The three-hour drive west from Aberdeenshire, on Scotland’s long and dune-swept northeast coast, to Inverness — a lovely, compact city of 50,000 set softly between the Highlands’ northern reaches and the glistening Moray Firth — is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, ranking with Highway 1 in California, Yellowstone National Park, Hawaii’s Big Island and Canada’s Cape Breton Island. Postcard villages with tidy storefronts and tight traffic circles pop up every few miles, then give way to stretches of impossibly green, rolling farmland where you’re far more likely to spot a rainbow than two or more human beings at one time. More than once my heart took a “hey, I could see myself living there” leap as our Mercedes van, piloted by our ace Little’s driver, Bruce, rolled by a small cottage. Then we pulled into the parking lot at Castle Stuart Golf Links and that leap became a rapid, loping beat of anticipation, the same tingle I get whenever I visit Pebble Beach or Bandon Dunes or Edgewood Tahoe back home.
Only a teasing swath of golf course was visible here and there; most of our immediate view was of the white, art deco clubhouse and heather-clad hillocks — containing the tee-to-green mysteries we’d soon reveal, if not solve — between it and the Firth itself. To the southwest we spied the Kessock Bridge leading to Scotland’s upper peninsula and its own brand of golf riches, Royal Dornoch included. Distant Highlands peaks greeted us from every direction. As we unloaded our clubs and stepped into the foyer, a sly wind picked up, carrying rain. My waterproof gear would come in handy as we reached the northernmost point of our journey — a course that’s easily among the five best built in the past decade worldwide.
Brainchild of Los Angeles-based entrepreneur Mark Parsinen, Castle Stuart captivated Scotland visitors the moment it opened in 2009. The site was spectacular, accessible and begging for a course that seemed like it had been there for centuries — as had Kingsbarns, Parsinen’s first Scotland project, which opened several years earlier. Parsinen brought in Gil Hanse, a fellow Yank known for his excellent redesigns and deep love for traditional links golf, as co-designer. Two years later Castle Stuart hosted its first of three straight Scottish Opens despite a record deluge that cut the event short, with Luke Donald beating the likes of Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. Mickelson would win in 2013, carrying him to his epochal Open Championship triumph at Muirfield a week later. Phil loved the course at first sight, singing its praises as a guy who, more than anyone at the game’s top level, knows that golf is nothing if it isn’t fun.
“In 2011 [after his first round in the Scottish Open], he came in the press conference and said, ‘this course is fun, engaging, and it should be a prerequisite for any young architect who wants to design golf courses to play Castle Stuart,’” said Stuart McColm, Castle Stuart’s general manager from day one, who was also worked with Parsinen to bring Kingsbarns international acclaim. “Then he went on to win the Open Championship. He’s got an affinity for the place.” Steve Stricker picked up that thread. “Patrick Reed, J.B. Holmes, Danny Lee, they all came over and played, and they all loved it.” So did many of my fellow journalists who had played Castle Stuart before me. Not a sour note was heard, so I was doubly eager to get out there and see what all the hype was about.
First we sat down for lunch with McColm, who quickly told us that since the dodgy weather had left some big holes in the afternoon tee sheet, we could go out as a fivesome if we vowed to keep up (it’s part of Scottish law) and not spend too much time hunting for golf balls … which brought up one of McColm’s, Parsinen’s and Hanse’s mantras for what makes a golf course great in strategic terms — and fun.
“It’s not just 18 holes; it comes together as short par 4s, par 3s, varying lengths, different directions,” he told us. “You’ve got to work from the pin back. It’s not just the fairway — is left or right better? You study the course guide, get the pin sheet, see where the placement is, and you’ll know that you don’t want to be coming in from the right side, you want to come from the left. Holes 3 and 14 are very strategic par 4s. You need to get in position. The great thing is, there’s not much in the way for [forced] carries; if you duff the ball it’s going to roll 150 yards and you’re still in it. The premise: Test the best, but appeal to the everyday customer. That’s a hard mix.”
It’s also a winning mix. Study what might be the most well-written yardage guide in history, strategize from the hole back as McColm says, pull the trigger with confidence and hit the right shot and par is always in the cards. Make a mistake off-line and you’ll still have a shot at par, supporting the design team’s edict that the game is about “recovery and redemption.” Castle Stuart’s fairways — whether they’re directly on the shore as on holes 1-3 and 10-12 or stair-stepped onto the rumpled plateau above — are invariably wide, though often partially hidden by dunes, berms and hills in true trick-the-eye fashion. Combine that with perfectly timed vistas of water, mountains and structures like the 16th century castle itself from the par 3 No. 4 tee, and you’ve got the recipe for a round that never lets up in engagement, excitement and shot-to-shot energy. “The secret,” adds McColm, “is to seduce people into playing different shots, make them think on the tee.” Which leads, of course, to that next decision from the fairway or wispy rough, whether to take dead aim or bail out, how to find a way to save a stroke here or there. The risks and rewards are legion and not one situation is clunky or unfair.
And the rhythm … also perfect, at least for me. I love that certain classical-jazz mix in my favorite courses: Classical in the sense of building on a motif and climbing to a thematic climax; jazz in the way a great design wanders away from those core notes, through “solos” and clever interpretations, without losing them. Castle Stuart’s musical journey is both wild and well-modulated, from the first drive between gorse-covered slopes on the left at the firth on the right, through the front nine’s cliffhanging final stretch, back down to the water to start the inward nine (No. 11 is a longer and just-as-gorgeous version of the same-numbered par 3 at Pacific Dunes in Oregon, 8,000 miles away) and atop the bluff for several holes before a truly incredible three-hole measure that masterfully restates a theme 2016 Scottish Open champ Alex Noren dubbed “sneaky tough.”
“Down the stretch are all ‘tweener’ holes,” says McColm. “No. 16 is a drivable par 4, so it plays as a 3 ½; 17 is a hard par 3 so it’s a 3 ½; and 18 is gettable in two, so it’s a 4 ½. Good things happen on tweener holes. You can win or lose.”
My wobbly finish left me both winner and loser. I limped to bogey from the 325-yard tees on 16, playing downwind, thanks to a sprayed-right drive. A nasty double followed on 17 after I snap-hooked a 4-iron from 195 yards, came up short with a knockdown iron and three-jacked. Another hooked drive to a hidden slab of fairway on the magnificent par-5 finisher gave me one choice — lay up to a slightly downhill lie short of the ravine guarding the green, leaving the perfect distance for a sawed-off 8-iron into the teeth, which stopped well short of the pin again. I killed my first putt and atoned with a healthy 10-foot comebacker. Par. Smile, then a sigh. It was over too soon.
The final tally? A hard-fought 88 rife with ugly misplays but also pretty recoveries — all of it graced with views and feelings that will stick with me forever.
While Castle Stuart unfolded like music for me, McColm sees it as great theater, all plot twists and stagecraft. “The green complexes are easy on the eyes, there’s a sense of arrival on every hole,” he said as I made my way through a fortifying lunch of freshly baked mac and cheese, washed down with a dark ale. “A lot of people crave the sea views. I know at Trump [International] you’re in a fantastic part of the dunes, but you don’t get the views like you do at Kingsbarns and here. In terms of a theater, you’ve got the stage [the water], the orchestra section [shoreline], the stalls [lower holes] and the balcony up on top. But if you give someone a view all the time, they don’t see it, so we have a couple what we call ‘compression and release’ holes, based on what Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for — two rooms with windows, and a connecting corridor where you never, ever put windows, because then the views don’t mean as much. No. 13 is the perfect example. You hit this inland drive, you get the top of the hill, turn to the green and ‘boom’ — you’re playing toward the bridge. You remember that.”
It’s the same deal at Bandon and Cypress Point and every other great seaside golf experience I can think of: a visual give-and-take that leads you to remember every hole. Castle Stuart also happens to boast the world’s greatest locker room view from the clubhouse’s second floor. Those from the first-floor pro shop and restaurant don’t disappoint, either. It’s all a magical package even by Scotland standards.
Castle Stuart’s master plan calls for a second course and onsite lodging which, when combined with the regional airport just five minutes away, will turn this place into a self-contained golf destination. In the meantime, the 20-minute drive into Inverness leads to plenty of fine lodging. We enjoyed one precious night at Rocpool Reserve, a truly unique, upscale boutique hotel with 11 bedrooms covering four themes — “Hip,” “Chic,” “Decadent” and “Extra Decadent.” I lucked into a Decadent room with its own patio and hot tub and was sorry to leave it behind. The hotel’s restaurant, Chez Roux, owns one Michelin star for Chef Albert Roux’s inventive and colorful menu of locally sourced ingredients. I’m still thinking about the Scottish Seafood Zarzuela of seared sea trout, poached lemon sole, roasted langoustine and braised octopus, with glazed lemon tart and raspberry sorbet for dessert.
Should I revisit Scotland, Castle Stuart is my first stop — hopefully with Connoisseurs leading the way, and ideally with rounds at other famous courses nearby like Nairn and Royal Dornoch in the mix. Until then and from now on, it owns a piece of my travelin’ hacker heart.
Scotland Part 2: Loch Lomond
Up next: The Ayrshire Coast