How does one man create a genuinely breathtaking golf course from scratch? The story of the Castle Stuart course. By Rob Smith
When the world’s great artists and writers begin their sketches and draughts for their next masterpiece they start with a blank canvas. In general, they are relatively unencumbered by budgets, commercial viability, sustainability, rules and regulations. But for a golf course designer, the canvas looks very different. He must work within these limits to successfully transform a landscape that has been put there by nature and shaped over centuries.
For entrepreneur and golf designer Mark Parsinen, the first sight of the blank canvas of Castle Stuart was enough: “In my first 20 minutes on site, I knew that it was perfect for me topographically, visually and contextually, soil-wise, and also with respect to the existing landscape. I had been a devotee – and subsequently a member – of Royal Dornoch for 30 years or more, and had come to love the Highlands and Inverness specifically. The site has the right mix of ‘slacks’ – valleys behind barrier dune ridges – and ‘escarpments’ – cliffs with unobstructed views from above and below.”
Given the fragile state of the world’s economy, there has been a substantial cutback in golf course development in recent years. But among those that have been realised, Scotland’s Castle Stuart is a real gem. This course, located close to Inverness – the administrative and business heart of the Scottish Highlands – is already home to the Scottish Open on the European Tour and has drawn the world’s top golfers to play in the tournament. This year’s event was won by the world’s number one golfer, Luke Donald, who said: “I decided to play in Scotland this year because of the move to Castle Stuart.”
The site, effectively an unassuming collection of farm fields on a split-level shelf of land bordering the southern shore of the Moray Firth, was secured for development by Parsinen eight years ago. One of his primary quibbles was that much of the 20th Century’s significant golf course architecture had created courses that were visually stunning but “almost impossible for the average player to enjoy” – he was determined that this wouldn’t happen at Castle Stuart.
Parsinen was raised in Minnesota and studied at the London School of Economics before graduating from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. He then founded a very successful computercompany with a group of Stanford electrical engineering professors. A keen and capable golfer, when he moved to northern California he was dismayed to find that the private clubs there were oversubscribed, and set about expanding the industry in that area himself. By 1991, Parsinen found himself managing the $30 million development of Granite Bay Golf Club and its associated housing.
“I thought long and hard about what attracted me to the game in the first place, and what the essence of its charm was, for skilled and less skilled golfers alike,” he says. “Of everything I read and heard, one perspective has stuck with me: that there should be no single thoroughfare to the green.”
His next project was as managing director and partner in the development of Kingsbarns, the superb links just a few miles from St Andrews, which only opened in 2000 but already sits at number 11 in Golf Monthly’s list of the best courses in the UK and Ireland. It was now time for Parsinen to have a greater hand in the design of a course, and he spent three years looking at more than 20 locations, before settling on Castle Stuart.
Parsinen defined a very clear set of design goals for this ambitious new project. One of the first was that the course provide wide latitude and choice: that it should therefore have wide fairways and play areas to choose from. In turn, this should never lead to indifference in the golfer to the extent that he didn’t need to care about the direction in which to play or the distance of his shot. Parsinen wanted asymmetry to rule, and at times to restrict the number of options for the golfer. He wanted the more demanding shots to be ones the golfer could embrace rather than fear – to “let mystery have its place”. Finally, he was keen to bring the Moray Firth into the active shot-making frame as a background as much as possible, using its topography to the fullest, and to let the routing twist and turn, flowing over, around, through, into and atop the wide array of landforms.
The design team included Stuart McColm and Graham Winter who had worked on Kingsbarns, American Gil Hanse as co-designer and Chris Haspell, who would later become the course manager. The team took great care in routing the course to embrace the surrounding views, and designed the course so that in the sightline of the golfer positioning his shots were a number of key landmarks, including the Kessock Bridge. “Instead of letting the rich history of the area be of peripheral visual interest, we put it where you can’t help but notice it, letting it aid recollection of the holes you’ve played,” says Parsinen.
Landmarks across water are a recurring theme for the sighting of shots here and the result of this is that they become etched both into the visual experience and the memory. The course has two distinct levels, with the first few holes on each nine at sea level and the remainder more elevated. The team were keen to use this feature to present the landmarks from a variety of different striking, theatrical perspectives: from the orchestra pit, the mezzanine and the balcony. “Memorability was a key aspect of our routing,” says Parsinen.
Parsinen lived on site for the entire two and a half years of construction, not once returning to his home state of California. But he is keen to stress that it was the effort of his team that led to the course’s success. “What distinguishes the achievement was the pool of talent that learned to work together and embrace a common vision,” he says. “We could argue about things, yet always seemed to find an approach that as a group was better than any that one of us could have done alone.”
Reluctant as he may be to take credit, it was Parsinen who defined the concept and ethos of the project; he set the goals and decided how they were to be achieved. It was he who created the routing plan and laid out the initial earthworks using the paper plans as a guide. He laid out several of the greens, operating some of the specialist equipment needed, and even hand-shovelled and raked various areas in order to perfect the smallest of details. However, Parsinen describes his role as that of “lead dog in a sled” rather than a solo effort. He also highlights the organic aspect of the creation process. “Every problem we encountered in the field led to an opportunity to do something we wouldn’t otherwise have thought of doing. The result was a more interesting and usually more memorable golf experience. If you’re determined enough, there really is a silver lining in every cloud,” he says.
The course opened in the summer of 2009 to immediate critical acclaim. I had been a regular dog-walker along this stretch of the coast way before the project started, and as the compiler of Golf Monthly’s Top 100 had peeked over the fence a number of times during construction. So by completion I was very keen to see the finished work. And although I had expected something out of the ordinary, when I saw the final course I was overawed. Both the course and its surroundings are a visual feast, and for playing on it offers a varied and hugely enjoyable golf challenge. Every hole presents a new test and offers a new treat for the eye. The 11th in particular encapsulates all that is great about Castle Stuart – humps and bumps, wispy grasses, greedy bunkers and a seascape backdrop. Many of the fairways are 75 yards wide and therefore offer multiple lines of attack, but the golfer must be mindful of the areas of ‘rumple’ (small hillocks and hollows) and the partly revetted bunkers that are strategically placed around the course.
It is also probably the most versatile course I have ever played. Varying the tee placements allows the length to suit any occasion, and the rough can be grown in or out to make it as narrow as the professionals could possibly need, or wider for us amateurs. Indeed, this versatility ties in with one of Parsinen’s long-term dreams: to stage The Open Championship itself. I am lucky enough to have played many of Scotland’s other classic links, and for such a young course to rank alongside them (and even outgun them in certain areas) is remarkable. Castle Stuart entered straight into the latest Golf Monthly Top 100 at number 25, an unprecedented debut, and also made it onto GOLF Magazine’s 2011 Top 100 Courses in the World, appearing at number 56. The Castle Stuart team’s plan is to make it the best destination golf resort it can be: a 51-bedroom bespoke golf hotel is opening in 2013, and a second seaside course that will be shorter but “engagingly and absorbingly fun” is in planning. In time, there will also be a par three course and some resort-ownership lodges with fine views over the course and the firth.
While the world is not short of beautiful places to play golf, it seems the real achievement of Parsinen and his team is that they have created a course that offers not only a stunning design, but an enjoyable playing experience, too. Take it from four-time major champion Phil Mickelson: “It’s one of the best golf courses anywhere in the world. It’s about fun, creativity, memorable shots and challenges, and it doesn’t have to beat you up all the time. I think Mark Parsinen and Gil Hanse have it just right, and I hope that other architects learn from them. It should almost be a pre-requisite to play Castle Stuart before you’re allowed to design golf courses.”
Mark Parsinen on the 9th hole
“Although we executed the 9th hole a little differently from how I’d sketched it on paper, it achieved what we set out for it. We charted and analysed every shot there during the Scottish Open and it illustrated that you can create different routes to the green, giving chances to different types of players and not giving unmitigated advantages to the long hitter. The hole also performs tactically the same way for amateurs of all levels.”