Courses and Travel

Old and new in the Scottish Highlands

Chad Conine is a sportswriter from Texas who spent the summer in Scotland and the town of St. Andrews. He chronicled his golf adventures before this year's British Open, held at the Old Course July 15-18.DORNOCH, Scotland — This week the sports world will watch today's top golfers tackle a course that dates back to the 16th century as the British Open returns to The Old Course.In general, Scotland excels at making an easy blend of the ancient and the ultra-modern. For example, on Friday my parents made a short trip from Gleneagles to Stirling Castle, an austere structure with history that goes back to the 12th century. Meanwhile, just a 2-iron shot from the grounds of the resort, Eminem, The Black Eyed Peas, Mumford and Sons and others rocked the T In The Park festival. Castlestuart On Sunday, my parents and I headed north from Gleneagles for another such example of old and new. We journeyed to Inverness and stopped to play Castle Stuart Golf Links, a Mark Parsinen-designed course that celebrates its first birthday on Tuesday. After the round of golf, we continued toward the arctic circle to Dornoch, where we checked into a hotel that is inside a converted castle. Then on Monday, we played Royal Dornoch, which can trace its roots to 1616. In six short years, Royal Dornoch will celebrate its 400th birthday.Nonetheless, Castle Stuart and Royal Dornoch have a symbiotic relationship inasmuch as the rising population of new and outstanding golf courses in the more southern parts of Scotland threaten to make golf in northern Scotland a little bit obsolete. But if golfers can make it up to the Highlands, it's worth it to play rounds at Castle Stuart and Nairn — both just outside of Inverness — and about an hour's drive farther north at Royal Dornoch. My caddie even told me that the owning partners of Castle Stuart have invested in the Royal Golf Hotel in Dornoch, which sits just beside the first tee of the golf course, in order to amp up the quality of accommodations in the region.So is it worth it to trek north? I have to admit, I've had one eye back on my new home of St. Andrews the past few days as the biggest names in golf arrive and begin playing practice rounds. But, while we drove up the A9 on Sunday, it was easy to forget about that for the moment as we snaked between mountains and passed majestic valleys and waterfall-striped hills. And even though we played in near-50-mph wind on Sunday, I could see why I'd heard so many good things about Castle Stuart in the past few months.Parsinen seems to have used the same philosophy in building Castle Stuart as he so successfully employed as the designer of Kingsbarns — a) both courses make the most of beautiful coastline while b) remaining fair to average golfers. The 341-yard par-4 10th hole at Castle Stuart is a good example of both. The tee is elevated about 50 feet over a fairway that curls slightly left to right along the hillside with the sea just off the left side of a narrow fairway. The 11th and 12th continue eastward along the sea, making this stretch of holes the highlight of a spectacularly scenic course. The final fantastic view comes down the 18th fairway, headed toward the sea with the 10th hole directly below off the right side of the 18th fairway.Castle Stuart is brand new, but the word-of-mouth campaign is starting to take hold in Scotland. In a short time, it will be one of the must-play courses in golf's home country, especially since the customer service there is excellent.Royal Dornoch already has that must-play designation and has had it for a long time. It's a classic links course that just happens to be way farther north than most of its links-golf siblings and it doesn't need further accolades here. At the end of the day, there's not much difference between ancient and new greatness.(Photo: The par-4 10th at Castle Stuart begins a brilliant stretch of sea-side links holes.)

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