An Introduction to Links Golf at Castle Stuart

After spending less than 24-hours in Scotland, it was apparent that some things are done a little differently across the pond. They drive on the other side of the road, traffic lights are mostly replaced by roundabouts, and the average American golfer could squeeze in an early morning nine before most coffee shops turn the open sign. As I would quickly learn, those differences also extend to the game of golf, and in more ways than one.

Here in the former Colonies, golf has evolved into a giant game of lawn darts. We send the ball sailing through the air and, if we're lucky enough to find the green, we watch as it stops just a couple of feet from where it landed. There is certainly no denying the appeal to this type of golf.. The sight of a perfectly struck shot flying toward the flag against a backdrop of blue sky is never short on inspiration.

Across the Atlantic, that same shot wouldn't stand a chance.

To put it mildly, the seaside links variety of golf - the kind that we watch each year during The Open Championship - is an entirely different animal. The ground is firm, the turf is short, and the wind ranges anywhere from a mere nuisance to good luck standing up. But it's the degree of unpredictability that is sure to drive the uninitiated golfer bonkers. The wind and concrete-like turf make the lawn darts game impossible, so instead the ball must be flighted low and allowed to run along the ground. There's just one problem.. Most of these courses were built long before the invention of the bulldozer. Meaning the fairways are littered with humps and bumps and knobs that send the ball bouncing every which way. For the golfer accustomed to Shot A producing Outcome B, links golf at first seems a little unfair...

I hate to break it to you, but golf isn't fair.

My links golf education began at Castle Stuart, the host of this year's Scottish Open. In a land where many golf club charters predate the Constitution, Castle Stuart is the new kid on the block. Having opened in 2009, this is what you might call a "modern links;" one that was painstakingly shaped and molded into a course that has quickly landed among the best on the globe.

It was the perfect place to start my education.

But first, there was a not-so-small order of business to address... My golf clubs. Since the thought of handing them over to the airlines frightens me more than that giant spider in Harry Potter, I entrusted Luggage Forward - as I had once before - to get my only prized possession across the pond. Their service is as seamless as it comes, and while it cost more than what the airline bag fees would have, the convenience and reliability made it money well spent. After a few days of pacing my living room while they were in transit, my good friend Ru Macdonald - Scotland's tireless golf travel ambassador, who just happened to be at Castle Stuart - sent a pic of my clubs waiting in their storage room.

It was time.

In typical Deej fashion, I arrived to Castle Stuart a solid two hours before my 9:30am tee time. I expected to find a busy clubhouse and practice area, bustling with anxious and excited golfers like myself. As it turned out, I was all alone... It seemed that, like the coffee shops, even the golf courses get moving a little later than back home. I was the first name on the tee sheet, at a time when I might have been making the turn at Muni. Not that I minded.. It gave me plenty of time to enjoy the clubhouse view with a sausage and egg roll before teeing it up.
No pic of the sausage roll, but the trademark chili for lunch was awesome.

I was joined in my initiation to the links game by Castle Stuart's Director of Golf, Jeremy Matte. An American transplanted to Scotland, Jeremy spent much of the morning sharing with me the ethos behind all things at Castle Stuart, giving me an even higher appreciation for what they've accomplished here in The Highlands of Scotland. He also waxed the floor with me in our match, taking me down 4&3. More on that later...

Put simply, Castle Stuart doesn't fit the mold of your typical "championship" course. For many, the greatness of a course is proportional to it's degree of difficulty. By this logic, the higher the perceived difficulty, the better the course must be. Yet these are the same courses that usually leave the golfer battered and bruised and questioning why they ever took up the game. The one aspect that's usually overlooked by this flawed line of thinking... Enjoyability.

Not so at Castle Stuart.

Playability and recovery are the order of the day here. Wide fairways and enormous greens make for eye-pleasing targets. Where the errant drive or approach typically finds a wide range of punishment on that "championship" course, at Castle Stuart the golfer often finds they still have a shot and a chance for redemption. Granted, the next shot will be much more difficult than if they'd executed the first properly, but the opportunity to salvage something out of nothing sure beats a lost ball.
Where not to hit it on #1.

That's not to say that Castle Stuart is easy.. Far from it. Just ask the 15 guys who failed to break 80 in the first round of this year's Scottish Open. But imagine the satisfaction when your dreaded slice shows up at the tee, and instead of spending the bulk of your day searching hopelessly in the gorse, every now and then you find the ProV resting comfortably on the fairway. 
On the fairway, but contending with this...

Speaking of gorse.. The round at Castle Stuart marked my first meeting with this vile plant. Gorse blooms a vibrant yellow and orange each spring, which was still around when I visited in June. But don't let the pretty colors fool you.. This thorny weed is most definitely what the devil grows in his garden. If your ball finds a gorse plant, don't even bother.. Just drop another and play on. 
Vile weed.

In addition to its offering of redemption, perhaps the defining characteristic of Castle Stuart is its abundance of spectacular views. The landmarks along the Moray Firth are framed into shots like the work of a talented photographer. For example, the course's namesake stands backdrop behind the 4th hole, while the trademark infinity greens give way to the Kessock Bridge or Chanonry Point Lighthouse. All of this is by design, and all of it serves up vivid memories even on a grey and dreary day. 
Castle Stuart behind the par-3 4th green.

Of all the new things I was introduced to as part of my links golf initiation, the aspect I enjoyed the most had to do with my score... Specifically, the lack of one. This was my first real experience with match-play; where each hole is its own match, and the person who wins the most holes is the victor. It really is a shame this style of play is pretty much non-existent on this side of the pond. Instead we add up each gut-wrenching stroke at the end of the day, as a reminder of just how lousy we are at this cursed game. 
Where not to hit it on #18.

All I know is, Jeremy was 4 holes up on me with only 3 to play.. A rather stout beating, and one that was sealed when his drive on the 10th careened off a rock in the firth and back into the fairway. What may seem like an unlucky break for yours truly, however, was really just the opposite. The sight of that ball being thrown out of the bay is just one of countless images that I hope to carry with me forever. It also sums up my introduction to links golf rather well...

Sometimes the bounce goes your way, sometimes it doesn't, but at Castle Stuart.. It sure is great to play the game.

Enjoy Your Stay.