Parsinen chases the Open dream

Parsinen chases the Open dream
Sean Dudley

Tom Mackin talks to Castle Stuart developer Mark Parsinen about his hopes for the course, and his desire to host the Open.

Almost a full decade after he unveiled Kingsbarns, the St Andrews layout he co-designed with Kyle Phillips, Mark Parsinen returns this July with another stunning Scottish layout: Castle Stuart Golf Links, just east of Inverness in the Highlands.

The 60-year old American developer, who first played golf in Scotland during the early 1970s while a student in London, has raised the aesthetic bar with a site featuring 130 feet of elevation change spread across three tiered plateaus, panoramic views of local landmarks, and six holes running alongside the inner Moray Firth. The 7,009-yard, par 72 course and art deco style clubhouse open this month, while future plans call for a hotel and series of lodges to open in 2012. The course is named after an eight-bedroom structure, built in 1625, that serves as a backdrop on the par three fourth hole.

How did you choose the Castle Stuart site?
I was looking at sites for another course in Ayrshire, Perthshire, and near Aberdeen. By the time I was came to look at sites in the Highlands, I preferred to be up here for a lot of reasons. I like it here and knew the climate was good. But I couldn’t find the right site in the area, and this one came up by accident. Dr Robert Price, who wrote a book about the geomorphology of Scottish golf courses, pointed me to this area. I followed his directions and went out to where the ninth green is now, found an open piece of ground that looked like a bunker, obviously an animal scrape, and the soils were wonderful. You stand right there and can see the lower topography and what the whole site was about. And that was immediately interesting to me. Not to mention the soils. We were struggling with sandy soil all the time at Kingsbarns. I called and thanked him for tipping me off to the site. But I had gone to the wrong place. He was actually telling me to go near another farmhouse which has since become part of our property.

What was your overall design goal on this project?
Making the play issues ones that would keep golfers engaged and hopeful, as much as possible, throughout their round. And we worked hard to make this particularly true for the average handicapper. This doesn’t mean that there is an absence of the “hitch-up-your-kilt-laddie” shots or holes. But they are accents, not the main fare. And bunkering is definitely not the primary defence of the course. Further, we have tried to avoid hazards that the better player never sees or considers and yet create angst and havoc for the less skilled. Our play areas are wide, but wherever the ball ends up results in an interesting, engaging, and manageable set of issues to deal with and some more compromised than others. Bunkers and long rough are not the principal issues. The beauty of links golf, where the forward release and the run of the ball is always a consideration, is that contours and angles can and do play a significant role, where that is less the case with inland courses where approach shots can be played over contours with dart-like precision.

What hole best symbolises the design ethos you have tried to instil in Castle Stuart and why?
Perhaps the short (144 yards) par three eleventh. We spent four or five months thinking about the eleventh hole as we sought to perfect its features and playing personality. At first there were bunkers fronting and framing the green both left and right that would catch any weak shot; the sea took up the left and long aspect of the green; and there were no bailout or manageable recovery areas except from the bunkers. We thought the hole might be overly difficult for the average player and might very well end a pleasant round unnecessarily. The degree of difficulty was troubling, from the tee shot to recoveries from the greenside bunkers, especially the one on the right with the sea looming directly beyond a very shallow green. We were striving for a course that would be interesting, engaging, and more about errors and redemption than about difficulty for the sake of being difficult followed by errors and punishment. The changes we came to embrace are indicative of what we then committed to for virtually every hole and recovery issue from that point on. Let shots feel more testing to the accomplished player while being manageable from the average players point of view, such as let the sea on the eleventh be an issue for an over-the-top-tug long and left (few average players miss long and left), let a right side bunker guard the back half of the green and let its slope result in testy ball-above-feet issues given the sea looming beyond the shallow depth of the green (few average players miss long and right, but good players do when confronted with back pins); let short and right be very manageable with greenside contours being the issue for recovery from a large and very tightly mowed area of uneven lies where putting, chipping, and playing wedges off tight lies are the options – very manageable for the average player who more often than not will choose to enjoy an interesting putt through some demanding contours; a putt that might not yield a par, but one that certainly won’t destroy a round either.

There will inevitably be comparisons between Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart. Other than location, how will they differ?
The experience and insight that we gained at Kingsbarns laid the foundation for our efforts at Castle Stuart. The differences are many and include a pure sand growing medium (versus a topsoil/sand mix) throughout all of the play areas including roughs; a pure fescue seed mix (versus a fescue/bent/poa pratensis mix); a bunkering concept that emphasises a natural and rugged look rather than the fully revetted bunkers that characterise Kingsbarns. Also, there is rumpled fairway shaping rather than flattish rolling fairways; more short par fours with alternative routes for the shorter player that yield potentially better approach angles to the greens; smaller greens with significant contours, a greater use of natural landscape elements (heather, gorse, broom, and sea marram) to define the personality and look of the course; more holes with the sea actually coming into play yet allowing it to be eminently avoidable, and a closer proximity among the golf shop, practice range, putting green and first tee.

Was the design of Castle Stuart influenced by any other course?
There’s a lot of Portrush out there. I think Portrush has some of the best greens in the world for how gracefully they sit in the landscape. Waterville, for example, is the absolute worst. You look at that and every green is independent of the surrounding terrain. It just sits there like someone built it with complete disregard for anything around it. Portrush is so beautiful. A green there will be like a table, and coming into it will be a hollow that works out, but it might be just a completely independent hollow with shape and interest to it. The green will flow into the hollow and the apron cut will be in the hollow. You can intuit that there’s a hollow there because maybe in the dune that comes down to the green there will be a hollow. It’s a reflection of some greater piece of topography. But it’s a bugger of a little thing because if the pin is over by that hollow, and you get in it, you’re not one-putting. These little kinds of features on the edge of the greens are wonderful things.

You worked with Gil Hanse on Castle Stuart. Why did you choose him and what did he bring to the project?
What I like about Gil and his associate Jim Wagner is that they not only deal in the paper-based design phases, but they believe the best work is adaptive and gets done in the field. They both commit generous amounts of time to be on site, and when they are, they operate equipment as part of the crew (Gil a D6 dozer and Jim a 312 excavator). So instead of telling people what they think should be done during an infrequent visit, Gil and Jim are part of the field process. When opportunities arise to improve the course design from the ever-evolving field perspective, they are part of the impromptu discussion, implementation and iteration. I learned at Kingsbarns that this process is what inevitably leads to the best work that can be done. Whatever one imagines on paper, with concepts characterised in two dimensional plan view, it never translates perfectly to what you see on the ground from the golfer’s point of view – what’s seen from eye level through the playing situation. Plans are abstractions and in my opinion must be treated as such. Truth is in the dirt. I don’t know anyone except Tom Doak (and perhaps this isn’t so true any more of Tom) who is so committed to time in the field as Gil and Jim. I didn’t go home to California for two and a half years during construction and made New York my de facto home in order to spend as much time in the field as possible, while still getting back to the US on occasion.
Being a significant part of both pre-construction design and field construction honed my approach to team process and gave me greater perspective on what elements in links design mattered most and would provide the most pleasure for golfers of all skill levels. So at Castle Stuart, I was both more confident in articulating a coherent vision while also incorporating hugely valuable insights from everyone on the team. Our ‘playbook’ reflected both a vision for which I took responsibility that was also based on the qualities of the individuals involved. For example, the result wouldn’t have been as good as I see it without Gil, and I would say Gil alone wouldn’t have done as well without me. That goes for the others too, but it doesn’t mean we did things by committee. Our process was done better than at Kingsbarns – it was much more of an ongoing dialectic which I believe in.

What is your ultimate goal for Castle Stuart?
I won’t be shy about this. Call it a fantasy; call it a dream, but we want the Open Championship to come here. And when Peter Dawson was here, unlike Donald Trump, I didn’t say we deserve it. I just said “Peter, we’d like to think if this is worthy of an Open, that we’d get your consideration. That all has to do with whether it is or isn’t. Nothing I say means anything. You have to look at it. I just want you to tell me whether or not if we turn out to be a wonderful golf course on multiple dimensions, you’ll give us consideration.” I didn’t say that in the first five minutes of his visit. I asked him later on and he said, “Absolutely.” I’ve said it to others as well – does the Open Championship want to be one that strictly revolves around courses that are as old as they are? Or wouldn’t it be wonderful if a course was worthy of an Open that was new and fresh and that had some practices that were worthy like fescues, sand, all the things that are relevant. If there are design and agronomic aspects to this course, and it’s in a region that never enjoyed an Open before but now has the infrastructure for one, and it’s in a region that’s the only area in Scotland that’s growing, than isn’t it worth consideration?

Given the state of the world economy, are you anxious about opening this July?
My partners and I believe inherently for the long haul that if you do something really good, finances will take care of themselves. That requires that we build it cost effectively compared to how other people would build it, and that we pick a site that has inherent fundamental advantages that other people can’t go find. Those here are the setting – there aren’t many like it. Our course sits equidistant from two other great courses, five minutes from an airport in a microclimate that’s pretty good compared to the overall climate in Scotland. Not to mention that Dornoch draws 11,000-12,000 visitors year in and year out. So that flow is steady. They’re not constrained by the economy; they’re constrained by member play and can only get to those numbers. If they go beyond that, it’s because we might help make some of their oddball times work better in an itinerary. So I think in our case we’ll be hurt less because in the mind’s eye of the US market, the Highlands is co-equal as a golf destination to St Andrews. If you ask people what’s your preferred destination in Scotland for playing golf, the golf region you would like to go to, Dornoch ranks equal with Fife. It’s not reflected in the numbers because the Highlands runs out of capacity early in the game. And if you ask another question, in Scotland for travellers what’s your favourite destination all things considered, the Highlands is far and away number one. Those are the fundamentals: existing traffic, a site that can’t be copied easily, an airport, and a region that’s attractive for multiple reasons.

What do you hope the reaction will be from the natives?
A lot of Scots who have visited Castle Stuart have said that Kingsbarns is their favourite course in Scotland, which is very heartening. And I know they will cut me some slack here because they respect the craftsmanship of it and because it’s a job well done. The Scots are really into a job well done – not your money, not your flash, not your car, but a job well done.

Tom Mackin is a golf journalist based in New Jersey.

This article appeared in issue 17 of Golf Course Architecture, published July 2009.