I was prepared, perhaps even eager, to not like Castle Stuart. Ours was a trip to the home of the game to play the classics, and a modern resort like Castle Stuart did not fit neatly into that designation. After all, why come to Scotland and play something called a “modern links” when scores of real links exist? These courses often offer spectacular views and superb conditioning but lack the fundamental substance and character that comes from trying to approximate a classic with a modern spin. Details get missed, quirk is brushed aside and the routes of play are “Americanized.” A run-up area is either flat or over-engineered. Balance is elusive when conjuring something out of flat farmland.
Conversely, the three Gil Hanse courses I’d played previously (Boston Golf Club, Streamsong Black & Pinehurst’s Cradle) were nuanced, non-formulaic and befit the surroundings, providing hope for more of the same. DJ, our in-house Hanse aficionado, possessed a rare optimism that morning, which helped replace my skepticism with openness. And Soly assured us that CS (coincidentally he and Castle Stuart share initials) would blow our minds. He’d visited on a previous trip and yearned to return.
When we arrived the “resort” style amenities were all unapologetically present – swift service, a great practice area, thoughtful food offerings – and after a few days of more sparse offerings it was nice to get a taste of home. But in a preview of what was to come on the course, everything was thoughtful and restrained, plainly suggesting that the golf was the star of the show. The details and nuance we encountered on the course were refreshing. It was plainly evident that Gil and the owner of the course, Mark Parsinen, had dedicated the time and effort to get things right. On a return trip to Scotland a few months later I had a chance to see Parsinen’s first effort, Kingsbarns, a Kyle Phillips design down in Fife between St Andrews and Crail. While it’s a fine routing that garners near-universal acclaim, Kingsbarns lacks the ripples and rumples and run-up areas of Castle Stuart. The player is often asked to fly the ball to the green. It feels more like an imitation of Scottish golf rather than the real thing. While I hesitate to psychoanalyze Parsinen’s intent, I imagine he learned a great deal at Kingsbarns and put those takeaways into practice at Castle Stuart with Hanse.
Like Kingsbarns, Castle Stuart takes the less-obvious routing, which weaves back and forth from the coast to cliffs above to offer flourishes and views throughout the round (10 & 11 hugging the coast in the picture above and 18 on the cliffside to the left.) For that reason it doesn’t run out of gas and most holes feel water-adjacent. And the aforementioned details that are so often missing are present in spades. Bumps, bulges, run-offs and knolls abound, and are accentuated by exceptional conditioning – burnt out fairways with perfect greens that were smooth and dense but not overly green. We played armed with the confidence that we could use the slopes as intended and that the ball would react properly on the ground. The thump of an iron on the fairway was an auditory pleasure unlike anywhere else we played. Not surprisingly, the par fives here were better than those we played anywhere else on the trip (a nod to the advances in ball and metal-wood technology that classic links courses never envisioned.)
In short: I love this golf course.
SPECIFIC HOLE NOTES:
Most of the front nine is pictured below, with the first three holes along the Firth to the left of the screen. No. 4 darts diagonally and then Nos. 5 through 9 wiggle back toward the clubhouse. The opening trio of tee shots provide an unsettling look for those who guard against a right miss and No. 1 was the most difficult opener of the entire trip. No. 2 eases you back in; a par five offering a reasonable look at birdie.
No. 3, pictured below, is a triumph of the human spirit and captures everything this course got right. Playing around 300 yards slightly downhill to a point, the temptation to go for it is too strong to pass up. And the litany of bad outcomes is just as strong. A well-executed tee shot leaves an easy putt from on or just short of the deep green. Three bunkers and flowing gorgeous stacked sod faces dot the fairway at varying points and demand accuracy for anyone laying up and leaving a dreaded fifty-yard bunker shot for inaccurate tee shots. Long grass abuts the entirety of the right side. And for those who go for it but miss left, even by the slightest margin, tiny lips abut the left side and demand a nipped wedge from a tight lie to a narrow green backed immediately by the Firth (see: the Mickelson video below). One of the most brilliant holes I’ve ever played.
The stretch from No. 4 through No. 8 is solid and features a variety of holes. No. 9 is a cut above the rest – a 350ish par four that often plays downwind and features a sizable shelf down the right on which to land a driver. We had a windless day, so the hole was an exercise in strategy, as explained below in the caption.
The fairway slopes sharply right-to-left and shots funneled left are faced with a steep, blind approach to a green fronted by a severe false-front. The slope also forces you into being very decisive with club-selection off the tee, as anything too short leaves you hitting to the narrowest ledge on the right, but anything too far may flirt with the death bunker on the left. But at no point does the hole feel unfair because if you muck up the drive you can use the generous landing area right of the green to funnel down to the green.
Nos. 10 and 11 (pictured below) are among the most scenic holes I’ve ever played, though the memory is somewhat marred by the nightmarish display that Randy exposed us to on the green.
12 is an exhilarating uphill par five summed up succinctly by the yardage book: “Hitch up your kilt and get your drive in play. Then have some fun.” No. 13 (the featured image at the top of this page and the background on my desktop) isn’t featured prominently in the video because A) it’s a 420-yard uphill ball-buster and B) the view out toward the Kessock Bridge connecting Inverness and the Highlands was jaw-dropping and we simply enjoyed the moment. The contours short of that green, and the way they interact with the angles offered up by the sharp dogleg are the defining characteristic of Castle Stuart that stick with me above all else five months later. It’s not hard to imagine Hanse jamming out on the dozer, enjoying the view and honing the hell out of his craft.
The stretch from 14 (green pictured below) through 16 offers more of the same thoughtfulness. Despite being the holes farthest from the water, the staggered cliffs guarantee world-class views interspersed between large dunes. No. 17 is a thrilling par three that terrifies me to think about on a windy day with a decent round going.
The finishing hole offers up a blind-ish tee shot that begs you to use the gradual slope that bends down to a massive green and feels forever away, but is surprisingly approachable with a long iron or wood. This hole is a friendlier version of No. 18 at Streamsong Black.
THE COURSE IN ONE WORD: synthesis
WEIRD COURSE TRIVIA: In 2011, after a 15 year run at Loch Lomond, the Scottish Open was played at Castle Stuart for the first time. The event was shortened to 54 holes due to flooding, landslides and wind. Wild stuff.
WHAT SHOULD I DO BEFORE PLAYING THIS COURSE?: Get there early. The breakfast sandos are delightful and it was the best clubhouse coffee we had in Scotland.
CLUBHOUSE/FOOD: Perfect blend of Scotland and America. Service is quick, coffee is fresh and strong, views are unbeatable, and the menu is delicious, fast and simple. The clubhouse is a distinctive Art Deco structure, think Royal Birkdale, but aligned vertically.
GREEN FEES: May-Oct: £210 per round, £275 for 36 holes. Apr & Nov: £155 per round, £210 for 36 holes.
ACCOMMODATIONS: The property offers on-site accommodations in the form of three cottages/lodges. Part of the beauty of Castle Stuart is in the location. It’s right next to the Inverness airport (and you can fly in from London or Amsterdam, among other destinations) and a convenient day trip to a host of other courses along the Moray Firth. We stayed in Elgin the night prior and drove to Dornoch after our day at Castle Stuart and Nairn. Parsinen achieved his stated goal of providing a high-end resort option to build critical mass for the Highlands region to be viewed as a true destination instead of three or four courses to add on to a larger itinerary.