Castle Stuart: New Scottish links on its way to becoming golf capital of the Highlands

The new host of the Barclays Scottish Open on the European Tour, Castle Stuart Golf Links in Inverness is becoming the new hot spot in the Highlands of Scotland.

INVERNESS, Scotland -- Bringing the Barclays Scottish Open back to a links course seemed like a no-brainer.

Moving the event from near Glasgow to the remote Highlands on a brand new golf course was the gamble.

But those who make the trek to Inverness and set foot on the new Castle Stuart Golf Links only need to make it through a couple of holes before learning this is a place that's hard to say no to.

Barclays, title sponsor of the Scottish Open, liked the idea of a links host for the event prior to the British Open Championship on the European Tour schedule. After all, it could attract more top golfers to its event.

When struggling Loch Lomond Golf Club staged its final Scottish Open in 2010, it opened the door to move the venue back to a links for the first time since Carnoustie in 1996.

While there are scores of links venues around Scotland, the choices for a host were surprisingly limited. St. Andrews was already busy enough with the yearly Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, and the R&A preferred the event not be staged on an Open rota course.

So Castle Stuart jumped at the chance. Inverness might not have the population base of Edinburgh or Glasgow, but the hope was that area residents would revel in the chance to host such a big event. No pro golf event has ever made it this far north. The nearest event of its stature was the 1999 Walker Cup, hosted at The Nairn Golf Club.

Grant Sword, a co-owner at Castle Stuart, said their strategy when applying to host the Scottish Open was to compare the Highlands to one of the NBA's smaller host cities.

"It's the small-market phenomenon," Sword said. "When you're starved of any one thing and finally get the chance to host an event, people will come."

They were awarded the event with a three-year deal, and Highlands residents immediately got onboard. Tickets sales exceeded expectations and corporate sponsorships sold out quickly. Finding volunteers for the event was a success, thanks to members from many local clubs nearby.

For Barclays and the European Tour, this year's field also stands to be strong. South African major winners Louis Oostheizen and Charl Schwartzel committed in May. Graeme McDowell, Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and Edoardo Molinari are also slated to compete.

They'll head to Royal St. George's with a week of fresh links tournament experience under their belts. And should they fare well in the Open, the field may be even stronger at Castle Stuart in 2012.

Playing Castle Stuart: Swing big off the tee

Castle Stuart wasn't purpose-built by developer Mark Parsinen and designer Gil Hanse for a European Tour event as much as it was intended for the 18-handicapper looking for a new course to include in their Scotland golf trip.

Encouraging big swings off the tee (a couple of short par 4s are the only times when driver isn't the obvious play), fairway bunkers aren't menacing compared to Parsinen's previous masterpiece, Kingsbarns Golf Links, or the devilish pots of the Old Course at St. Andrews. The primary purpose of the bunkers at Castle Stuart is to help with line of sight off the tee. For amateurs, they'll mostly likely only come into play when they stop shots from running into worse trouble.

While it's pretty easy to find the fairway off the tee, Hanse designed as good a course as there is in Scotland for approach shots. Many greens have "infinity" backdrops of the Moray Firth that make depth perception that much more difficult. Each green is extremely complex, with slopes both subtle and severe. Surrounding them are a mix of bunkers and run-off areas that will make golfers choose whether to fly the ball over the slopes or run chips up. Many greens have a variety of pin locations that can be green light specials or red flags, even for tour players.

Fescue greens roll firm and true, but their subtleties can be difficult to decipher, which will be interesting to watch as the pros take them on for the first time in the Scottish Open.

While Castle Stuart can stretch to more than 7,400 yards, the pros will tee it up at 7,047 yards for the Scottish Open.

"We don't want to beat the players up," Sword said when asked why the course won't be stretched to the max. "But if the wind blows, anything can happen."

New hotel, residences and more golf coming to Castle Stuart

Castle Stuart is contractually bound to the Scottish Open for three years, but the long-term vision of the property goes much further. If development goes according to plan, this will become the golf capital of the Highlands, which can serve as a base for golfers to visit nearby Nairn and Royal Dornoch, among other historic links in the region.

In addition to the current course and clubhouse, future plans call for a second 18 holes, luxury hotel, vacation homes and an executive golf course. But coming first is a 51-room dormy house, which will have its own lounge, game area and restaurant.

Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for GolfPass and was the founding editor of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at @btuck34.

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Castle Stuart: New Scottish links on its way to becoming golf capital of the Highlands