Polly, Craig, Stu and I played here on 16 May 2011. In a word, awesome. Although this new links course has only been open for a couple of years or so, it has already received rave reviews from folk that know more about golf course design than I ever will and it will be hosting the Scottish Open this coming July. Don't miss the TV coverage, since if our visit to Castle Stuart is anything to go by, HD pictures from here will be simply stunning. Craig, Stu and I played the course from the White tees, 6553 yards, Par 72. Polly sensibly opted for the Ladies Red tees. The Black tees were closed in preparation for the Scottish Open, but since they can measure anything up to 7400 yards and the course is exposed to the elements, it might have been a long day had we played off the Blacks. This course is very playable and challenging without being so difficult that average players like us wouldn't score reasonably well and enjoy the experience. I'm sure that the pros will really enjoy Castle Stuart as a warm up to the 2011 Open and practice their links play, without being beaten up by a monster course or blown away if the wind is even stronger than we had it. They might of course be blown away by the outstanding quality of the design and condition of the course, the views of the Moray Firth and the Black Isle and the appreciation that the local spectators will have of their play on this great new course. I just hope the weather is kind!
One of the more random tests of the new courses I play is the number of photos I take going round. At some courses, a couple of photos are enough to prove that I've been, played it and am one course nearer to the final target. Here, I took 37 photos and wish I'd taken more, such was the beauty of the course. As the course's website says (www.castlestuartgolf.com), great use has been made of rumples, hollows and folds in the fairways and around the greens, and clever features such as infinity edges and old railway sleepers. Although the Castle Stuart course is new, the design is timeless. Just use the above link, go to The Course/Distinctive Course Features, turn up the sound on your monitor and enjoy! On some websites clever and selective photography can enhance even the dullest course, but you really do get what you see in this presentation (although the stirring music may be missing when you play!)
The course is laid out on 2 different levels with the sea being visible from every hole. Indeed, on many of the holes the sea is within a few feet of the tee, fairway or green. Some of the shorter Par 4s are drivable by longer hitters, but for mere mortals like me, placement on the fairways is crucial. For example, here's where you don't want to be on the 290 yard Par 4 3rd, which on the day played directly into a strong gusting head wind. I managed a bogey from there, but I'd parred the 530 yard Par 5 2nd hole (also played into the wind) so 2 over after 3 holes played directly into the wind was acceptable. I also parred the 4th an outstanding 176 yard Par 3, with Castle Stuart in the background. The green looks as though it's perched directly behind a hollow, but there's actually 30 yards of flat fairway beyond that hollow, so don't be fooled by the infinity edge on this hole. The green is further away than it looks.
I was doing reasonably well until the 6th, a 522 yard Par 5 played into the wind. I'd hit what I thought was a pretty good pitch and run for my third shot, only to run into an almost unplayable position close to a bunker, as shown here. That led to an ugly 8, but I'd recovered enough to get to the turn in 44 and some hot soup at the Starter's Hut/Half-Way House. I'd also taken only 13 putts, despite the greens being huge and faster-running than my own course, but any complacency about my putting skills was soon to be sorely tested.
We'd been impressed by the views on the front 9, but we weren't prepared for this, the stunning view from the 10th tee. In reality, the fairway is wider than it looks, but with a strong wind from behind this 360 yard Par 4 looked almost in range. I only had an easy sand iron pitch to the green but the clever use of humps and hollows made this quite a tricky proposition and I only bogeyed the hole after leaving my pitch slightly short. The 12th is a 518 yard Par 5, again played downwind. The fairway is narrow, but I'd hit a great drive and was able to nurse an easy 7 wood to the front of the green. 5 putts later and I'd actually finished the hole. Now anyone that knows me may not believe this, but I was still smiling en route (up a long hill!) to the 13th tee. In days gone by, my putter might have gone for a swim! However, it took me a few holes to recover any confidence with the putter, but I was pleased to par the last 3 holes, all with single putts.
The 18th at Castle Stuart is just a brilliant hole. At 595 yards from the Black tee played directly into the prevailing wind, it will test the Pros. Even at 508 yards from the White tee, this was a great hole. This is a view from the fairway about 200 yards out. Bearing in mind that you're playing directly into a strong wind and there's a deep hollow in front of the green, you lay up if you've any sense, but then you face a semi-blind shot to avoid the worst of the deep hollow. That's how I played it anyway, escaping with a par. I went round in 88, net 78, or 6 over net Par, with 32 putts. Not bad, considering my problems on 6 and 12, but I'll be aiming to do even better next time. Polly also played well and beat me in the opening round of our annual golf challenge for a small replica of the Claret Jug and a year's worth of domestic bragging rights - the latter being the more valuable. Modesty (and continued marital harmony) suggests I should not mention, even in passing, who currently holds the trophy!
From behind the 18th hole, as shown here, you can just see a narrow low-lying peninsula on the far side of the Moray Firth known as Chanonry Point, with a lighthouse on it. This Point also includes the remarkable 18 hole Fortrose and Rosemarkie GC (see www.fortrosegolfclub.co.uk), one of my favourite Scottish courses. As I've said before, there's no need for golfing tourists to play only the famous trophy courses. Castle Stuart and Royal Dornoch are certainly two of the leading courses in the Highlands, but the likes of Fortrose and Rosemarkie are just as memorable in their own way.