The problem with having a No 1 album or bestseller is how to follow it up – fail to hit the heights and you are quickly dispatched into the one-hit-wonder drawer, get it right and you’re lauded as a creative genius. Mark Parsinen is already safely in the latter bracket. Parsinen, along with fellow Californian Kyle Phillips, transformed an abandoned farm into the magnificent Kingsbarns at the turn of the century and the American, this time alongside Gil Hanse, has produced another gem in Castle Stuart, just outside the capital of the Highlands, Inverness.
So the story goes, Parsinen was on the lookout for another project before Kingsbarns was even finished. Driving all over Scotland, a number of sites were visited but something – be it the topography, the views or the soil – wasn’t quite right. Then, in 2003, he came across an area overlooking the Moray Firth which has today been crafted into what appears as natural a links as any.
Thanks to 100 per cent pure fescue being planted into pure sand the look and playability of the fairways, greens and even rough can be controlled while the wild appearance of the bunkers has been worked at tirelessly. Both nines begin with the first three holes hugging the firth, with the Kessock Bridge in the distance going out and Fort George coming home.
The bad news is the opening tee shot is possibly the most daunting of the lot, with gorse (and my Pro V1) left, water right and a massive waste bunker short – though the more positive among us will eye a fairway 50 yards wide.
The good news is, from there it opens up and then opens up again. Parsinen, a fan of the Old Course and Augusta National, allows for waywardness but should you find a 20-yard corridor from the tee you will be set fair to tackle any hole. Depending on your frame of mind after the first two holes, the 3rd can be driven if you are willing to take on a green set against the firth like an infinity pool, a regular feature throughout.
The Highlands has always been an extra special golfing retreat – think Royal Dornoch, Nairn and Brora – and thanks to Castle Stuart’s creation it has been raised another notch.
From the tee distant shadows to the left of the putting surface suggest deep bunkers but, on reaching the green, these transpire to be a handful of very intelligent ‘faux bunkers’, filled with grass, which mean the trusted putter isn’t an option.
From here you leave the sea and head up a level where more wide spaces await, ahead of further approaches to infinity greens, all an illusion, all part of the intrigue. The 7th is the hardest hole on the course, according to the Stroke Index, and the pick of the front nine with a long iron played to a green seemingly perched on the sea cliff with just the Chanonry Lighthouse in the distance.
Again, on arrival, there is plenty to save anything tugged left though a genuine pull hook will find the abyss. It is no coincidence that other landmarks, Alturlie Point, Ben Wyvis, Munlochy Bay and Castle Stuart itself also prove to be excellent lines on certain holes, another very intelligent feature and part of Parsinen’s mantra of keeping the golfer ‘engaged’.
After passing the Art Deco clubhouse, inspired by an episode of Poirot, we kick off the back nine from the clifftop championship tee with the firth, this time, on the left. As impressive a hole as the 10th is, it’s worth getting straight on to the short 11th, just 144 yards from the very back tee.
All four of the par 3s are sublime and, better still, require something very different. The other three you will need at least a 6 iron, here you will be reaching into the bottom end of the bag. Parsinen rightly takes great pride in this hole, he spent several days with a wheelbarrow and shovel shaping the humps that protect the front of the green.
Most who miss the green will finish in a hollow short and right and few of those will walk away with a three. Go long and you’re on the rocks or wet. The next two, linked by a ‘testing’ uphill walk (though a drinks machine halfway up provides the perfect excuse for a breather), sees you back on the high ground.
This is where the majority of the earth moving was done, with the result being a stunning par 5 before a brilliant dogleg right where it is almost impossible to attack the pin from the right of the fairway. The mounds here are an exact replica of those on the 2nd on the Old Course but in reverse, meaning most approaches will be taken left.
You are now back on the high ground for the final five holes and here there are plenty of opportunities for pars with more generous tee shots, though slip off a shelf or get on the wrong side of the pin and the shots will continue to dribble away.
This is never more apparent than the 14th where an angled green can make you look very clumsy. Of the 10 par 4s, seven are under 400 yards from the white tees (6,553 yards) so the driver can be left alone though, with the wind at your back, there is little reason for not trying to take on the 16th. The longest and toughest of the short holes follows where, back into the wind, at least a hybrid will be needed.
The final tee shot gives you the chance to make sense of the path you’ve trod over the last few hours before taking aim at the saltire left of the clubhouse and letting rip one final time. Ahead, an untypically vast putting surface awaits and, played sensibly, a closing five should follow.
At the end of the round or, better still, between rounds the views can be enjoyed from anywhere in the clubhouse, be it the excellent restaurant and bar or wrap around balcony on the second floor. The inevitable comparisons with Kingsbarns will continue to come and, of our party, those who had played both were exactly split.
In truth both are sensational and will live long in the memory. The Highlands has always been an extra special golfing retreat – think Royal Dornoch, Nairn and Brora – and thanks to this new addition it has been raised another notch.