Sunday, April 01, 2018

Castle Stuart Golf Links

I have been reading and hearing great things about Castle Stuart for years, but have been unable to work it into my travel itinerary until now. The course debuted on Golf Magazine's top 100 list at #56.

The Art Deco clubhouse looks out of character from the outside, but is warm and inviting inside, the abundance of windows providing sweeping views

The golf course was designed by Gil Hanse, whose only previous design I have played was the Boston Golf Club, which I found to be a nice track, but hard. (His renovations/refreshes at both Myopia Hunt Club and LACC are superb). Castle Stuart is a winner on all fronts. In particular, Hanse's ability to route holes puts him at the top of the industry.

Set along the Moray Firth near Inverness, Hanse had a great piece of property to work with: a waterfront setting littered with large sand dunes and gorse. He took full advantage of it. The nature of the property can best be seen below with a picture of the ninth hole taken from above on the lookout tower atop the clubhouse.

The ninth green with dunes and gorse seen in the rear

I played Castle Stuart on an October day with classic Scottish weather. The forecast: "Heavy bursts of rain," which turned out to be accurate. Sheets of rain came through occasionally followed by interludes of sunshine. The wind was also consistently blowing 20 mph or so.

Based on what I saw at Castle Stuart, I like Hanse's philosophy, which strikes the correct balance between being challenging, yet at the same time is fun for all skill levels. He gives a tiger line for those that want to be aggressive, but also leaves open less challenging lines for those without pinpoint accuracy.

The first two holes are a relatively gentle par four and par five that were routed between the Firth and massive sand dunes covered in gorse. I like the design choice of immediately throwing the best landscape and views at the golfer rather than holding them back as finishing holes (although he does that also). 

The third green at Castle Stuart with an elevated green

The third is a 290-yard par four with a green that is appropriately challenging given the length of the hole. Hanse again frames the hole beautifully along the Firth. I am particularly sensitive to the quality of a course's routing and the green's being appropriate to the length of the hole due to my recent negative experience at Trump International Links Scotland, where the correct balance was not struck, the greens were too severe and all hard, and the round was not pleasant.

The par three fourth hole with Castle Stuart in the background

Along with his ability to route holes in a nice varied direction, Hanse gets an A+ in the art of framing. Look at how the 176-yard par three fourth hole takes advantage of the environment. This hole plays away from the Firth and has no bunkers, but is still a challenge given the green contours. It's a picture postcard.

The fifth hole again features a great use of the surrounding elements as framing

The fifth hole is a long par four that plays to an uphill green with gorse running almost the entire length of the hole on the right side. Hanse strikes the correct equilibrium and understands that greens can't be too tricked up in a wind-blown links environment; on the other hand, they are no pushovers, either, with subtle contours and breaks.

The long and narrow 6th green

The sixth hole is a par five of 522 yards and I am embarrassed to admit that on the day I played it was directly into the wind, requiring five shots just to reach the challenging, elongated green. The finishing holes on the front are all good with a nice change in direction so as not to wear down a golfer unnecessarily in the wind.

The all-world par four tenth hole

Our rain gear got a full workout all day when we played Castle Stuart. The golf gods, however, parted the skies when we played the tenth and eleventh holes, rewarding all that good clean living. And what a good thing. The tenth plays from the top of a gorse-covered sand dune, and, like the opening holes, the start of the back nine takes advantage of the beautiful location on the Firth. The tee shot plays at an angle to the fairway, but the downhill nature of the shot lets even the high handicapper drive like a champion!

The tenth seen from a slightly lower perspective

Avoid hitting left on your approach to the green, as participants in the Scottish Open learned to their detriment when the tournament was played here, since that will either leave your ball in a watery grave or on a precarious, sandy lie.

The par three eleventh takes maximum advantage of the Moray Firth

What's not to like about the 130-yard par three 11th hole, also beautifully framed. Shades of Pebble Beach's 7th here. Don't be short. Or long. 

The twisty and undulating fairway on the par four thirteenth

The mark of a good architect and golf course is how the holes they design away from dramatic settings play. You could argue it is hard to design poor holes when you have great dunes and water views. Hanse takes maximum advantage of the land contours here as evidenced by the dog-leg right and challenging par four thirteenth. The walk from the 12th green to the 13th tee is hard (heart attack hill). The course provides free water half-way up the trek, and, mercifully, a bench to sit on when you reach the tee so you can catch your breath. I suggest catching it fully because the hole is challenging. The green is difficult to approach but the view of the distant Kessock Bridge helps ease the pain.

The weather turned cold and quite rainy on the closing holes so I couldn't take any more decent pictures, although I must say I have never been so happy to be outdoors, wind-blown, and wet, the course is that much fun, even in sub-optimal conditions.  The closing holes route back around to finish with long views across the Firth, capping off a masterfully routed course. In my view, this is among the best routed courses in the world along with Cypress Point, Pine Valley, Royal Melbourne, Carnoustie, Sunningdale, and Royal Portrush. Hanse starts you out by the water, takes you away, brings you back again, takes you inland once more and finishes again back along it!

Sometimes when I finish playing a highly touted or high profile course, I'll have to think about my impressions and assess whether I really liked the course or not. There was no such thought process after playing Castle Stuart; no need to mull it over. Cha-ching, this is a "no doubt-about-it" great golf course.

Congratulations to both Gil Hanse for a thoughtful and balanced design and to the owner Mark Parsinen (who also developed Kingsbarns) for another wildly successful course. I look forward to returning and playing again in brilliant sunshine!

Our bags and shoes went into the drying room and we went into the bar for a post round lunch and to warm our innards