The incredible journey that took Castle Stuart Golf Links from farmland to hosting a European Tour event within five years is being shared with delegates at a major conference this week.
In a keynote address to the Golf Union of Wales event, I will be detailing the course’s development, evolution and reputation for making golf more fun and enjoyable while retaining championship credentials.
The course that has now hosted the Scottish Open four times in the last six years, was still a working farm when co-designer Mark Parsinen visited the site overlooking the Moray Firth in 2002.
Construction got under way a couple of years later with the brief to make it a world class links course that would be engaging and playable, yet challenging for every level of handicap; a tribute to a bygone era, the links courses of old and the early days of classic courses in Britain and America.
The guiding principle was provided by renowned course architect Dr Alister MacKenzie, who once wrote: “The chief objective of every golf architect or greenkeeper worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself…..”
The challenge was formidable. The location lies adjacent to the Inner Moray Firth Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Protection Area, and the Moray Firth Special Area of Conservation. Seventy per cent of the site was on sand, the other 30 per cent on silt.
However, by working closely with statutory and other bodies, we dealt with 52 planning restrictions and the course was opened in 2009. Since then it has been recognised internationally as a world class venue, being ranked at 56 on Golf Magazine’s “gold standard” list of the Top 100 Courses in the World in the same year and, within 18 months, being named as the host of the Scottish Open.
At the same time is has been held up as a model for environmental sustainability. Nature bequeathed Castle Stuart an opportunity for a links golf course to enjoy a rich landscape texture of Scottish whins, gorse and broom, heather and marram and this has been handled sensitively.
In 2014 Castle Stuart was awarded the GEO Certified ecolabel, an international symbol of ‘great golf environments’, which recognises golf clubs that have met high standards for performance in nature conservation, water and energy efficiency, ethical and environmental supply chain, pollution control and community engagement, one of only a handful to be awarded in the UK.
The change from arable farmland to a championship golf links has been achieved with just 24 hectares of the 95-hectare site intensively managed. Several new wildlife habitats and passageways have been created and some species re-introduced, including bumble bees.
Castle Stuart uses fescue grass, which is ideal for a cooler climate, a sensitive environment and for ideal playing conditions.
Fescue is slower-growing, requires less water and fertilizer and is less prone to disease so is popular in course management terms. It means pesticides and fungicides can be avoided, while still maintaining a healthy grass system.
Fescue also provides a faster, truer roll and does not ‘grab’ the golf ball like other types of grass. Our research on native grasses and the climate had led to us building up a huge bank of information on the behaviour of fescue in certain conditions and this is constantly updated to improve knowledge on the way it acts in certain conditions.
It therefore looks spectacular to match its surroundings. But it also has to play well and our team put an emphasis on making the game fun and entertaining. The course fairways are wide to help recovery off the tee, and it has only 40 bunkers (compared with some courses that have more than 200), emphasising that sandy traps are not the sole hazard defining play.
It should be all about an engaging experience, remembering who our key guests are and ensuring we enhance our environmental legacy.