Feature Interview with Chris Haspell

October 2013

The Home hole at Castle Stuart tumbles 660 yards downhill to a green that finishes beyond this sprawling bunker complex. Downwind, golfers can have as little as a mid-iron in for their second shot. Into the wind, and golfers can have the same mid-iron but for their third!

The Home hole at Castle Stuart tumbles 660 yards downhill to a green that finishes beyond this sprawling bunker complex. Downwind, golfers can have as little as a mid-iron in for their second shot. Into the wind, golfers have the same mid-iron but for their third!

1. How did you originally get into the golf industry in Denmark?

I started in Greenkeeping in 1984, actually in groundsmanship, looking after Cricket, Lawn Tennis, Bowling greens, Hockey and football. I then had two years of selling golf course maintenance equipment all over Europe, which is when I fell across Falster Golf Club. One of the oldest in Denmark after Aalborg and Copenhagen, it is a real gem that was looking a bit tired and in need of a lift. We set about changing the grasses, improving the greens and developing the course. Our work was noticed and we started to do consultancy and construction for other courses. Simple as that really!

2. Please give us a sense of the Danish golf scene. It seems to be a fascinating mix of the really old and really new.

There are some great courses in Denmark, everything from Fano which is true links to Rungsted which is true parkland, along with many Heathland courses on Jutland. Unfortunately as was the case in the UK, the Danish Golf Union published a document in 1999 stating they needed another 130 golf courses to keep up with demand within 10 years. Many people built very expensive courses only for them to fail with a big bang. This is still the case with many struggling to survive. Poor design, design that’s too difficult for the level of golfer, inflated building costs and poor construction are mostly to blame.  I am proud to say the design builds I was involved with are all making money, they are fun to play at any handicap and very easy to maintain on a tight budget, which are all things we worked very hard on with the owners involved.

Some of the notables I really like are the 4th hole up the hill at Rungsted, I love the simplicity of Royal Copenhagen, and the feeling of being related to royalty when you play there. I also like some of the courses on Jutland where I have been lucky to have travelled and consulted on many. Esbjerg, Aalborg, Holsterbro, and Hvide Klit should all be on the list of plays. They have played a role in inspiring some for my own designs. St Knuds is nice on the Island of Fyn.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few nice courses but the lack of playability, labor costs, grass species and the design were never factored into the maintenance budgets. Thus, many failures.

3. Fano is just one example of stunning dunesland on the west side of the country. Is there any chance of ever seeing a course take shape amongst the Denmark’s great dunes?

There are some fantastic primary dunes on the Northwest coast of Denmark, around the Skagen area, but due to planning restrictions I don’t ever see anything being built in them. It could easily be done without much earth movement, good links grassing and be easy to maintain with a minimum of bunkers etc. I just don’t think it will happen though you never know.

No. 17 at Fano

The seventeenth at Fano is indicative of what could be in Denmark.

4. How were you initially involved at Askernish?

I heard from Gordon Irvine about the project and he was looking for volunteers. I paid my own freight from Denmark to Uist and met up with Martin, Adam and Gordon. Ralph picked us up at the airport and took us to site. I was out on the initial looking for signs of earth movement party (golf archeology as we named it after a few drams!). If you have met Ralph and you know how great the Locals are, you just want to help them where you can.

5. What did you think of that property on South Uist?!

Stunning, you could see there had been some movement of earth though very minimal in areas for greens. It was a real buzz thinking that Old Tom might have been there before us. It’s not everyone’s taste but I love the natural beauty and charm of the course. The layout now is much different from the first one we found. I know Mike Keiser kindly put up some money to change a couple of greens with one of Tom Doak’s associates and they made a nice job in my opinion. Unless you knew the course before, you would never know where they had been there but the work really improved some of the greens and approaches.

6. Talk about the team that was assembled for building and developing Castle Stuart.

Castle Stuart represents the best of both worlds: links golf but without tall dunes that block long views.

Castle Stuart represents the best of both worlds: links golf but without tall dunes that block long views.

While I was on Uist, I saw the local news after coming to Askernish on the first night. It ran a story of a new 36 hole complex just outside Inverness and only named the development company. I wrote a letter there and then and posted it to Cornerstone Golf, Inverness. I never thought I would see it again or hear anything about it. But 2-3 weeks later I got a call out of the Blue from Stuart Mcolm, I knew Stuart as he was 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. I like to think it was fate/Karma being in that hotel room at that point in time!

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. Mark had been looking for property for 3-4 years before he found Castle Stuart including the Menie estate. Mark figured the Menie land did not fit his design goal of giving views from as many holes as possible, as you would be restricted to playing in the slacks, therefore making individual holes hard to remember. It would be very hard to scale the holes to tie in to those huge dunes too, couple that with most of the site being a SSSI, and he was happy when he found Castle Stuart, although still fraught with planning issues it got the job done for Mark, Gil and the rest of the team.

Chris Haspell at 5:30am Sunday of the 2013 Scottish Open, making sure all is ready for play.

Chris Haspell at 5:30am Sunday of the 2013 Scottish Open, making sure all is ready for play.

I gained a lot of experience on this project from all of the team on many different levels, including eye for detail, shaping techniques, earth moving efficiency and the fact that everyone left any egos at home for the sake of the whole project. Far too often the personality of the shapers or associate designer get out of hand and you end up rebuilding everything further down the line at great cost. We avoided that here just by talking things through. It slowed the build process initially but not by much, but it has saved countless £1000’s re-doing things. This has always been one of my pet hates in design as it’s not good for the client (which in this case was us) in all aspects, maintenance, disruption and loss of revenue down the line.

7. The design philosophy behind Castle Stuart is somewhat shocking. Tell us about it.

It’s really quite simply: let people enjoy themselves, give them plenty of room off the tee, but challenge their individual vision. Is it that shocking? After the result here this year with Phil winning then going onto win The Open, surely people can see we must be getting something  right in terms of confidence and enjoyment? In fact we have had 3 Open winners in 3 years play Castle Stuart the week before their win and we had a 1-2 this year.

We give thin wispy roughs and not too many punishing bunkers, protect from the green back rather from the tee out with humps, hollows, swales and rumple, just like any links course. The key here for those who have the eye is to place your ball in the right place on the fairway. If you get out of shape with the right pin placements, you can still get punished but not to the extent of being out of the game by losing a ball or having no shot. You have several options around the greens and approaches. Some of the fairways are 60-70 yds wide but you need that here in a four club wind. On a calm day you will still drop shots if you get out of position.

Golf as with any sport was always meant to be fun. I hate playing anywhere with friends in a match play situation and losing balls. It’s not fun walking with your bag on your back to the next tee because you hit a shot just off line and you can’t find your ball in thick rough 20 yds from the middle of the fairway and you are out of the hole. That does not make for an engaging or exciting round in my eyes, though some disagree.

8. What are three design tenets that allowed the team to deliver on that goal of providing the greatest number of people possible with the greatest satisfaction?

Width of play, strategy off the tee, and the ability to be creative around the greens with lots of options.

9. This fascinating statement by Managing Partner Mark Parsinen is found in the yardage book: ‘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.’ Please give us three examples of green complexes that embody that spirit.

There are many, but to get people off to a good start, the first sits down in a bowl. Into the wind you are hitting long iron or a recovery and it was important to us to give width around the green to collect balls. Fade it right as most high handicappers do and the ball will funnel back to the putting surface. Draw it, as some lower handicappers do and you may end up caught in the rumple to the left of the green. The width for the second shot is around 60 yds, you still have to make a long putt or a good up and down, but it puts you in a good place.

The 4th par 3 is the same, at 190 from the tips it looks very intimidating but many of the contours will carry you to the green up to a point. However, go outside of these and you are not dead but you will once again have to either make some good long putts from hollows around the green, or a very good bump and run shot.

11 which again is a par 3 is a hole that for the high handicapper is very intimidating. We built the hole originally with bunkers all around it, and water all along the left. It was hit the surface or pick up the ball for most high handicappers. We were really caught on this and went away and came back to look a dozen times right up until we were close to the end of the build. At that late stage, the hole allowed nothing for the mid to high handicapper and strayed from the design ethos. Sure it’s a short hole at 144 yards (175 for the pros) but we decided that we would provide a bailout on the right. You still have a very tough chip or put to get up and down but you are in the game and you have the choice once more. You can find this on every hole if you look for it.

A view from behind the eleventh tee. Though a tight target, there is room to miss it front right.

A view from behind the eleventh tee, with the well contoured tenth green left, the eleventh green straightaway, and the twelfth fairway up and to the right. Though the eleventh requires a precise shot, there is room to miss the green front right.

10. Some of the best crumpled ground created since WWII is found at Castle Stuart. Please discuss the construction technique that allowed such seemingly random landforms in the one to four foot range come to pass within the fairways.

Simple really, we would visit other links courses, play golf even just go for a walk, get the picture in our minds of the random nature that is rumple then we would shape with different width knuckle buckets on 2, 7 or 13 tonne 360 machines. You cannot do it with a dozer, it just does not work the same. We tried but it did not work as well, our method gave the difference in scale. Jim Wagner and I did most of it and I think it helps that two different people do it as nothing gets repeated. It certainly takes a while to mimic nature but I hope we got away with it. Some of my friends in the industry joke that we spent more time shaping fairways and even some roughs to get the aged effect than most people spend on greens and surrounds, all of which were finished by hand to produce the desired result.

11. Interesting interior contours abound throughout the putting surfaces. What is the optimal speed for the greens on a daily basis?

The wind here is a big factor. If we get them much over 10 and we get wind, it’s really not fun watching your ball blow away. 9.6 to 10 is optimal. We go to 10.6 for the Scottish Open but even then if there is threat of wind we come back down to just under 10.  It feels slow if you are coming off greens that are 12 foot, but they are all very consistent so if you get the speed, you are going to hole putts. Hence the low scoring when the pros are in town. We had them at 12.5 for a staff match once, it just was fun but it would put at least 40 minutes on a playing round if we kept them at that speed and we got the wind.

12. Talk to us about a sleeper hole at Castle Stuart, one that might not immediately grab a visitor until after his fifth or tenth round.

I love 14. It is a great golf hole because it looks so easy when you play it the first couple of times you wonder how you come off what looks like such an easy hole with a bogie. The green and run off areas are what make the hole. If you go right here you are left with a green which runs across you and unless you can get action on a firm surface you will end up in a hollow at the back of the green. Land short and you will end up in a hollow where you cannot see the bottom of the flag. However get in position on the left and hit a correctly weighted shot and you can use the contours to get to any pin. It takes you a few plays on all of our holes to see the shot, unless you have great eye for the ground game. It’s been fascinating to watch the Pros who played it the first year change the strategy on the hole and learn how best to play it.

As seen from behind, the front left to back right angle of the fallaway green combined with the rumpled ground right off the tee makes the fourteenth a placement hole.

As seen from behind, the front left to back right angle of the fallaway green combined with the rumpled ground right off the tee makes the fourteenth a placement hole with the ability to infuriate the unsuspecting golfer.

13. What are the pros and cons of the climate around Inverness for delivering the type golf experience that you desire?

In a normal year, we get 600mm rain, less than half that of the west coast and Fife, though the last two years have been more than double. This year is great – really linksy conditions, fast and firm perfect for this type of golf. The upside is if you travel here for golf you are less likely to get wet than St Andrews and Turnberry. Also, you have a great choice of links and Heathland courses with a few in or around world top 100 status all within 40 minutes of our own accommodation here on site.

14. I did not know that about your weather. Suppose a golfer decides to base himself at Castle Stuart for a six day golf trip. What courses in addition to Dornoch and Nairn would you recommend he see in the area, staying within a one hour drive? You mention heathland – which one(s)?

For me Moray/Lossiemouth Old is a wonderful links course along with Brora which is just over the hour from here. Tain, Fortrose, Golspie, Nairn Dunbar are all underrated and have some nice holes. Dornoch’s second course the Struie is good fun too. If you have good contacts Skibo is great with many major improvements to the course. Interestingly they have opened up to a couple of fourballs a week in conjunction with our packages, it’s not cheap but it is both a really nice golfing and non-golfing experience.  Two of my favorite Inland/heathland courses close to here are Spey Valley and Boat O Garten, both worth a play.

Others courses within an hour are Portmahomack, Elgin, Dufftown, Bonar, Ballindalloch, Muir of Ord, Brahan, Carrbridge, Grantown on Spey all of which have their own charm. There are many more courses too not named here, but when passing are worth a look. You can put a package together yourself or we can point you in the right direction. You can fly straight into Inverness from London Gatwick, Manchester and many other UK airports along with Schipol in Amsterdam. Then, we are just 5 minutes from the Inverness airport so getting here is easier than people think.

15. Castle Stuart was awarded the Scottish Open moments after opening. What an honor yet what a nightmare for the greenkeeping crew too as we all know fescue takes several seasons to knit together. How did you coup?

We have a great team here, they deserve the credit. From my side, this is my 7th pure fescue project, and we gave an extras 6 months here in grow in before we opened. The previous experience and the extra time really helped. In reality, we are still growing in, going through all the pure sand issues while the grass settles down and nature finds its balance again. Certainly, the tournament affected my grow-in plans as for any event you want to look good on TV, but in reality we don’t do much more for the week than we do normally. Now we have until 2016 to help the grasses mature even more and get the course where we want it to be before the Scottish Open returns.  You played us recently Ran I think we are in pretty good shape now but we will always want to improve and be in better condition.

Play during the 2011 Scottish Open.

Play up the ninth hole during the 2011 Scottish Open.

16. Our time there in May, 2013 was wonderful and balls were certainly bouncing and running out 40 plus yards. 2013 marked Castle Stuart’s third Scottish Open and the course has matured marvelously over a short period of time. Talk some about that maturation process.

The fairway lies are tighter and there is more grass now. The greens are more dense and although they are really firm, a well struck ball will grip on the wire like fescue. The first year of the Scottish Open many didn’t understand how to get the best out of us,  most of the players still tried to use the air game for every shot and did not see the strategy or tried to remove it with longer shots. With experience that came with each passing year, they played a lot more chip and runs and placed the ball on the right side of the fairways. The first 2 days in 2011 were flat calm so she never got to bear her teeth, and then we got hit with rain which softened everything up then it was more like target golf.  2012 was also wetter than we would of liked, unlike  this year, we were baked up most of the week and the shot variation and strategy changed even from 2012. On Sunday when the wind blew it was a 1-2 club wind and it really tested everyone. The greens were very true and consistent, but they were the first year too. In the tours words if you want to stop them scoring on the greens you would need to aerify! We have never been Par precious and don’t intend to become so. We believe spectators want to see birdies and eagles not pars and bogies. On that note the PGA was different this year too with some pretty low scoring and in my opinion much better for it, a breath of fresh air!

17. Is there a hole that you think in particular blossomed during the course’s maturation process?

There are a few. 16 plays like it was meant to play now both downwind and into the wind, the heather we put out really has come into its own and it looks like its always been there. If you hit the right spot on the fairway you will get on the green, miss the spot and you are short right or long in the collecting bunkers put in for that very reason. I really like 15 and 7 now as I understand how to approach them. They look similar yet play very different and have really grown on me. I am lucky I get to play here when I want. Having said that, it’s going to take many years and many changes of favorite holes in my head to come up with the ultimate favorite, a luxury problem to be sure! The whole course is maturing well year on year.

In fact, an overriding factor for me is how much wildlife we have encouraged to flourish on the course in such a short space of time, who says golf courses have to be bad for the environment? Ours roughs are already growing orchids that’s in 6 years, there is natural heather coming along with the brashings we have planted too. It really is heartwarming to see.

18. The 2013 Scottish Open was wildly popular with Phil Mickelson using the momentum from his play-off to win the Open the following week. Is there any doubt that playing the bouncy-bounce golf of Castle Stuart was the perfect precursor to playing a browned out Muirfield? Surely no one is happier that the sponsor moved the event away from Loch Lomond than Mickelson!

From the first time Phil came onto site he seemed to fall in love with the course, the design and the grassing. He was quoted saying “every golf course developer and architect should look at Castle Stuart before they build a course.” Phil has always wanted to win on links and over the last 3 years has perfected his craft, culminating in his win this year here and then going onto win The Open back to back. The first year he took a 7 on 14 to put him out of contention with the ball rolling back to his feet. This year he had learned his craft and a couple of the shots that stick out for me were the flop onto 3. He had 3-4yds to stop the ball before the pin going up over the LHS rumple of the green. He hit the ball so hard and so precise that he managed to get action and stop the ball on a slight downhill before the pin. This was the start of his stretch of birdies. After that the shot from the rough on the 9th to a very tight pin and holing for birdie were just 2 of many. This play ultimately drove him on to win but he also played some great pitch and runs, the last  chip shot on 18 was sublime , we were right behind the green a few meters from the pin. To hear that thud as the ball pitched and stopped is something I will remember for a long long time. He should have finished it with 2 puts but went for it leading to the playoff, and that shot was like a stake in the heart for Brandon Grace.

The one thing we have tried to do here each year is to encourage the guys and give them a competitive week without beating them up, give them a platform to get their swing right in links conditions but without the tight fairway landing areas and penal rough. With 3 winners at the Open now in 3 years the record speaks for itself, I am sure Royal Aberdeen will get a better field on the back of those stats. It’s a very tight course in comparison to Castle Stuart so it will be interesting to see if the winner there goes onto win The Open the following week (we hope so) or if 2 weeks of punishing golf is too much.  I am sure Robert the Super and the guys will have it set up well.

19. Castle Stuart’s immediate popularity has helped drive the need for a second course. Please talk about the routing for the second course and how it will be different from the first.

The Lonnie course will be routed through the Castle Grounds and hug the edge of the firth , it will be more like Nairn with softer contours and elevation. It will have beach front holes and a some that wander inland, when it’s done it will be a links-heath style. I am sure we will use heather and keep the ethos the same maybe not as much width as it is sheltered but wispy roughs where you can at least find your ball and get redemption. Knowing Mark, when we do it there will be no half measures.


The End