Castle Stuart Golf Club

Location: inverness, highlands
Designer: gil hanse

Castle Stuart owner Mark Parsinen surveys the beauty of the surrounding terrain.

Castle Stuart owner Mark Parsinen surveys the beauty of the surrounding terrain.

Castle Stuart Golf Club is ranked number 11 in our Top 100 Courses Scotland:

24.7


30

18.5


20

12.5


15

12.8


15

7.5


10

7.2


10

83.2


100

In the Castle Stuart golf course, Mark Parsinen created one of the best golf courses to be built in Britain since WWII. But it was much more than another new venue, it opened up a debate on how golf course architecture should be viewed. 

It took a moment to complete the calculations, but there is a satisfied look on the face of Mark Parsinen as he looks up from the charts that map out the 13th and 14th holes. “From the centre of this fairway,” he says confidently, “a six foot man would not be able to see another six foot man on the adjacent fairway, even if he was wearing a large hat.”

It’s an observation that is met with nods of approval. For, while there may appear to be something of the ‘Blackadder’ about it, those in attendance knew exactly what the entrepreneur, landowner, property developer and golf course architect was getting at.

There’s hardly a golfer who doesn’t revel in the solitude of the links. That feeling of being out there ‘alone’ to outwit the earth and the elements. Parsinen understands that. In fact, Parsinen, a man who made his millions in Silicon Valley, understands an extraordinary amount about how a golfer might be seduced.

As a businessman and as a person, he appears thorough. As an architect, he leaves no stone unturned. Not a cliché, just a statement of fact.

“My ideal golf course is one that would elicit anticipation and hopefulness in players of all skill levels,” he tells me. “It would test one’s perceptual ability, judgement, decision-making, shot-making and emotional poise. It would not be difficult for the sake of being difficult; rather, it would be interesting and engaging, while rewarding the best overall package of golfing skills”.

“It would provide wide latitude for choice – wide fairways and play areas – but would never lead to indifference in selecting a line of play or length of shot. Asymmetry would rule supreme. The consequences of playing left or right, long or short, would differ and be obvious. As far as possible, the issues would be kept simple, but profound enough to engage and fully occupy the mind.”

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Castle Stuart Golf Club is placed conveniently between Inverness and the city’s airport on a stretch of coast that looks out over the Moray Firth. Parsinen discovered the spot after a tip off from Dr Robert Price, who had written a book about the geomorphology of Scottish golf courses. He walked to where the 9th green is now and found an animal scrape. He noticed the soils and he knew, much like a gold prospector finding a nugget, that he had the perfect spot. 

Ironically, it wasn’t quite where Price had meant, but for an architect looking for a canvas, this coastline was about as perfect as he could have wished. With land close to the rocky shore, a steep escarpment and higher terrain at the top, the changes in elevation, differing platforms and already quirky nooks and folds were an explosive catalyst for an imaginative mind. 

What Parsinen and his team have done here is create a golfing work of art. From the overall impression to the delicate brush strokes to create humps and bumps around the greens, this is a delight that brings joy to a golfer’s heart. And the beauty of it all is that it can be seen, touched, felt and experienced in a way that real art cannot. A round of golf here is like paddling in the river of John Constable’s ‘The Haywain’.

When Parsinen sold up his computer company, he moved to Sacramento and built his own course, Granite Bay Golf Club, chiefly because there wasn’t one there that welcomed newcomers. He enjoyed the challenge – in fact, he loved it. 

Then came Kingsbarns and a collaboration with the renowned architect Kyle Phillips. “I was the guy in the field executing the design,” is how he puts it. “If you’re on site every day there are things that you see that you can’t possibly anticipate or understand from a two dimensional plan.”

From a Parsinen perspective, decision-making around the all-important finer detail of a project has to be made from 1.65 metres off the ground. In other words, from the eye-line of the golfer playing the hole. To design a course properly, you need to be out there from dawn ’til dusk everyday, making exactly those key decisions. 

To use the art analogy once again, the Mona Lisa wouldn’t have been quite as good if Leonardo Da Vinci had drawn out the framework and his home help had painted it by numbers.

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There can’t be too many courses in the UK, bar perhaps the very early ones, where the creators spent quite so much time sifting dirt through their very fingertips. In a world of fast food and fast broadband, here’s a layout that wasn’t routed in two weeks, passed by the owner and then left to a construction company and its bulldozers. 

When one legend once opened one of his designs, he had to ask where the 1st tee was and he, as a former player, is not alone.

Parsinen is sitting in one of the plush armchairs in the main clubhouse talking about how the whole Castle Stuart dream became a reality. He’s holding eye contact as he speaks and his hands are digging holes, shaping mounds and spreading out horizons. He’s re-living the whole experience and taking about as much enjoyment out of it as he must have done over the last three years. 

He’s from California, but for 30 months he never went home. This is more than just architect / owner and property development, this is a love affair that has been emotionally engulfing and all consuming. Parsinen has built a home that is almost entirely hidden in the dunes, affording him a view across the distant 18th green and over the even more distant Moray Firth.

The arrival of Castle Stuart Golf Club has done much more than provide another course for a Top 100 list, another venue for the Tour or another destination for a travelling golfer. It has opened up a debate on how golf course architecture should be viewed. 

Its arrival wasn’t met by the silent cutting of a ribbon, but by a trumpet fanfare that has been heard across the golfing globe. People know about this venue, so the questions of design philosophy and degree of challenge are arguments that will be heard for many years to come. 

Parsinen’s philosophy in a nutshell is to allow freedom from the tee, but make you pay for that freedom around the greens. The accurate hitter will be able to set up ideal lines into the flag, while the careless, or perhaps carefree, golfer, will be faced with stiffer challenges from less than ideal spots.

This way, the course rewards power and accuracy, with a chance to make birdies, at the same time as allowing an opportunity to salvage a bogey or even a par. The 11th hole at Castle Stuart is a good example of his thinking. It’s a short par 3 that heads out to the shoreline and would have been surrounded by bunkers with the sea at the back if the original drawings had been adhered to. 

But Parsinen wasn’t happy with the layout. “Good players tend to miss long, bad players come up short,” he explains, “you have to give the poorer player an escape, you have to give that person a way to play.”

The bunker on the front right was taken away and an array of humps and bumps were created, many by Parsinen himself who could be spotted at dusk with his rake and a wheelbarrow perfecting ‘natural’ contours.

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Dig under the surface of this man and it doesn’t take long before you leave rich entrepreneur behind and discover someone with a child-like fascination for fine detail. His dad was in the hardware business and was always building things which meant by seven there wasn’t a power tool that Mark wasn’t an expert at handling.

He attended the London School of Economics in 1969 and got his first look at the famous and best golf courses in Scotland. He played them all, the Old Course many times, and it was a love affair he continued in the mid ’70s. He worked for a consultancy firm that was employed by the British Government to look at the motorcycle industry. 

Parsinen talked to riders all over the UK and deduced that Norton, BSA and Triumph were largely dead in the water. Smaller bikes from Japan were cheaper, quicker and more reliable than more ‘powerful’ British versions. The government decided to hang British bikes out to dry.

Parsinen realised that there is an art to asking a question. His interest in golf had become deep-rooted and he used to take any opportunity he could to talk to fellow golfers about their love for the game.

“Never ask anyone what they think the best courses or holes are because you’ll get the boring answer that they think you’ll want to hear,” he explains.

“They’ll say things like, you have to use every club in the bag. When was the last time you liked a course because it made you use all your clubs?”

“Ridiculous. You have to ask which hole do you look forward to the most? Then you find out the truth.”

This is why Parsinen will always rate the Old Course ahead of Carnoustie. Not because he doesn’t think Carnoustie is a great course, but because he thinks the Old Course allows you to play to your own level and get the ball round.

 “The only times I’ve come off Carnoustie in a fourball, there has been silence walking to the clubhouse. People like a hole that’s tough, they just don’t want 10 of them in a row.” The whole wide fairway concept was one that didn’t sit so well with Kyle Phillips at Kingsbarns, which could be why Parsinen gathered a new team together in Inverness. 

Gil Hanse, named architect of the year in the US in 2009, joined him and together they crafted a layout. There were others, too. Stuart McColm, now the general manager, was part of a team that worked like a family unit on the site.

“Kingsbarns is a harder course. You can still get round, but you have to restrain yourself quite a bit from doing anything too aggressive,” explains Parsinen. “I think that’s a shame and it’s also why I think Castle Stuart is a better course.

“We developed a vernacular between those of us out in the field to describe all the shapes. How to create golfing issues while keeping it as natural as possible. You can have a concept and then a routing that captures that, but as you start to build, you realise that some of your ideas are better done a slightly different way. We probably moved half the greens substantially from the first plan. 

“What I liked about this site is that it has topographical difference and yet a constant frame of reference, which is the Black Isle and all the landmarks. So when you’re out there playing, you might not always be aware exactly of where you are, but you sort of know. And then when you get up on the 18th tee, which is the highest point, you see everything for the first time and it subliminally clicks into place.”

Dion Stevens is standing outside the Castle Stuart clubhouse having just completed his thorough and intricately-detailed survey of the course ready for the Barclays Scottish Open. This is the man whose course guides are relied upon by Europe’s elite players. “It’s beautiful out there,” he says, “but it’s too short and it’s too easy. If it stays calm, then 25 under could win.”

It was a concern that had been echoed by the Sky Sports commentator and former pro Ewen Murray when he visited the course in April. “The design is ingenious and I wouldn’t change a thing, but I did tell them, that for the pro game, they need to reduce the par,” says Murray. 

“I would have made it 70 for the week and 72 for the other 51 weeks. Move the tee up at the 2nd and you’ve got the best par 4 in the world. Even if you trim one off, it would make a difference because 72 might give a poor impression. There are four driveable par 4s and all the par 5s are reachable, so you’re giving them, playing their very best golf, a strict par of 64.

“Now I don’t have a problem with any of that, but I do think, for the top players, you need to take away a couple of the par 5s. It’s a bit like Sunningdale in that people moan that it’s too short.”

“Just cut the par and you have a competitive course again. I don’t see anything wrong with 68 as par there. Look at Congressional? The US Open doesn’t see anything wrong with 70.”

The debate on Castle Stuart has started in earnest and it is not something that Parsinen wishes to shy away from. On the contrary, bring it on. “Why do I need to defend par? What is par anyway?” is the architect’s response.

Then there’s the final hole. A par 5 that might be almost 600 yards from the very back tee, but one that plays downhill. Players in the Scottish Open were hitting that green in two with irons – the suggestion being that it’s a weak hole.

“Weak!” says Parsinen on the eve of the event, “but also interesting and exciting and dramatic. I don’t care if people make birdies. What I will tell you is this, the best player in the end will win.”

To view the Golf World Top 100 Golf Courses in Scotland please click here.

To view the Golf World Top 100 courses in the UK & Ireland please click here.

 
Nick Wright