Castle Stuart Golf Links, a spectacular golfing masterpiece hugging the Moray Firth, is undoubtedly one of the most scenic locations of the European Tour season and will present a few new challenges this week.
Designed by Mark Parsinen and Gil Hanse, the course opened in 2009 and is laid out over two levels with seven holes bordering the Firth and 11 holes above. Its stunning vista takes in the Chanonry Lighthouse, the Kessock Bridge and Fort George while wildlife enthusiasts may well spot dolphins, seals, badgers, osprey and white-tailed sea eagles. It’s a truly beautiful and inspiring venue.
And a few subtle tweaks to the course since last year may well give the world’s best players something to think about over the next four days.
New tees on the ninth, 12th and 15th holes have added about 140 yards to the course, and some new fairway bunkering will catch the slightly wayward or miscued drive.
The fifth hole has three new fairway bunkers, one on the left around the 265 yard distance from the tee and two on the right at 350 yards and 375 yards, with a slight adjustment to the fairway line on the right.
The new ninth tee has added 39 yards to the hole with the rough brought in on the right by about ten yards.
The fairway bunker on the tenth is now more visible from the tee having been reconstructed and the 12th has arguably the biggest change with the new tee adding 69 yards to the hole and its positioning next to the 11th green changes the line of play.
A new bunker at 290 yards in the centre of the 14th fairway could well see plenty of traffic and the new tee on the 15th has added 35 yards.
“The course is a step forward from last year, having matured and developed,” said Tournament Director Mike Stewart. “The club have taken on board the feedback from last year, embraced it and made minor and subtle changes to present a very enjoyable test of links golf. Most players love links golf and don’t feel we play enough of it so they are excited about the experience.”
Much will depend on the wind, the traditional defence of all links courses, but the new tees give Stewart and his team additional options in the course set up.
“The three new tees will add more length, but we might move them around during the week if we feel it is necessary or the wind changes and we see how those holes play on a day to day basis,” he said.
“We will have to see how they play but we think they will make the course a little tougher. Scoring was low last year and if the wind is not a factor we want to make it as challenging as possible. The wind is crucial to how the course plays but we are not really expecting much this week.”
The fairways are extremely generous, giving players the impression they can open their shoulders and really attack long drives, but positioning is key to playing Castle Stuart.
“The whole ethos of how they built this course was to make the positioning off the tee crucial and linking that to wherever the flag is,” continued Stewart. “Depending on the position of the flag, there is a better side to come in from. That is how Mark and Gil and the design team planned it. It might look wide and generous off the tee but if you end up on the wrong side you can give yourself a very, very difficult shot. It really pays to play from the right part of the fairway.”
And it certainly pays to avoid the rough, extremely penal after all the heavy rain of recent weeks.
Luke Donald won by four strokes last year in a tournament reduced to 54 holes with an impressive 19 under par score of 197 and it will take some exceptional golf to challenge that total this year.