Mark Parsinen, the American Businessman who, with Kyle Phillips (the American golf architect) was behind the Kingsbarns course near St Andrews, has now partnered another American architect, Gil Hanse, to create a unique, fast-running course in a stunningly picturesque location conveniently near Inverness Airport in the Scottish Highlands.
Parsinen, starting with a better location and ground at Castle Stuart than at Kingsbarns, has shown us he understands what a true running course is about. The scenic audacity is unsurpassable and the draining, pure sand-based ground supports lovely fine fescue grasses, that are the basis for fine ‘running-golf ‘.
Being invited to play for the second time in August 2012, I can confirm that the fine grasses have now knitted together giving a firm and consistent bounce that builds your confidence and allows creative , imaginative shot-making around the greens that run truly and are quite fast enough, particularly in dry weather.
Open to any visitor with deep pockets and with no local club membership, this development with its planned building of lodges and a hotel seems to be pitching for the luxury short-stay visitor market, with other upscale resorts, like Gleneagles and Turnberry, as its competition.
The attraction of The Scottish Open in July 2011 for three years, is a major boost to its and the highlands profile as a golf destination in conjunction with the incomparable Royal Dornoch and the nearby Nairn.
From the time you arrive, there are many delightful members of staff, determined to ensure you genuinely have a good time while, thank goodness, the “have a nice day” surface comment was not in evidence! There is exquisite attention to detail, from the mouldings and bumps around the greens to windows at eye height allowing those taking a shower to watch their friends on the 9th hole or using the extensive practice facilities.
Before playing in 2010 I had a proper coffee in the dark, wood-panelled bar, sank back in a deep leather armchair and studied Parsinen’s welcome in the course planner.
His concept of the game is about error and recovery, rather than perfection, and it drives his wish to minimise time spent looking for lost balls and to create greens that inspire confidence, an ethos that he calls “more about redemption than punishment”. The philosophical heart of this course is in good hands.
He is aware that many of the golfers he wishes to attract are influenced in their golf tastes by television’s promotion of ‘dart-board, target-style’ golf on courses with over-watered greens, lush criss-cross mown fairways, penal hazards and an emphasis on driving and putting. He is saying there is a more enjoyable type of golf and is appealing to them to try his form of ‘fine running-golf.’
The course is in two loops, linked at the central art-deco style clubhouse that has 180 degree views from three levels, perched on the high escarpment overlooking the Moray Firth and across to the disturbingly beautiful Black Isle with its hills and mountains behind.
Parsinen is known as a designer who incorporates the creation of vistas behind his greens. At Kingsbarns mounds were moved purely to enhance the seascape vistas and here he has pointed his ‘infinity’ greens, perched on the horizon with only the grand sense of a distant vista behind, at the local landmarks of Kessock bridge and the white lighthouse at the end of the Chanonry peninsular that is home to the century-old, exquisite James Braid links course of Fortrose & Rosemarkie.
The excellent, recently updated, club website is most impressive and I think unique in its philosophical discussion of course design. It has a number of pages and videos on Parsinen’s design philosophy and ‘course goals’. He is confident in his explanations of his objectives which are akin to those of the FineGolf running game. For example he wants everybody to enjoy his courses and there are no penal shots that a high handicapper cannot negotiate.
Fine fescue grasses have been used throughout and will allow this course to be enjoyed for all twelve months of the year. The dry fairways are starting to firm-up and run fast. The tees and green surrounds are of the highest quality and are all cut at 12mm, with the greens at 5mm.
The very knowledgeable R&A agronomist Alistair Beggs is understandably most complimentary in his article on the STRI website, and while controversial in his suggestion that Castle Stuart may replace in time Royal Dornoch as the finest course in the Highlands, he assures me that should be read as a compliment rather than a criticism!
The quality of the course is astounding, managed by the renowned Chris Haspell, who was employed in Denmark when all pesticides were banned there, following EU directives. No longer, therefore, was the often disease-ridden Poa annua (annual meadow grass) a feasible platform for Danish golf courses.
Chris was influential in helping develop the gingerbread movement among the Danish greenkeepers to use traditional Jim Arthur methods of encouraging the fine grasses (fescues and indigenous bents) that are disease and drought-resistant and require less pesticides.
The designs of Castle Stuart’s interesting greens are defended primarily by swales and dramatic movement in the ground with only a few revetted bunkers. The first time I played in 2010 I found myself putting from some way off the greens rather than using the bump and run. This was a compliment to the quality of the young, immaculate grass, but by 2012 with the sward hardening and tightening, my confidence rose and with deftness of soft hands I used the bump and run shot primarily in my recovery play, an important element in the glory of ‘fine’ links golf.
Parsinen wanted to build an Art-Deco 1930s-style clubhouse at Kingsbarns but felt it did not fit there. At Castle Stuart, however, his all white building with a turquoise roof, with some vague similarities to Royal Birkdale’s clubhouse, perhaps fits with his wish to create a course from the era of design from 1890 to 1935 that he calls the ‘transitional period’.
Nevertheless the mixture of image messages, of a development in Scotland designed around a castle that has adopted the name and cupola of the castle as its identifying logo, with a 1930s style club house, are a little confusing to me.
The Scottish stone built castle that is the original Castle Stuart is brilliantly framed behind the 4th hole.
Certainly much of the bunkering is wild and historic, as though the sheep sheltering from the wind were their creators and this enhances the ‘earlier’ design feel.
Those who prefer the traditional arrangement of revetted links pot bunkering and hazards forcing a precision from tee shots, as found on the classic links like Muirfield or Hoylake etc, may be uneasy here with the openness off the tee to fairways as wide as 80 yards. It certainly allows you the luxury of a confident drive.
Interestingly new bunkers have been added to the fifth and fourteenth holes to tighten the drive landing ground for the big hitters who if playing off the back tees will be stretched to 7,400 yards.
With at least two par fours being driveable and a number of others within wedgeable length for Professionals, when the wind does not blow, as during the 2011 and 2012 Scottish Opens, it is not surprising that scoring is low. I don’t suppose this worries Parsinen in the slightest.
Unlike another recently built ‘fine’ course Dundonald Links, near Troon in Ayrshire, where there is a bunker at which to aim on most tees, here there is a lack of definition. This gives some similarity to many holes at the 1864 founded Royal North Devon GC.
Animals, though, are not found roaming and eating the beautiful wispy fescue rough here on this immaculate course, unlike RND, but it is a pity that even well-behaved dogs, who would fit with the relaxed 1930s theme, are not welcome.
Both loops of nine holes start with three holes along the beach and under an escarpment of gorse.
The driveable par four 3rd and par three 130 yard 11th both have ‘infinity’ greens hanging over the edge of the beach, and are sublime in both their setting and the questions they pose.
The two revetted ‘eyelids’ on the side of the bank to the left of the 3rd green are an interesting use of a links hazard without the penalty of a bunker and make those bailing out with a big drive on this side, have to think about the amount of risk they want to take in order to play close to the pin.
The other twelve holes are along the top of the cliff and though not every hole is pointed at the sea, inland views are few and each hole is a separate enjoyment. The routing flowed well except for the heart attach climb from 12 to 13, while most holes are predominantly at the same angle to the wind, up and down the coast.
As one of the criteria of ‘fine golf’ is that you should be able to remember each hole for some time afterwards, and one just about can here, nevertheless there is an open ‘sameyness’ to some of the driving and the approach shots to table greens with deep swales on one side, or ‘edge contours’, as he calls them.
An emphasis on slogging length off the tee, might replace the need for precision in the drive and may well be in tune with aspects of the modern approach of how long your drive is, as being vital to enjoyment. There was more wind in 2012 when I played with one of the very able members of staff and I certainly had to concentrate while the overall quality of the course and the excitement of playing on firm, running grasses raised my game.
Another positive factor is that balls are less likely to be lost and therefore play can be quicker.
It certainly helps with approaches to greens if your drive is on the correct side of the wide fairways and each hole is worthy of tactical consideration on the tee. The design without using ‘modern’ penal hazards provides an enjoyable challenge to high handicappers as well as those off scratch who will be stretched on some holes from the back tees.
To quote Parsinen, “Castle Stuart is not a ‘kick it through the uprights’ type of golf course”, and I take him to mean it is not like so many traditional links courses that play between sand dunes and hazards but rather has an open style with minimal bunkering.
Here we have a couple of Americans with imagination creating a great seaside product with visually a high ‘joy to be alive’ factor. Some traditionalists may be disappointed that, in comparison to some of the classic links experiences, it is relatively forgiving from the tee.
This course will help golf tourism in the Highlands particularly from overseas and will be complimentary to Royal Dornoch, Brora, Tain, Nairn and other fine courses. It will be, when fully developed, an impressive addition to the choices available to the wealthy and there is a reasonable choice of elegant individualistic accomodation in the area.
Review updated by Lorne Smith 2012
This a superb test of golf using the natural contours extremely well.Course offers a spectacular setting combined with fast running fairways and slick/tricky greens.
Great hospitality in the Clubhouse and overall a memorable experience.
Look forward to returningOn September 27th, 2010 ian mc auley Said:
Second visit to Castle Stuart last week, a real treat again and a worthy addition to any highland golf rota along with the jewels that are royal dornoch and nairn. Superb facilities and clubhouse staff extremely friendly and attentive including the owner’s daughter from san diego.