Castle Stuart Golf Links
Inverness, Scotland, United Kingdom
Golf courses don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a club, a resort, a municipality or some organization. Their creation is usually high-minded and purposeful but those founding principles are often diluted if not abandoned over time. Sometimes the course is created for a lesser purpose; to sell real estate, attract guests to a spa. In the modern game, Castle Stuart is exemplary in that it stands for a very particular and precisely defined brand of golf. The visionary Mark Parsinen created it and his welcoming remarks found on the first three pages of the Castle Stuart yardage book are illuminating. The course itself and his noble words, ‘Castle Stuart itself reflects an appreciation that the game of golf is more about error and recovery than it is about perfection. Its ethos is more about redemption than punishment’ are cause for celebration.
Of course, the reason that the statement is so appealing is that it treats golf as a game from which pleasure is derived. Somewhere, somehow the message of Alister McKenzie’s ‘pleasurable challenge’ was lost. Likely it occurred because of the pause in golf course construction owing to the Great Depression and World War II. When course construction resumed, the world had become a more sober place and it became fashionable for golf to be a test, the more strenuous, the better. The dreaded benchmark of ‘7,000 yards’ and the awful cliché ‘a championship course’ became reality. Instead of routinely playing in 2 1/2 hours at courses like Swinley Forest or Westward Ho!, the new norm swelled to 4 1/2 hours. After a few decades of such penance, the growth of golf stalled. If people wanted to get beat up, they stayed at work.
Happily, a band of architects came along in the 1990s with a better understanding, one that appreciated the Golden Age architecture of the 1920s. One of those leaders was Mark Parsinen, whose 1996 book Golf as it Should Be is one of the best – and hardest to find – manifestos of the game. His chapter titles in bold below and words echo ancient sentiment, define challenge and shout for reform:
Golf – The fun of golf is of an absorbing nature and is therefore addictive as a respite.
Hazards – The absorbing nature of golf derives from problems and solutions that arouse keen interest and hopefulness.
Nature – The most beautiful, interesting and therefore stimulating hazards are those of nature.
Undulation – Contours can be the most obvious of problems yet are too often ignored causing annoyance rather than interest.
Subtlety – Straightforward problems and solutions are often not as absorbing as those which are more subtle.
Variety – Keen interest is sustained when problems and solutions, real or apparent, are ever changing.
Nuance – The texture of the course should reward strategy, not demand perfection.
Tee shots – Problems can be solved from the beginning or by working back from the end.
Greensites – Approach problems with multiple solutions lead to absorbing interest and pleasure.
Fairness – Luck along with keen interest and hopefulness for all classes of golfer underlie the essential fun of the game.
Clubhouse – One’s experience will be complete and fulfilling when the fun of the course is absorbing and the fun of the clubhouse releasing.
Well said! Yet, writing and getting it done in the field are two different things. The only sure way to achieve your vision is to be the developer and to control the entire process. In the late 1990s, Parsinen famously worked with Kyle Phillips and developed Kingsbarns, six miles outside of St. Andrews. For starters, the climate was perfect for fescue grasses that allow the ground game/shot options to flourish. The design itself featured greens averaging nearly 11,000 square feet and gave golfers what they actually want: a course beside a large body of water. Like The Old Course at St. Andrews, it’s a place where a player can hit more greens in regulation (and likely take more putts) than at his home course. Not surprisingly the popularity of the course soared.
A few years on Parsinen cast his eyes across the Scottish landscape for another opportunity. He looked at the large dunes north of Aberdeen that later became the Trump course but working in such dunes came with restrictions and while majestic, the dunes inhibited views of the sea. Ultimately, he came across a 605 acre parcel of land outside of Inverness along the Moray Firth. He took his friend and Kingbarns General Manager Stuart McColm to have a look. McColm saw the potential for links golf that Parsinen envisaged. One merit was that the bloc of land faced west, meaning that it was sheltered from the harshest North Sea winds and warmed by the afternoon sun. More importantly, the sandy soil was ideal for golf as it was neither too fine nor too uniform. It would allow water to drain at a rate satisfactory for the growth of straight fescue. Meanwhile, the east/west axis of the shoreline provided views of four famous landmarks in the region: Kessock Bridge, Fort George (home of the Black Watch), Chanonry Lighthouse, and Castle Stuart, which dates to 1625.
Like Kingsbarns, Parsinen sought a co-architect to bounce ideas off and to execute the in-the-dirt detailing that would nuance the course into a rumpled links. Hot off the uber successful Rustic Canyon in Parsinen’s home state of California, Gil Hanse and his design associate Jim Wagner became the logical selection. Greenkeeper Chris Haspell completed the development team and told the story in our October 2013 Feature Interview:
I got a call out of the blue from Stuart McColm, I knew Stuart, the super at Kingsbarns and we were both managing fescue. Stuart had constructed 8 or 9 courses and I had designed and constructed several myself, all pure Fescue, easy to maintain and fun to play. I had also been lucky enough to have shaped several others in Denmark working with some good architects. However, the emphasis was on difficulty, which was the opposite to my personal design philosophy. He asked if I wanted to see the site and hear about the project. He explained that they wanted to learn from the lessons at Kingsbarns and produce a challenging but fun golf course. I saw the site and I was hooked. As soon as he said it was Mark, Gil and Jim, he really got my attention. I had heard about Gil from Rustic Canyon and Crail and I knew Mark had developed Kingsbarns with Stuart, chances to work with a team like that only come along once in a lifetime so I jumped at it. Once we had our first meeting with Gil, Mark, Jim, Stuart and myself, I knew we were going to have a lot of fun and had the potential to produce something quite special.
With the design team in place the property was surveyed, its assets and difficulties defined. Ultimately success would depend on these challenges; how to use the 2,950 yard strip of land along the Moray Firth, how those holes would connect with ones on the upper plateau and how to imbue the largely flat landscape with links qualities? It was imperative that the solutions found embody the defining principles of its visionary as enunciated in the yardage guide:
The texture of recovery issues after the inevitable error is an important characteristic that often defines the personality of a golf course. How engaging are the recovery circumstances? Is there variety to the type of issues encountered? Are there interesting options available? Can a player demonstrate skill with his recoveries? Do the issues favor one class of player more than another? Does judgment in light of personal tendencies matter in regard to the decisions taken? And perhaps most importantly, do the circumstances elicit hope that something good can yet happen despite the compromised situation? And as a result, is each and every golfer as pleasurably absorbed as possible, errors or not?
Achieving such grand ideals is no easy matter and the design team considered and discarded countless iterations along the way. Let’s take the one shot eleventh as a specific example. Once it was determined that a par 3 should precede a par 5 and not vice-versa, the issue became how to build a compelling short hole while staying within the defined ethos of the course. Preliminary plans had the green walled off with bunkers and pressed from behind by the firth, creating the sort of exacting target expected on a sub-150 yard hole. Yet, the rub was options didn’t exist and weaker players would likely muddle about in one of the fronting bunkers, haplessly trying to execute a soft splash shot. Forcing the less accomplished player into such a compromised position was hardly in keeping with the lofty goals.
Ultimately, a single revetted bunker was placed front left and complemented with a mass of short grass right. It would offer a wider variety of plays, some of which would be more daunting for the good player. Tight fescue requires a precise strike from a player attempting a deft recovery while the average golfer can just grab his putter. Balancing the needs of all golfers is evident throughout the design with the tiger being given the ability to showcase recovery skills while the lamb contentedly moves to the next tee with a bogey.
Additionally, the general layout of Castle Stuart is a role model. The distinctive clubhouse sits back enough from the water to allow room for the 30,000 square foot practice putting green to occupy prime space. The starter’s hut is beside the green and after a warm greeting from Tom, the golf commences in blissful seclusion. The ample first fairway and open green encourage all golfers to get away in a nice, orderly manner.
Holes to Note
(Both the 7,000 yard and 6,555 yard tees are listed below).
Second hole, 550/530 yards; The first three holes on each nine are laid across a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the cliff and shoreline. This reachable par 5 is the cornerstone of the opening trio that was artfully constructed in a manner to break up any sense of linearity. Behind the first green and as part of the second tee complex, a 30 foot mound was built to provide counterpoint. The long second fairway is split, bends left and ultimately right so that the green complex seemingly protrudes into the firth. A final tweak was the placement of the third tee benched high into the hillside so that the hole angles toward the water rather than merely playing along it. Stunning views are afforded by these clever design ploys and three diverse holes fabricated in what was initially a confined space.
Third hole, 305/290 yards; Greens that are the high point of their surrounds often require the most exacting shots especially when a) the green is slender, b) tightly mown fescue covers the banks, and c) wind is present. At Castle Stuart, all three abound at the third (as well as at the sixth and fourteenth) greens. As such, the scorecard sorely understates the difficulties (i.e. terrors) posed at these 1/2 par holes. All three greens narrow to ~ fourteen paces across in certain spots and create white knuckle moments no matter how short the approach.
Fourth hole, 190/175 yards; Rarely is there cause for celebration when the golfer turns away from water yet it occurs twice at Castle Stuart, here and again at thirteen. Though the fourth has very fine playing qualities, the dominant feature is Castle Stuart and its open spire. Built in 1625, the edifice precedes by 120 years the Battle Of Culloden, which was fought nearby.
Fifth hole, 445/430 yards; One joy/benefit of links golf is how wildly different the same hole can play under different conditions. Downwind, a slope in the fifth fairway scoots balls forward to where a short iron gets the job done but against the wind, the golfer will greatly appreciate that the green was left open in front for the long iron that will likely be required. Inland holes rarely encompass such a 6 or 7 club difference.