Royal Dornoch Golf Club is spellbinding. It seems to mesmerise amateur and professional golfers from all over the world and many make the pilgrimage to this natural links at some point in their lives. Let’s be honest, for most people, it takes a concerted effort to get to Dornoch. For those who live in Glasgow, the drive by car will take about four hours.
In 1630, according to the Guinness Book of Golf Facts and Feats, Sir Robert Gordon described the course in glowing terms. Dornoch… “doe surpass the fields of Montrose or St Andrews”, he wrote. There are also written records showing that golf was played at Dornoch in 1616, long before its first nine-hole golf club was founded in 1877. This makes Dornoch the world’s third oldest golf course (behind St Andrews and Leith). In 1886, Old Tom Morris “updated” the original nine holes and came back three years later to extend the course to 18 holes. John H Taylor later made changes to Old Tom’s layout with guidance from the club’s secretary, John Sutherland. After the Second World War, George Duncan added six new holes (6 to 11), when former holes 13-18 were incorporated into the new Struie course.
It’s the timeless setting that makes Royal Dornoch such a pleasing place to play golf. It’s wild, isolated and, at the same time, absolutely beautiful; there’s the blaze of colour in early summer when the gorse is in flower. The pure white sandy beach divides the links from the Dornoch Firth and it all feels very humbling.
Ostensibly the course itself is pretty straightforward: it’s an out-and-back layout. Many of the greens, though, are built on natural raised plateaux making approach play especially challenging. It’s the raised domed greens that became the trademark of Dornoch’s most famous son, Donald Ross. Born in 1872, Ross became the club’s head green-keeper and professional. He later emigrated to the States and became one of the greatest golf course architects of all time. Many of his designs, most notably Pinehurst No.2, bear the hallmark of Royal Dornoch’s greens.
There are plenty of great holes to choose from at Royal Dornoch. The 4th is in the middle of a stretch of three excellent par fours. The line from the tee is the statue of the Duke of Sutherland. “Whinny Brae” is the par three 6th that signals the change from the low-lying holes to the more elevated ones. It requires an accurate tee shot across a swathe of gorse that wraps its way around the plateau green. The 14th, called “Foxy”, is a long par four, measuring almost 445 yards, and it is one of the most simple and natural holes in golf featuring a classical Donald Ross domed green.
The town of Dornoch is steeped in history; there has been a human settlement in the area for over 4,000 years. The witch’s stone stands in a local garden, commemorating Scotland’s last “witch” burning. The stone says 1722, but Janet Horne, the alleged witch, was tried and condemned to death in 1727.
Most people know about Dornoch and many have this course on their must-play list. All we can say is that you shouldn’t leave it too late (as did Bernard Darwin), this course must be played sooner rather than later. "And then, alas!—worst of all the deficiencies in my education—there is Dornoch. I never seem yet to have enough time or enough money to get so far north."
In 2017, Tom Mackenzie of Mackenzie & Ebert oversaw a number of improvements made in-house to holes 5, 10, 11 and 12. Shortly after these were implemented, work began on creating a new 7th hole, routing it closer to the edge of the escarpment, with the old gorse bushes removed to open up views of the coastline for the entire length of the hole.
The new hole opened for play in 2020 and the green is now shaped exactly to the dimensions of the old one. New tees were also built on the site of the former 7th green, allowing golfers to tee from the top of the hill as part of the original design intent of Old Tom Morris.
As part of a golfing tour to play Royal Dornoch we also played Castle Stuart, Brora, Golspie, Tain and Dornoch's Struie course.
What a golf course - Royal Dornoch's championship course will take some beating to be the best golf course I have ever played (having played many more than i have reviewed). As you approach the first tee having taken the obligatory photo the nerves start to build, a combination of factors being:
- Top 10 on the planet please give it a fair outing' apprehension,
- The trip centers around this course,
- Everyone in the restaurant is watching the first tee, and
- We are facing in to a 2/3 club wind.
I'm pleased to say that my hooky drive was decent enough to give me a second shot towards the green and thus letting the fun begin.
There are enough hole by hole reviews of the course on this site and elsewhere that most visitors will have read to death before their RD pilgrimage - all I would say is to enjoy it and take in the surroundings and clever golf course architecture. Perhaps on subsequent visits focus on building a score. The course saw every club in the bag used with Driver not always the right call off the tee.
The course largely routes along the coastline without ever feeling like you are at beach level. Many of the tees are cleverly built in to the side of the hill providing spectacular views of the area and of the hole ahead. The course is generous enough not to punish stray tee shots with lost balls albeit the punishment comes in the form of much tougher approaches to the greens. Favourite hole, par 3 sixth hole. Not a single weak hole or 'filler'.
Hospitality over lunch was excellent albeit a lack of breakfast rolls and coffee pre 10am comes as a surprise given that many come from far and wide to play here.
I would plan a golf trip around playing Royal Dornoch many times over, it really is that good.
Score 87 (+16 SS, 12 Handicap)
An excellent golf course, but for me it is not the 3rd best in the country. Top 10 for sure but for me there are a few too many meh holes. I am interested to see the new 7th hole though as I always thought that was the worst hole on the course.
I also think the 6th is the best par 3 in the world. It’s the perfect length and a hole where you can make anything from a 2 to a 6. What every par 3 should aim to do in my opinion
Royal Dornoch has never hosted an Open championship, and probably never will, due to the remoteness of its location on the Moray Firth, and the lack of infrastructure in the small town itself. Nevertheless many a good judge rates Dornoch the best of all the links courses. Tom Watson, and Ben Crenshaw are two such gentlemen who really know their golf and yet go out of their way to sing the praises of Dornoch.
And let us not forget Donald Ross, the most prolific golf course architect in history- he was involved in building over 400 courses including masterpieces such as Seminole and Pinehurst no 2. Ross began his career as green keeper at Dornoch before heading to the USA and ultimately creating all those courses. Ross constantly drew on Dornoch as the model he would follow in coming up with his designs.
These days every aspiring golf architect, or golf affecianado wants to make the pilgrimage to play his inspiration. Indeed most world course ratings these days include Royal Dornoch in the world top 20, and some higher.
So how good is it?
The answer is very good, but top 20 in the world is pretty heady stuff!
I last played Dornoch 17 years ago, and although I liked it, I didn't rate it quite as highly as many do. So I was keen to return, and reassess.
Playing the second time, I recalled most of the holes, and was struck by the sheer joy of playing on a classic links course, with wonderful turf on fairways and greens, many of the greens being raised and relatively uncomplicated. But firm raised greens surrounded by strategically placed pot bunkers demand accurate, well thought out approaches.
You will soon find that hitting a crisp high iron to these greens often results in heartache.
With the inevitable 2 or 3 club zephyr coming in off the firth, Dornoch sets a test many will fail. I know I did. As an experienced links golfer, I expected to do better, but simply did not make the correct club and shot selections required to post a score. I hit the ball well and got beaten up by Dornoch in a light wind... So I want to go back and try again, and reassess the merits of this intriguing course.
I think there are some very fine holes.
The first is a simple short opener, but has appeal nonetheless. The par 3 second is a cracker hole with narrow sloping green, and matching bunkers threatening at the front. In fact all of the one shotters were good holes.
Hole fourteen, known as 'foxy' is the signature hole, and is a difficult long 4 with no bunkers, but protected by natural mounds and a raised green which is very hard to hit.
I particularly liked the par 4 seventeenth as well with its interesting green lying well below and over the hill from the teeing ground. On the downside however I thought 16 and 18 a tad bland..
So now that I have played Dornoch twice I know it is a very good course. Top twenty in the world? Personally I don't think so, but the course has me intrigued more than just about any other I can name... I need to play it a number of times, hoping that I make better choices when I do. Hopefully sooner rather than later!
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
Out of the way but well worth the drive to get there. Stunning views. difficult but fair links. My favorite course of the trip.
I have played all over the US, Scotland and Ireland. Dornoch is my favorite course, and second (probably Shinnecock or North Berwick) isn't even close.
Because it is so far north, Dornoch doesn't get the traffic that St. Andrews and some of the other courses in more populated areas do. And that remoteness only adds to the atmosphere at the club.
I played there on a Friday afternoon in August 2018. Teed off at probably 4:00. And I was pretty much the only person on the course. Never waited on a single shot.
Dornoch opens with a fairly straightforward first hole. I remember thinking "for an Open course, this isn't so tough."
And then I got to the 2nd and everything changed. The second green is a good indication of the challenges to come. Elevated, rolling greens. Steep, steep falloffs on all sides. Dangerous, intimidating pot bunkers. It really is incredible.
Dornoch had the best greens of any course I played in Scotland (about 10 courses, including North Berwick, Gullane and Cruden Bay).
My favorite hole at Dornoch (and one of my favorites in all of golf), is the 444-yard 14th ("Foxy"). After navigating bunkers all afternoon, you get to 14 and can't see any sand on the entire hole. Even though I'd seen Foxy on tv, I stood on the tee and had no idea where to aim. A big mound takes up the right side of the fairway. Hit your drive too far down the right and you'll slam into it. A shot out to the left gives a clear view to the massive, elevated green.
From the tee shot to the approach to putting, every shot is tested on this hole, even though at no point are you all that worried about losing a ball. It is challenging without being penal, which is the highest accomplishment, in my opinion.
Everything about Dornoch is just about perfect. I wouldn't plan another trip to Scotland without including it on my itinerary.
Many people do not include this as a must-play. They are missing out on what I believe is the best overall course in Scotland and I don't know of a better course in the world. The holes are all well laid out, fair, challenging, attractive and interesting. Combine this with a spectacular coastal setting and you have Royal Dornoch. This is where Donald Ross grew up and you can see where his affection for elevated greens comes from. Most of the greens at RD are elevated on three sides, but a well-struck ball can be run onto many of them. Tom Watson called the par 3s some of the best in golf, unless you miss to the sides, then they are difficult par 5s. The drive to Dornoch is wonderful, but the course itself is epic!
If the new seventh hole is what it appears, Dornoch just got better. The new seventh is said to be very similar to the old, but moved toward the sea, giving stunning views to go with a great hole. The best keeps getting better. I can't wait to get there, fingers crossed for August.
The journey to Royal Dornoch started a year previous when a good friend of mine suggested we play it as part of a tour of courses near Inverness. As someone who has played the game for over 30 years I pride myself in knowing most of the great courses by name but my initial response was ' Dornoch ? Not familiar tell me more ?' That reaction I've since realised isn't that uncommon, even for the odd assistant pro, as mention it and its often all a bit vague.
However my friend Nige, being a 5 handicapper, knows his onions when it comes to golf courses and is very understated as a person so when he described it as one of the best it caught my curiosity and I quickly paid the money.
A year later, and after realising its actually in the top 10 in the WORLD (yep amazed again I hadn't heard of it ) we set off on a glorious sunny day ( tee-shirt weather in March ! ) to drive the 1 hour north of Inverness to play it. On arriving, everything looked pretty standard for a good course, nice club house and putting green with a nice welcome. Then I was made aware of the great Tom Watson's quote stating its his favourite links and the anticipation rose another notch. Then we made our way to the first tee and yep it was the first wow of many 'wow' ' moments that day. Elevated tees affording you sublime views on the front 9 punctuated virtually every hole and each one representing their own unique challenge. Then you as you make the turn you find yourself playing several holes alongside the ocean (hook it and you're in it so to speak ) with a gorgeous run in to he clubhouse. As the sun began to set over a beer at the clubhouse we recalled how we really were in golfing heaven that day.
In my opinion, there are four courses worth discussing as the best golf course in Scotland: The Old Course at St. Andrews, Muirfield, Trump Turnberry, and Royal Dornoch Championship. There are a few others close behind such as Kingsbarns and Carnoustie.
Royal Dornoch has everything. It has a great routing taking advantage of all the natural land features to the fall-offs from ridges, to playing along the sea, to going up ridges, and playing alongside hills.
I have played it while shooting a high score due to bad weather and I have played it in perfect, nearly windless conditions when I chipped in to save par behind the 18th green to record the first day in my life when I broke 80 on two different courses on the same day (79 at Brora and 78 at Royal Dornoch). It does not really matter my score at Royal Dornoch, such is the joy in playing it and learning new things about it every time I go.
The members are truly spoiled here because in the summer you can likely tee off just before 9 and if the course is nearly empty, you can likely still get around it. More importantly, the golf course is so expertly conceived in the routing and green complexes that one will be challenged both strategically and mentally in a different way nearly every time you play it.
The first hole eases one into the round and the second instantly gets your attention with the raised, very well defended green on the par 3.
From the third hole, you are challenged as to the line of your tee shot on nearly every hole, even if the course feels more like a "second shot" course due to the raised greens.
There is not a hole I would want to have done differently even if 17 does mimic 8 a bit....although the green complexes are very different.
I loved the sixth hole so much that if no one is behind me, I walk back to the tee and play it a second time. One simply must hit the green and if the pin is in the center and you have missed either left or right, you might find yourself going back and forth a few times. Sometimes even a sand wedge won't hold this green as well as a few others. One simply must always consider how to approach each green based on the pin position.
The only criticism the course might deserve is that the par fives are too short. However, the layout of these holes are very different and one must think about where to hit your second shot (unless you are a long hitter) in order to best attack the pin position.
The par 3's are world class. They are in the discussion of which golf course has the best par 3's in the world (about 25 courses can be considered).
I have yet to experience a truly slow round here which I know other people have experienced and it put them off a bit. I have had rounds take as little as 3 hours and some as long as 4:30. As a "fast" player I usually get upset while waiting, but at Royal Dornoch I find myself looking around to look at the locations of the bunkers, the placement of the bunkers, or at the greens themselves. As a novice wannabe golf architect, I look for things I would do differently on this golf course, particularly due to modern technology, and I find myself not wanting to change any of it.
It is a must play.
I wanted to play all the links courses within the top 100 GB&I list before ranking Dornoch (Dornoch was the 2nd course I played after the Old course). The website has Dornoch at 3 on the list and this would seem to synchronise with the vast majority of reviewers that have posted including one reviewer who has given Dornoch 6 balls on 4 occasions ! For what it's worth, my top 10 links courses in GB&I are the Old course, Royal County Down, Portrush, Trump Scotland, Portmarnock, Dornoch, Birkdale, Royal St George's, Doonbeg, Enniscrone. In summary Dornoch is undoubtedly special and if you are venturing that far north also play Brora, Castle Stuart and The Renaissance.
Aaaargh - I meant Skibo Castle !
Congrats on Compleating the golfing Munroe !
try Royal Porthcawl in Wales, Cruden Bay in Scotland and especially Budersand Sylt in Germany
Thanks Michael - I've played Portcawl and Cruden Bay (both excellent). Need to get to Germany !
Playing Dornoch is one of my desires for a long time. And finally I did it this July with my son. This is the first trip to Scotland. We started driving from Edinbrough, played Balcomie Links and Murcar Links and arrived at the destination. It was cloudy and a little rain that day. We played with husband and wife from North Calorina. I heared that front 6 holes were tough and that was true. No2 and No6 were very difficult short holes with elevated green and deep bunkers. Every hole was excellent and memorable. Especially, I love No3, No5, No10,No14(Foxy), N017. When we were at the second shot in No17 fair way, a man behind us hit the dirver into us. Husuband from North Calorina picked up the ball and tee it up to let him know, saying "speaking without speaking". A man was very upset to find his ball on the tee. We laughed much. Scotland is far way from Japan, but I wouid like go back to Dornoch some day.