A relatively recent addition to Scotland’s deep and diverse golf portfolio, Castle Stuart opened to great fanfare in 2009 and has since cemented itself as one of the country’s crown jewels.
Hugging the banks of the Moray Firth – just over six miles east of the ‘Capital of the Highlands', Inverness – this modern links masterpiece deserves all the acclaim it gets.
It is built on two levels: one, right up against the waterfront, and another on the ground high above, where the most spectacular panoramic views await.
Combine that with a fabulous variety of holes, first-class practice facilities and an eye-catching art deco clubhouse that adds a splash of contemporary to a historic setting and it’s really little wonder that the European Tour chose to take the Scottish Open to Castle Stuart within two years of its opening.
To date, four editions of Scotland’s flagship national tournament have been staged there, most recently in 2016 when Alex Noren added his name to an impressive roll call of winners.
The course has been built in two loops of nine. The first three holes all play down by the water’s edge and away from the clubhouse towards Inverness before turning back inland and, finally, towards the clubhouse. The back nine largely mirrors the front.
Pleasingly, and much like Kingsbarns Golf Links, the emphasis at Castle Stuart appears to be on playability and enjoyment. Unlike older, more ‘traditional’ links courses, it is not a tight, ‘eye-of-the-needle’ test where there’s a particular premium on accuracy.
Instead, it has been built true to the guiding principles of the great Dr Alister MacKenzie: that the best courses are pleasurable to all players; that the pleasure of negotiating difficulties hinges on there being no main thoroughfare to the hole and require judgment without ‘guide posts’; and that the best courses are in time felt and admired as works of beauty.
In each of those respects - not to mention many others - Castle Stuart excels.
Spectacular and fun, Castle Stuart is a bona fide delight. With its wide fairways – in some cases, exceptionally wide – it won’t beat you up if you have a tendency to be wild off the tee… but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s easy.
The test of the course is subtle but real. It has more to do with picking the right lines than keeping the ball in play. Hit a bad drive and you’ll have a second shot, sure; it just might not be a particularly straightforward one. Still, isn’t that preferable to stomping around in knee-high rough ten paces from the middle of the fairway, trying to locate your ball and then, if you are 'lucky' enough to find it, getting to hack it back into play?
The views, meantime, are jaw-dropping and worth the green fee alone. I like to play late in the day as the sun begins to set, casting long shadows across the course as the Moray Firth twinkles beyond. As experiences go, it’s almost ethereal.
A hugely competitive field but, for me, it's the par-4 third. At only 305 yards from the tips, it’s driveable – but that strategy is fraught with risk. Get it even slightly wrong and you’ll be either on the beach or facing a ghoulish putt from off the green that conjures memories of the ‘Valley of Sin’ at St Andrews. Neither is a particularly pleasant prospect and so, unless you are feeling particularly brave, a long-iron off the tee should suffice.
The hole is beautifully framed by the water and is a real golfer’s golf hole. Your heart tells you it should be an ‘easy’ two; your head knows there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a four.
An honourable mention, too, for the par-3 11th. Quite simply, it’s one of the finest short holes in the country, if not the world.
Did you know…
Castle Stuart Golf Links was concocted by the late Mark Parsinen, the brains behind Kingsbarns, and Gil Hanse, the man who designed the Rio de Janeiro course that hosted golf’s return to the Olympic fold in 2016.
And another thing
The castle with which the golf course shares its name lies beyond the green on the par-3 fourth hole. Previously the ancestral home of the Earl of Moray, it is now a luxury hotel and reputed to be one of the most haunted premises in Scotland. Stay there if you dare!
The standard green fee for a visitor playing 18 holes is £235. That reduces to £120 for a Scottish Golf member and just £85 for a member of the PGA or BIGGA. Locals with IV, KW or PH19-41 postcodes can book a fourball for just £260 or £85 for an individual rate.
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T: 01463 796111