Mark Parsinen, Managing Partner of Castle Stuart Golf Links, took up golf at an early age through his family and it was a case of love at first sight for links golf when he visited St Andrews. Since then he has created Granite Bay Golf Club in Sacramento, USA, worked with designer Kyle Philips to create the world-acclaimed Kingsbarns Golf Links and, with designer Gil Hanse, here at the magnificent links of Castle Stuart. Yet the links-driven entrepreneur has more hidden masterpieces in his sights.
Q: What first attracted you to the game of golf?
A: My father and older brothers were occasional golfers. When I was given a used set of golf clubs, I walked through that door and never looked back. I become a caddie, a manual labourer on a greenkeeping crew, a shop assistant, a starter and a player, competing on my school golf teams and playing a few tournaments along the way.
Q: When did you first play in Scotland and what was your first impression?
A: I became a student at the London School of Economics in 1969 and 1970. I travelled to Scotland with friends, who also played golf, to play the Old Course at St Andrews. I fell in love with the course, mainly because the width of the fairways made allowance for my inevitable mistakes off the tee and afforded me the opportunity to recover, which I immediately appreciated. As a young golfer, I was not the straightest off the tee but learned to compete through my recovery play and my short game, which I came to rely on.
Q: What is it about links golf that you find most satisfying?
A: I love the opportunities that links golf offer around the greens – the options to choose different ways to get the ball close to the hole, putting, chipping and flip wedges with or without spin. I love the variety of options on the links versus a situation where only one solution is open to you – if you make it, you prosper, and if you don’t, you fail. Golf today is too often a test that requires a specific shot which many of us can’t deliver. Golf is recreation from my point of view. After a long working week, I don’t see why a game that has become all about difficulty and relatively severe challenges, that are of no consequence to low handicappers, should result in frequent failure and humiliation. It’s far from an attractive proposition on how best to spend our precious free time. I have never agreed with the notion that if a golf course isn’t difficult, it can’t be good. Links golf is inherently a ground game rather than an aerial game and a relative ‘duff’ on links turf can often turn out okay.
Q: Having graduated from Stanford School of Business and gone on to head a wide variety of successful companies, at what point did you consider the golf business as a sound financial investment?
A: When my start-up computer company venture led to a public company and the liquidity of my shareholding, I decided to change my life without knowing exactly what would come next. I wanted to move my family out of Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay area and we settled in Sacramento, California, after 15 years of working in the consulting, corporate and high-tech worlds. It was a period when I gave up golf to focus on my career. I realised that I wanted to put golf back in my life. I wanted to join a private club, but after approaching the clubs in Sacramento, I discovered that they all had waiting lists to join of around five-years. One thing led to another and I ended up building my own club, Granite Bay Golf Club. Having grown up in a family that remodelled homes, built additions, and created our own landscape designs, as my father’s apprentice, the task of designing and creating a golf course, clubhouse and related amenities felt natural. My love of golf made it easy for me to take up this new career. It simply felt right. For me, golf wasn’t about perfection. It was all about the satisfaction of recovering from inevitable mistakes and the pleasure I experienced in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. My family and I have never looked back. We have a family saying: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Just step through the door and find your way.
Q: What did you learn from the Granite Bay Golf Club development and what was it like to work with Kyle Phillips?
A: Both Kyle and Robert Trent Jones Jr. (Bobby), for whom Kyle worked, were mentors and became friends in the process of my initiation into the golf development business and I will be forever grateful to them.
Q: How did you get involved with the Kingsbarns project and what was the attraction?
A: Once Granite Bay was completed and up and running successfully, I wanted to do another golf project. After looking at a number of possibilities in the United States, Kyle told me about a project in St Andrews (Kingsbarns) that needed someone to make it happen. On a family trip to visit our friend and my former colleague at the Boston Consulting Group, Ron Sandler and his family, Ron and I visited the Kingsbarns property. After 20 minutes on site, I knew I wanted to do it. The topography of a high plateau and a lower level at the bottom of an old sea cliff adjacent to a crashing sea against a rocky foreshore, the links-perfect sandy soils, the history of a once important nine-hole course dating back to 1893, and the proximity to St Andrews had me hooked. I brought my wife and daughters to the site and we decided to do it. Our middle daughter, Jenny, was born in Wimbledon when I was working in London in the mid-1970s. Our familiarity and friends in the UK made it an easy decision. Jenny and her husband, Danny, are joining us at Castle Stuart during this week’s Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open. All our daughters and their husbands are frequent visitors. Our oldest daughter, Cammy, and her husband, Paul and their two boys, joined us in Scotland for the years Castle Stuart was under construction. Paul is a Castle Stuart Partner and was a Construction Manager for Castle Stuart. Cammy was also a young student at The Study, the school she attended when we lived in Wimbledon. Our youngest daughter Samantha lived in Inverness and worked as a waitress in the Castle Stuart clubhouse during our early years after opening.
Q: Golfers will always make comparisons between Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart, but how do they differ?
A: They are siblings that have their similarities and their differences. Kingsbarns enjoys a dramatic vista to the sea while Castle Stuart has a panoramic view of the sea and the coastal landmarks beyond the Moray Firth. Kingsbarns has very large greens with well-defined sections with separated plateaux that facilitate recovery putts from other sections. Castle Stuart has much smaller greens with adjacent tightly-mowed surrounding areas. An errant shot might land on a green at Kingsbarns yet require a recovery putt, but a similarly errant shot at Castle Stuart might not be on the green with the recovery requiring a decision to putt, chip or flip a high wedge. For both courses the errant shot calls for a recovery. The recovery issues are related but they’re different. I love it when people argue over which course they like best.
Q: Why did you select Inverness as the site for Castle Stuart instead of the more popular and traditional Fife coast?
A: I had become a member of Royal Dornoch during the Kingsbarns construction and developed an affinity with the Highlands and Inverness. The city is large enough to support a number of amenities (restaurants, theatres, pubs, DYI centres, major retailers, etc) that my wife Dede and I really enjoy. Yet it’s small enough to be a friendly, intimate, comfortable place to work and relax. We also felt that the Highlands were about to take off as a leisure place to visit, a location for UK companies to expand, and a climate for golfers to enjoy so many great courses where the rainfall is among the lowest in the British Isles. We want to be there and be part of what we believe will be an increasingly sought-after place to live and visit.
Q: Having worked so closely with Kyle Phillips, why did you opt for Gil Hanse to design Castle Stuart?
A: I didn’t want to repeat myself and believed Gil was the best choice to evolve what we had achieved with Kingsbarns.
The visual personality of the Castle Stuart property and its two-tier topography present a panoramic view full of defining landmarks: the Kessock Bridge (as a Californian, I like to say it is to Inverness what the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco); Fort George (home of the Black Watch regiment); and Chanonry Point Lighthouse, allows us to use infinity-edged greens to put the defining landmarks directly into the golfer’s shot-making frame of view. If a golfer takes his line of sight on a defining landmark, they see it and remember it. Golfers who travel far afield pay a lot of money to experience something memorable. The infinity-edged greens contribute to a visual experience that emphasises a “sense of place” that will live long in the memory after a pleasurable round of golf. I don’t have a favourite hole at Castle Stuart because they are inter-related to building interest and creating a sense of place.
Q: What are the next stages in the development for Castle Stuart?
A: Important to us is the creation of a second links course, a sibling to the first course but with its own unique characteristics. It will have infinity-edged greens with the castle (built in 1625) as the focal point. More importantly, perhaps, it will have five or six holes that involve the Lonnie Burn as an element of visual beauty as well as a playing feature. Of equal importance to us will be our smaller 66-bedroom hotel we call the Dormy House. Adjacent to the Dormy will be a Par 3 course not unlike the Par 3 course in front of the Trump Turnberry Hotel. We are also committed to a complete renovation of the Castle Stuart that will have a top-floor King’s Suite, four en-suite bedrooms in each of the two towers, a lounge, snooker room and large dining hall. n