Back in Scotland, but this time I’m headed north through the highlands. The first round on this trip is at Castle Stuart. This course is hardly a secret, but came highly recommended to me by Ru MacDonald, host of the Scottish Golf Podcast, and the guy who is quickly becoming the resident social media expert on all things related to Scottish golf. It was not hard to see why the recommendation came so strongly. (For more details on this experience in podcast form, check out this episode I recorded with Ru shortly after the round. It also includes several other courses in the area).
The variety of courses you encounter across Scotland continues to amaze me. Sometimes you can drown yourself in course research leading into a trip, and while this certainly has its benefits, it can also ruin a bit of the element of surprise. My research on Castle Stuart was intentionally minimal, and though I had seen it on television at the Scottish Open, upon arrival I was surprised at its modern nature. The initial vibe I got was very similar to the one at Kingsbarns, and I would soon find out that Mark Parsinen, the co-designer of Castle Stuart, was also integral in the development of the slightly older Kingsbarns in Fife.
The clubhouse is fantastic, and huge by UK standards. In the picture above, you can see the intentional design to give the desired 180 degree views of the putting green, the golf course, and of course the view of Moray Firth. It’s three stories with speedy wifi, and built to accommodate the American tourist. This place was designed with a specific vision, and it is executed to perfection.
Castle Stuart is not the easiest course in the world to get to from the states. Most flights for the trip you organize are going to bring you into Edinburgh, and from there it’s an (easy) three hour drive. What makes Castle Stuart such an easy sell is the fact there there are a bevy of world class courses in the area all within a short drive of each other. Royal Dornoch (post to come), Brora, and Nairn are all within earshot, and makes the trip that much more worthwhile. But more on this later.
If you’re not obligated to fly into Edinburgh, Castle Stuart could not be more conveniently located to the Inverness airport. The course even has a a shuttle for the four minute haul (1.9 miles) from the airport, and both British Airways and KLM have added flights to Inverness in recent years. If the logistics of planning a Scotland golf trip intimidate you, these guys are here to help you out.
The Golf Course
Blessed with a 70 degree sunny day, I make my way to the first tee to try to figure out whether this is all real. On two hours of sleep and following the three hour drive from Edinburgh, my energy is driven entirely by the setting. In my experience, Scotland’s rep for horrible weather is drastically overblown, but I’m well aware that days like this are a rarity. Shorts and short sleeves, and an almost empty golf course. Let’s roll.
The first three holes play along the Moray Firth (holes two and three pictures above), and they ease you in quite nicely. Although the course is designed as a championship course and has hosted the Scottish Open four times already, it’s extremely playable for the amateur players. The fairways are wide, the green complexes are friendly, and with the wind down on this day, it’s very gettable. The par-5 2nd can be easily reached, and the drivable 3rd is another welcome birdie opportunity (and the site of this ridiculous Phil flop that they’re still talking about there):
I tried to recreate this shot, and failed miserably.
The 4th is a par-3 that comes back the other way, and you see the glorious Castle Stuart itself in the background. After barely being able to make contact with the ball for the first two holes, I’m starting to stripe it, aided by the fact that I can fly around at my own pace. But I’m in no hurry. I take some time with the drone to capture the scenes and to make sure I’m not done with this walk in two hours.
The 7th is a wonderful and challenging dogleg left par four, followed by the punchbowl par-3 8th. Both of these holes fit the eye just perfectly, and separate themselves out from the other holes on the front in terms of difficulty and shot values.
Getting cocky as I play the 9th, I take on a flag I have no business shooting at. Although it was a foot from perfection, the ball takes the slope short of the pin, and comes back 30 yards down a hill. The course is utterly friendly, but that doesn’t mean your mistakes don’t get punished.
I make the turn and play through a nice couple on the 10th. We’re back along the firth now, and after a scrambling par at the 10th, I step up to the stunning par-3 11th. Hitting back at the water from an elevated tee, I start to feel the breeze for the first time today. I saw off the most perfect 8-iron I’ve ever hit, and I’m not kidding you when I say I’m filled with regret that I’m playing solo and that my first hole-in-one is going to go unwitnessed. The ball hasn’t even landed yet, and I’m already thinking about how to get the nice couple’s attention so that they somehow see this ball go in. It lands a foot in front of the hole, and hits hard off the left lip. It might have even jammed between the pin and the lip. To this point in my life it was easily the closest I have ever been to an ace (more on this at a later date).
The turf here is some of the best I’ve ever hit off of on any course, much less a links course. I’ve written in the past how difficult it can be to properly compress irons off firm links fairways, and how difficult it is to elevate the ball in those conditions. But (again) similar to Kingsbarns, the grass here is inherently more playable and undoubtedly helped the stripe show. It’s an Americanized version of Scottish golf, and it’s some of the most fun golf that you can play.
The 14th is a quintessential links golf hole. It’s only 380 yards today, and playing downwind with a very wide fairway. Your instincts are screaming at you to hit a driver, as there appears to be no reason not to. However, you know you’re going to leave yourself one of those awkward 60 yard link shots were you have a bevy of options of how to play it, and none of them are comfortable. If you go long with your second, you’re done. Absolutely done. On the tee it seems like the wind was really helping you. Once you get your second shot, you realize that downwind on a shot like this is actually working against you. Then on the next hole, you’re going to have to go back into that wind. Links golf!
The 17th (above) is a long par-3 with a large fairway landing area to assist you getting back to the pin. I’ve still got it groovin’, and manage to get up and down for a par and head for the last sitting at one under on the day. The wind is going pretty good at this point, and is opposite of the prevailing wind. This means the 520 yard par-5 18th is dead down, and a busted drive leaves me 170 yards in from the right rough. A pure wedge, friendly hop, and I’m 15 feet from the pin looking at an eagle putt for a 69. In the last round I played before this trip, I hit three greens in regulation! The eagle putt slides low, and I tap in for an extremely satisfying (breakfast ball on the first) two under par 70. It is of course witness-free, so it feels a bit dirty, and I benefited greatly from the pace of playing solo.
If I hadn’t already previously arranged an evening round up the road at Brora, I wouldn’t have even stopped in the clubhouse before heading back out to the first tee. The replayability of Castle Stuart is off the charts, and though I hate ranking courses, it most certainly would be near the top of any list I would make of the top courses in Scotland.
Green Fees and Booking
The green fees for the course from May through September are £195 (approximately $245). However, a 36 hole ticket (playable by the same golfer over any consecutive 7 day period) is £250 (approximately $315). That 36 hole rate immediately caught my eye as a great deal, and considering the replayability noted above, Castle Stuart most certainly qualifies as a course you will want to play more than once.
For more information, refer to the bookings section of the Castle Stuart website.