INVERNESS, Scotland -- Americans who have not yet experienced links golf often express more than a hint of trepidation: All those humps and bumps! The cavernous bunkers! And what about the constant wind?
Although it is true that any links course worth its green fee will indeed display all of these intimidating features, it is not the case that visitors to Scotland should stress out about playing a few rounds on the storied sod of The Home of Golf. Not all links courses are hopelessly penal, and some of them can be downright friendly if the winds happen to lie down.
An excellent case in point is Castle Stuart Golf Links in Inverness.
Castle Stuart opened in 2009, and it is one of a new breed of links courses designed with visitors in mind. It is the brain child of Mark Parsinen, whose first Scottish links course was Kingsbarns Golf Links.
Castle Stuart was co-designed by Parsinen and Gil Hanse and has debuted on several major lists of new must-play courses. It also has served as the venue of the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open from 2011-2012 and will repeat as host for the 2013 Scottish Open (after which the championship moves on to Royal Aberdeen for 2014).
Castle Stuart is a daily-fee course with no members, so tee times are player-friendly.
Just as importantly, Castle Stuart offers a combination of spectacular scenery and generally wide, forgiving fairways. All the aforementioned humps and bumps, swales and knobs, are here, but for the most part, it is possible for even relatively high handicappers to keep the ball in play and enjoy the inspirational vistas out over the Moray Firth.
In short, Castle Stuart Golf Links is a great place to ease into links golf while at the same time following in the spike marks of the world's greatest golfers.
How Castle Stuart Golf Links plays
The buzz on Castle Stuart Golf Links is that its design is pitch-perfect for a course that gets upwards of 70 percent of its play from visitors and tourists.
Before my visit, one of the course raters for a major golf magazine told me, "It won't beat you up. There's all sorts of room to hit the ball out there. Perfect for golf tourists."
This news was welcome to me, as my game was not in great shape prior to visiting.
Alas, after a sparkling warm-up on the same range where the day before players such Phil Mickelson, Francesco Molinari and the 2012 Aberdeen Scottish Open winner Jeev Milkha Singh were warming up, I strode to the first tee and froze like a rabbit in headlights: The Moray Firth roiled directly to my right, and dense gorse covered the steep hillside to the left. Where, pray tell, were the massively wide fairways I'd been promised?
In fact, the tee shot at the 434-yard first is the most intimidating on the course, followed closely by the 550-yard second, a very similar narrow fairway with trouble left and right. After multiple pull-hooks into gorse and a few triple-bogeys to start the day, I proceeded to turn a beautiful day of links golf into one of the worst rounds in a decade.
However, to be perfectly fair, after those first holes, I lost nary a ball. As billed, almost no matter where my wildly errant shot ended up, I was able to find it and follow up with yet another wildly errant shot.
Fortunately, I was playing with Lynn Kenny, a member of the Ladies European Tour, who was more than capable of showing me how I should have played the course and highlighting the finer points of the layout.
"I like how each hole is different," Kenny said. "It's never just up and back, like some links courses. And the holes are all out in front of you. There aren't many blind shots, and you get to enjoy the views from the tees and greens. And for a young course to have such well-established greens is really good. They're firm, they're true and they hold their lines."
I would also add that the sight lines on approaches are eminently memorable, too, as many of them end with a view of a green that looks like it falls dead away into the firth or off a cliff. These so-called "infinity greens" are the turf equivalent of infinity swimming pools, and if the wind is behind you, it can be very difficult indeed to stop your ball from rolling off and drowning in the sea.
As noted, the scenery is nearly storybook quality, especially at the fourth green, where the namesake Castle Stuart looms not far off the course.
From beginning to end, the golf is varied, challenging and fun. The final three holes -- the drivable, par-4 16th, the brutally long, par-3 17th, and the graceful, epic, downhill, par-5 18th -- will leave you reminiscing for years to come about a great round. (Or, in my case, a great round that never was.)
Castle Stuart Golf Links: The verdict
The pros who play Castle Stuart during the Aberdeen Scottish Open rave about the links: They eat it for lunch when the winds are down, but when the winds kick up, the course eats them alive.
Purists might want to see some more pinched fairways outside of the usual landing areas and perhaps some more crazy undulations, but the course is not tricked up or overwrought. It's a sturdy yet kind introduction to links golf.
But lest you think that Castle Stuart is only for visitors, consider this exchange I overheard the following day in the grill room at the newly opened Trump International Golf Links :
Grizzled Scot No. 1: "Have you ever played Castle Stuart?"
Grizzled Scot No. 2: "Ach, yes. Fine, wide fairways. It's the best I've ever played -- the best I've ever played."
In short, Castle Stuart Golf Links is a world-class championship venue that not only can be played by regular folks, but it is also playable for regular folks.
Amenities and accommodations
The clubhouse at Castle Stuart Golf Links is a brilliant Art Deco structure with a semi-circular wall of windows several stories high looking out over Moray Firth. Be sure to take time for a drink and a meal in the grill room and enjoy the view.
Accommodations in Inverness are plentiful, and the capital of the Scottish Highlands is worth a good, long visit along with a few rounds of golf. If you want to stay where the touring pros stay for the Aberdeen Scottish Open, Kingsmills Hotel and Kingsclub Spa are the places for you. The former is back under local management and has been restored to the stately establishment where Inverness business and society leaders come to meet, eat and be seen. The latter, which is part of the same complex, is just across the parking lot and offers more modern rooms and a posh spa.
If you'd rather stay where members of the Royal Family and Scottish government stay, however -- going all the way back to Bonnie Prince Charlie himself -- try Culloden House. In fact, it was the Battle Of Culloden, fought not far from here, where Prince Charlie was ultimately defeated. The beauty of the princely estate, the exquisite menu and the mind-boggling selection of single-malts in the Culloden House bar will salve any wounds you might receive on the links.