from this rough look to a more clean-cut approach to bunkers in the early 20th century. I wonder if the hazards here will look the same in 50 years time. The 'filled-in' bunkers and the ubiquitous distressed sleepers are clearly features influenced by nearby Nairn. No bad thing that, but on such an expensive development, and on such a scale, it all feels a bit contrived and twee. Incidentally, the obvious desire to create as many infinity greens as possible, and the annoying habit of the course guide to point this out and ask you to enjoy the view got slightly irritating. The greens. Not the condition, but their size. I liked the fact that they were not as universally sloped as, say, Kingsbarns, a surprise after the practice green, but the fact that they are so large and flat tends to remove any advantage that a particular point on the fairway might bring, so the much heralded "strategic choices" are basically negated. Any advantage on shot angle is minimal, so you just find as much length as you can and don't worry too much about which side of the fairway it's on. On par 3's the large greens allied to the lack of close trouble means there is no fear involved in the shot. Take the much vaunted, and aesthetically impressive, 11th. Every course should have a short par 3, but with a green this size it takes a truly bad shot to miss it. It's no Postage Stamp. In fact, for such a visual delight, it's a let-down to play.
Things I didn't like. The width of the fairways, and the lack of trouble off the tee. I understand that Mr Parsinen wanted to create a playable course, but this is, and I mean this in all seriousness, the dullest course from the tee I have ever played. Even lower ability golfers like to be pushed occasionally. Throw in a couple of tighter tee-shots during the round and all would be forgiven, but it's relentlessly open. Aside from 2, 3, and possibly 10, at no point is there any real hazard close to where you might want to place your tee-shot. The result? Strategy goes out the window and you just grip it and rip it. It's dull. In a great location. The 'dunes'. Again they look artificial. The ones at lower level by the water actually look 'real' and believable, but you would never find such angulated dunes above a sea-cliff as you do here. And certainly not ones that miraculously follow the lines of the holes. Maybe most people don't see it, but to me they are obviously man-made, and fit into the landscape as seamlessly as the factory a few hundred yards inland. Or Cumbernauld town centre. They look like scars. Should it annoy me? Possibly not. Does it annoy me? Greatly.
Don't want to finish on a low, so I'll just say that after four holes I was sure this was going to be a 6-ball course. The 1st is open and playable, a good thing on a first hole, and all in a dream location. The 2nd is a fun short par 5 with some mounds of rough in the fairway to make you think on the tee, while the 4th is a decent par-3, (if the pin is back), whose glorious location only improves as you approach the green. Before that is the 3rd. And here, surely, is a hole where Mr Parsinen's golfing philosophy is actually achieved. It is one of the best short par 4's I've played, and it has the width, playability and strategy that he espouses. Why does it work here, (and on 2), but not elsewhere? In a word, trouble. Bunkers must be taken on, and a lateral hazard on the right avoided to be rewarded with a straightforward approach, (doesn't that sound so very Old Course). Or, go wide left where there's plenty room, (Old course again).As it's a short par-4 the 2nd shot will be short, so the width really can make a vast difference to the angle of approach into this narrow green. Pure risk/reward at it's best. It's not a tough hole, but the whole thing works because the trouble is there to be considered.
More of this and I'd have been raving about this course yet. As it is the setting drags it up to a comfortable 4-ball, otherwise it would be 3 for the course, and a bare 2 if you consider how expensive it is. I'm also well aware that most people will not share my views.