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Castle Stuart making all the right moves in Scotland

INVERNESS, Scotland -- The revetted bunkers, the snapping flagsticks and the brownish fescue turf is upon us a week earlier than usual this year. For the first time since Carnoustie in 1996, the European Tour's Barclays Scottish Open is back on a links golf course: Castle Stuart Golf Links in the Scottish Highlands.

It's hard to spot many losers in the new arrangement. Since 1997, the Scottish Open was held at Loch Lomond Golf Club. It's said to be one of the world's great parkland courses, but it was also an exclusive club with a tee sheet more difficult to get on than Muirfield. Now, more top golfers are sure to compete in the event as practice leading up to the British Open. Also, the tourist board of Scotland can now show off a new, public-access golf course in the Highlands.

Open just a couple years, Castle Stuart is well on its way to earning a place in the discussion of the finest golf courses in Scotland. While it’s easy to compare the facility to Kingbarns Golf Links in St. Andrews (another project by developer Mark Parsinen), the two courses play much differently. Both have different designers (Gil Hanse designed Castle Stuart, while Kyle Phillips designed Kingsbarns), and Castle Stuart is probably a little friendlier to the mid-handicapper.

And while Kingsbarns is a finished product that is enjoying its best years after 10 years of maturity, Castle Stuart has a long way to go to achieve its long-term vision as the top place for golfers to stay and play in the Highlands. Plenty of focus will be on the club's imaginative art deco clubhouse. But one day, there will be a second 18-hole golf course, vacation homes, dormy house and luxury hotel.

So far, golfers I've met who have played it -- whether they are Highlands residents, tour operators or tourists -- have offered nothing less than generous praise.

Among all else, Castle Stuart shows that Scotland is perfectly open to new golf course development as long as the builders show a little tact. The Castle Stuart team did things the right way from Day One, while Donald Trump's resort, about two hours by car to the east of Inverness, still isn't open yet. Parsinen, an American himself, never said anything about ugly windmills or tried to buy out farmers from their homes against their will. Parsinen and his team went about their business with a low-key approach, and it showed.

In three years, when Castle Stuart's contract with the Scottish Open expires, Trump will probably go after the event. We'll see if The Donald has earned enough equity with the Scots to host their national open by then.