A recurring theme in Mark Parsinen’s career is encapsulated in a saying often repeated in the Parsinen family home: “wherever you go, there you are…”
In other words, just do what you do and, wherever you find yourself, just keep doing it while adapting and making the best of it – finding a way to carry on. Serendipity? Or being in the right place at the right time, even if you don’t know initially it’s the right place to be.
Like when Parsinen wanted to join a golf club in Sacramento, California and found they were all full. So he ended up building his own.
Like when he was on holiday in the UK and got a call asking him to look at a golf property that others had struggled to develop. He ended up creating the renowned Kingsbarns Golf Links in St Andrews.
And like when he was directed to a piece of undeveloped farmland on the Moray Firth near Inverness and created the now internationally acclaimed and Scottish Open venue Castle Stuart Golf Links – despite having pitched up at the wrong location.
Parsinen grew up with golf. As a teenager he was a caddie. While at school he was on the greenkeeping crew at his local course. During university he worked in the golf shop while his best friend and teammate ran the caddie programme. He became a competitive golfer with a handicap of 2 before his career arc took him to Silicon Valley by way of Stanford University where he earned his MBA and met a professor with whom he started a computer company and ultimately became the CEO of the enterprise after it “went public”.
Fast forward a few years and he returns to golf having semi-retired and seeks to join a club in Sacramento, California but encounters five-year waiting lists at virtually every club. “I worked out that the local population had grown by 500,000 while only one additional golf course had been built over the same period. A new course done well seemed likely to have a bright future.”
“One thing led to another and I found myself building my own course. I built it for people like me who loved golf, whose skills were suspect or were never honed in the first place, whose spare time was precious, and who wanted to find some pleasure in the time they spent playing the game of golf; and rather than being humiliated by their inevitable errant shots, would appreciate opportunities to recover and to some extent have a chance to redeem themselves.”
The Parsinen ethos on golf course design was born.
Skip another few years and he is on a family holiday in the UK when he was asked to look at a golf property near St Andrews. “I wasn’t looking for a project, I was on holiday. But, I was attracted by the obvious sense of place and the views coupled with an interesting topography, notably the elevation differential and the arcing nature of the coastline and related landforms that I had come to value as key ingredients that could yield interesting golf holes. Within 20 minutes of being on site I decided to do it. I saw something that was worth trying to do.”
The Kingsbarns lay-out he co-designed with Kyle Phillips, opened in 2000, and has since regularly featured in the ‘best of’ lists and is one of the venues for the annual Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
And so to Castle Stuart, where Parsinen inadvertently arrived in 2002 having visited at least 20 sites across Scotland. While looking at another site along the Moray Firth coast, he was given directions by Dr Robert Price (whose book on the geomorphology of Scottish golf courses had proven inspirational for Parsinen) to an area of land beside a farmhouse near Inverness.
“I parked my car and walked in the area where the 9th green is now. It was an open sandy waste area. I saw the quality of these sandy soils and the general structure of the land and said ‘this is for me’. The irony is that Dr Price had given me directions for another farmhouse. I went to the wrong place, but I guess it worked out okay.
“Clearly this was not the result of some grand plan or an organised approach to one’s career, but sometimes things are simply serendipitous. You just are where you are and you make the most of it.”
Making the most of it is exactly what he’s doing at Castle Stuart which opened in 2009 and in the same year was ranked at 56 on Golf Magazine’s “gold standard” list of the Top 100 Courses in the World. This summer it will host the Scottish Open for the fourth time in six years.
And what of the property he should have discovered had he followed Dr Price’s directions precisely? Ironically, that is the site of what will be an adjacent second course, to be built in collaboration with the Arnold Palmer Design Company and become Palmer’s first course in Scotland.
Last year it was announced that the Arnold Palmer Group was investing in the current partnership at Castle Stuart and will collaborate in the design of the Palmer Tribute Course that will envelope the 17th century “namesake” castle.
The Tribute will be designed with Parsinen’s ethos in mind; that playing golf should be pleasurably engaging and interesting; that courses should be a visual treat should the possibility for doing so be present; that the overall experience should offer hope and redemption after an error rather than punishment and pain, and that the experience should present players with opportunities for choice and regard for nuance in finding their own path through eighteen tee-to-green puzzles.
“When people come here we can’t let them not know and enjoy where they are. When people make a decision to come to the Highlands to play golf, why would we not take it as one of our objectives to make them appreciate where they are by presenting the endearing ‘sense-of-place’ landmarks directly in the shot-making perspective or frame of play? Why would we let the landmarks simply be peripheral and easily ignored or not seen? ”
Recent statistics have shown that golf club membership in Scotland has fallen by 17 per cent since 2004 and a growing number of courses are closing with high costs and length of playing time among the reasons cited.
“Every 48 hours a golf course closes in the US”, says Parsinen. “People don’t want to spend their spare time looking for balls and being humiliated.
“Golf courses have evolved to have faster greens, narrower fairways, much longer rough, and more penalty-laden ‘hard edges’. Golfers have been facing increasingly difficult courses and challenges that are all too often humiliating and costly, both in time and the cost of lost balls. There a so few real events of consequence during a round of golf, that it’s strange we have let the game evolve by decreasing the number of events that could have been full of hope while providing opportunities for success or redemption given the inevitability of errors.
“The 1974 US Open at Winged Foot marked a ‘sea change’ in our perspective. Brutal rough, added length, and the general setup including ‘rock hard’ fast greens made the course difficult almost beyond comprehension. Even the press asked why the USGA was trying to embarrass the best players in the world. ‘No,’ responded Sandy Tatum, then head of the USGA’s championship committee. ‘We’re trying to identify them.’ Hale Irwin’s winning score was 7 over par.
“The logic that difficulty in golf is the way to identify the best players isn’t entirely true, although it has held sway ever since Winged Foot – to the dismay of the average golfer after a protracted and almost unnoticeable trend toward difficulty becoming the ‘be all and end all’ of golf design. Over more than 40 years, our perception of what golf is all about has changed.
“How has golf turned into this torture thing? My concept of golf is that if you don’t play a shot to an advantaged spot, you should still be able to imagine ‘success in the face of having made somewhat of an error’. You should still have hope and an opportunity for redemption, a chance to control your destiny, to go for glory or to choose a lesser path with at least an opportunity for a modicum of success.
“Let’s appreciate that everyone will make errors in line and distance and make sure that where they end up is compromised but offering hope that they can find a path, either an aggressive one or a more conservative one – that they confront an engaging choice. Why not create more opportunities for hopefulness that good things can happen?”
“If people think golf is all about a difficult test and proving your mettle, then in that crucible they will suffer pain because they think they think it may be inevitable. But you can change the paradigm of golf and say ‘I don’t need to be playing from black tees. I don’t need to be playing the most difficult courses in the world. I need to find some engaging pleasure. I know I’m fallible. I make mistakes. And, why shouldn’t I cherish playing a golf course that gives me real chances for something good to happen, allowing some ‘fun’ even in the face of inevitable fallibility.”
The Palmer Tribute Course will be created with the local Castle Stuart team working alongside senior Palmer architects who share with their founder a perspective that golf should be “fun”, and who have also shared that evolving their craft on the Tribute site is a “dream come true”.
“The Palmer people like what we are all about largely because, in our own ways, we share a common perspective on why people enjoy golf. They are captivated by the prospect of what the Tribute Course can be and that together we can find a way that pays attention to what golf has always been, how it’s gone astray in certain respects, and how we can find our way back to the essence of the game’s soul.”, says Parsinen. “They think this is the way forward and this is what golf needs”.
“I’ve always been an admirer of Arnold Palmer. If we can play a role in helping to create a Top 100 course with his name on it, it will be a most worthy venture – one that I will personally enjoy. For our current Castle Stuart partners, our reward will be creating another great course connected with this what’s been done already, especially one with Arnold Palmer’s name on it.”
And although it will have Palmer’s name on it, the course could be the final element of Parsinen’s legacy: “I’m 66 now – and I hate having feelings like the one I’m about to express – but this could be my last ‘dance’. I like what I’ve done and the people I’ve had the pleasure to do it with.
“One more needs to be done and for us to do it with Arnold Palmer seems more than appropos”.