Martin Dempster: Castle Stuart is a magnificent legacy of Mark Parsinen

Lots of people have had the pleasure of enjoying the two fabulous golf courses in Scotland that were co-designed by Mark Parsinen, but I doubt many have been launched head first from a fair height into his living room then let a glass of wine spill in his favourite armchair in that same abode.
Mark Parsinen, pictured at the spectacular Castle Stuart Golf Links, which he co-designed.Mark Parsinen, pictured at the spectacular Castle Stuart Golf Links, which he co-designed.
Mark Parsinen, pictured at the spectacular Castle Stuart Golf Links, which he co-designed.

Guilty as charged, I’m afraid, and that eventful evening will always make me chuckle when I think about Parsinen at the same time as feeling extremely fortunate to spend some time in his company at his beloved Castle Stuart, which he crafted in tandem with his fellow American, Gil Hanse.

Our first meeting took place before the course officially opened, having been invited along for a sneak preview, which included a game, with some friends, and I will never forget the sheer passion Parsinen had for the project at the venue close to Inverness.

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He had already made his mark on the Scottish golfing landscape by co-designing Kingsbarns in Fife with another American, Kyle Phillips, and had toured the coastline all the way up to Aberdeen and then around the Moray Firth coast in a helicopter looking for the spot for his next masterpiece.

As he sat in one of the buildings that have since been transformed into luxury on-site accommodation, you could hear the excitement in Parsinen’s voice as he recalled how his visionary instincts kicked in when he first clapped eyes on that piece of land that became the home of Castle Stuart Golf Links.

The lower area close to the water was completely covered in buckthorn before being stripped away to create six stunning holes – three going due west at the start of the front nine and three heading straight east to begin the back nine.

Making the most of the stunning views across the Moray Firth and up to Inverness, the holes on the higher level are testament as well to the combined design genius of Hanse and Parsinen who, sadly, passed away at the age of 70 last week after suffering a stroke at home in California.

His legacy is something that will be enjoyed by visitors from all over the world year after year because, unlike some modern-day golf course designers, Parsinen was switched on to the fact that new layouts need to be playable for amateurs for them to really make the desired impact.

Yes, of course, it meant a lot to him when Castle Stuart welcomed the Scottish Open three years in a row from 2011 then staged it again in 2016, but, more than anything, he loved the fact it was a course where even high handicappers stood on tees and didn’t necessarily feel intimidated.

Speaking openly about the test he had helped create in an interview with The Scotsman before the first of those Scottish Opens, he told me: “Most people feel an event of this nature requires a very difficult golf course, but our view is very different. Our view is that if golfers are getting the chance to make birdies they will enjoy the test while they compete to find the best player of the week.

“Some people might think our course is too generous, but I think it is a course that allows players to attack. In my opinion, what we want is for players to be given the chance to make birdies on the final day and put down a score that stops the leaders from playing defensive golf and making them attack.”

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For the record, Luke Donald won that year with a 19-under total in an event played over 54 holes due to bad weather, while Jeev Milkha Singh and Phil Mickelson both posted 17-under winning totals in 2012 and 2013 respectively and Alex Noren won with 14 under in 2016. They were all exciting to watch and, of course, also involved players who went on to become Open champions a week later, namely Darren Clarke, Ernie Els, Mickelson and Henrik Stenson.

Sadly, I never got round to telling Parsinen about my eventful night in his cottage, which nestles in the dunes between the 14th and 15th holes, but I am sure he wouldn’t mind me sharing it. Drink had been taken at the end of a blistering hot day out on the links at the Scottish Open media day in 2016 when two colleagues and I, who were staying in the cottage, couldn’t master a digital door lock.

As the youngest of the trio, I was eventually hurled head first from a great height through an open window, waking up the next morning with a sore shoulder and a horrible memory. On checking, I had indeed let a glass of wine spill on an armchair as I nodded off in the wee small hours and was absolutely mortified but, on closer inspection, detected that I hadn’t been the first person to commit that sin on the main man’s favourite resting place during his cherished visits to Castle Stuart.