Golf Channel's Mike Ritz, the lead voice for European Tour coverage, recently took three friends on a trip of a lifetime: six of the top links courses in Scotland in six days.
The golfing world was first introduced to Castle Stuart Golf Links, opened in 2009, when it hosted the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open from 2011-13.
As I hope you saw on Golf Channel and NBC, it's where Phil Mickelson won his Scottish the week before he won his British at Muirfield in 2013. Thankfully, the plans are for Castle Stuart to be a part of the new rotation of courses hosting the Scottish Open in the near future. As beautiful and spectacular as Castle Stuart looks on television, it is even more stunning in person.
Once again, I can only gaze in awe at the job Mark Parsinen (Kingsbarns' creator) did in crafting this course and property. Of course, he was not alone in sculpting Castle Stuart. Gil Hanse, the golf course designer for the 2016 Olympics, is the co-course architect on the letterhead.
Stuart McColm, the general manager at Castle Stuart, played a major role in crafting the course and all of the immaculate grounds and stunning clubhouse. He paid such incredible attention to detail -- even making sure the clubhouse's overhangs were "just so" to make sure a setting sun doesn't keep you from enjoying the panoramic view of the Highlands and sea after your round. He also serves as a most gracious host.
Like Kingsbarns, and unlike the old, historic links courses in Scotland, Castle Stuart has a wonderful practice facility and a clubhouse with a modern pro shop, impressive locker room and a restaurant/bar serving great food and some rare brews and single malts.
A major part of the Castle Stuart experience is the caddies. They are true professionals and greatly enhance your game and entertainment.
Castle Stuart, like Pebble Beach and Royal Dornoch, is one of those courses that leads me to tell people, "If you don't play golf, you're missing out on some of the most beautiful spots in the world."
Castle Stuart has been praised as "the greatest modern links course." I'll go one step further and call it one of the world's greatest links courses, period.
Like any true links, it's firm and fast, bordered by the sea, buffeted by wind, encouraging you to play the game on the ground. American-style golf won't suit you here. Just ask Phil.
Six holes run right along the shore of the Moray Firth. Another two abut Castle Stuart Bay. The sea and the Highlands are visible everywhere, with views of the Kessock Bridge and the Chanonry Lighthouse. And, of course, there's Castle Stuart, itself -- it serves as the stoic background to the beautifully framed par-3 fourth.
The course is challenging, but fair to all handicap levels. Just don't fool yourself by playing from the wrong set of tees. Remember: tee it forward.
One of the wonderful characteristics is that you can see the expanse of every hole from the tee and understand what your options are and what is needed to be successful.
For example, if you want to try to reach the par-5 second in two, your best bet is to hit your drive to the plateau on the upper left-hand side of the fairway. If you want to play it as a three-shot hole, hit your tee ball to the hollow on the lower right-hand side of the fairway to set up an easier lay-up shot with your second. And, of course, try not to be too intimidated with your approach -- as you look at a green that seems to be hanging precariously over the very edge of the sea.
Castle Stuart's third hole is one of the coolest drivable par 4s you'll ever play. It's 305 yards from the tips, 266 from the tees most will play. As you stand on the tee and look at a plateau green that looks like a sliver, with the beach to the right and pot bunkers short, you might rethink your decision and put the driver back in the bag. But, hey, what the heck -- how often are you going to be here? Go for it!
This course offers you things you will rarely see anywhere else -- you'll be gawking at the infinity green at the seventh that appears to flow to the Moray Firth hundreds of feet below. By the way, way over there is Royal Dornoch.
Dunes, gorse, heather, pot bunkers, beach. Choke down, hit it low, keep it out of the wind. Enjoy one of the finest links experiences you'll ever have.