- +44 (0) 1862 810219
45 miles N of Inverness (A9)
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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.
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 the 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 will also be 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.
There was a haar and a bit of a hoolie but Royal Dornoch still offered the greatest golfing experience of my life so far.
The mist may have hung over the edge of the Dornoch Firth but we could still see far enough to admire the beachside views.
But this spectacular course has much more about it than wonderful vistas
Importantly, it challenges but, at the same time, gives the golfer a chance and, while there can be perils off the tee (both Mrs W and I lost balls after errant drives into pricky bushes), Royal Dornoch is a stern short-game examination.
The clues came before we began – the practice green is the biggest I have ever seen and accurately replicates what is to come. Time understanding pace versus distance is well spent.
I benefited as early as the second hole when I nailed a 40-footer for an unexpected but very pleasing birdie two.
But anyone who thinks they have cracked the complex borrows is deluding themselves. Every hole has individual subtleties and a drop in concentration is bound to end in a three-putt or more.
The opening holes are a taster for the Dornoch experience. The first is a straightforward par four into the wind which was strong enough for me to revert to driver for the par-three second.
But over the brow comes the breath-taking view of the course laid out in front of us and the beach and sea beyond.
The brilliance of Dornoch is that every hole could steal hearts and lay claim to being the best.
The fifth is a stunner, requiring a decent carry from an elevated tee and careful avoidance of an alluring bunker range down the right. The approach initially seems uncomplicated but sand traps are guarding a very long green.
The par-three six is a gem and where Mrs W and I finally paid heed to the tip from the club professional to use the putter when we would usually turn to short irons.
Both of us narrowly overshot the green having clubbed up because of the wind. The balls had run down the valley of sin but instead of chipping, we putted up the steep slope back towards the flag.
We employed that tactic regularly throughout the round – Mrs W’s longest putt was 74 yards onto the 15th.
I digress. The seventh was arguably the best par four of my life – 464 yards, off yellow tees into the wind. I was in the rough with 205 to go after a duff tee shot and wild second and struck a four-iron to 15 feet and nailed a curling putt.
I highlight these successes because Royal Dornoch feels as if it wants golfers to have them and not wander off thinking they have been beaten up.
However, there were failures, particularly early in the back nine when the wind was suddenly behind us and we had not realised just how much we had to club down.
Consequently, my nine-iron into the par-three tenth was 30 yards past the green. Yep, I putted back on to it.
As said, every hole is a delight but I ought to mention the 17th and 18th which must be among the best final holes in golf.
The 17th is a blind tee shot into a valley before a dog-leg to a green which initially appears raised but is actually in a bowl. Incredible.
Then there is the 18th – a real sting-in-the-tail long par four with the most amazing series of hollows and swales in front of the green. I can testify clearing them with what may seem like a perfect chip, could still see the ball fire over the green.
And then it was over. Four hours of pure magic. In my top100 quests, I hope I visit another course as great as this one but if I don’t, it doesn’t matter. We have played Royal Dornoch and nobody can take that away from us.
We followed our round by staying at the Royal Golf Hotel, just yards from the first tee so we could eulogise about the great course while overlooking it, eating dinner. Fantastic.
This is a special course. We are talking trip of a lifetime special and the design is credited to none other than Old Tom Morris. We were lucky enough to play twilight golf here, on a balmy calm day in late May, with the Gorse in bloom and the sea flat calm. There were only 2 other golfers on the whole course. Golfing paradise.
Much has been written about the history and heritage of the course. It is revered in the US for its association with Donald Ross and Old Tom. Many touring pros and past champions have rated it one of the best there is. So why is that?
Well, firstly, this piece of links land is just remarkable. Rolling fairways, expansive shoreline views and, on the western perimeter of the property, an incredible banked amphitheatre of effervescent gorse envelop the golfer and overwhelm the senses.
Links golf can often feel intimidating and pugnacious from the off but, RD eases you in with a 1st hole that is eminently getable. That’s where the friendliness ends however. The 2nd hole is one of the most incredible par 3’s I have played; a mid iron played to a precipitous green where any miss is a bad one and leaves a severely uphill recovery.
Once you reach the 3rd tee, you get your first jaw dropping view of the majority of the course. The run of holes 3-6 hugs the banking of gorse furthest from the water, and uncommonly for links golf, these holes away from the sea are the best. You can see the subsequent holes laid out in front of you, punctuated by punishing pot bunkers scattered like sweets across a sweet shop floor and encircled by gorse and sea.
The turn for home occurs at the 9th and runs along the water for the majority of the back nine. 17 and 18 come inland and could be considered connecting holes but, I actually really enjoyed the drama of the cliff like drop in the middle of the 17th fairway and the continental sized green on 18 that is cleverly disguised from the fairway.
In summary, this is links golf in its most pure form. A stern but fair test that particularly examines your short game and your ability to miss in the right place. It is the best course I have ever played and one I could happily play every game for the rest of my time. A truly remarkable golf course.
Have been lucky enough to play Dornoch multiple times and every time I play it, it just gets better and better.
True test of links golf and definitely has the best set of par 3’s I’ve ever played. Not long holes by any means but very challenging and a good shot is a must. You would rather be short than left, right or long for the holes as I found out the hard way.
Greens have been amazing everything I’ve played. Staff have always been very friendly and helpful, plans for a new club house which will be special but nothing particularly wrong with the current one. Food is very nice and reasonably priced.
Making your way to experience Royal Dornoch takes dedication. It is so remote. It is worth every effort made though. I have been here twice and have plans to return this summer. My only knock on the course previously was the unfair 7th fairway. Well that has been reworked. My thoughts are that perfection exists now. Conditions are superb, the par 4's are perhaps the best attribute of the course. The club is very welcoming. If you haven't been....a simple Why? Get there soon and you will return.
Had the pleasure of a round at RD just recently. It’s a mesmerising experience, you know at the time you are playing somewhere truly great but it was only on post-round reflection that it dawned on me just how sensational the 18 holes were. It’s so easy to recall each masterful hole mainly due to the sheer variety of the property, every hole seems to be markedly different from all others on the course which is an extremely elusive quality for a golf course to possess. It’s hard to single out any hole as being better or worse than the others, again this feels like such a rare commodity. The land movement is outstanding, the green-sites are fabulous, the course excites you and interests you at every step - there is lots of strategy in play here. It’s a really special place, I would love to return here a few more times - I don’t you could ever get tired of playing this beautiful course. MV
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.
Peter, good review. I played RD a few years ago. We set off from Edinburgh in the morning, playing the Kings course at Gleneagles followed by lunch. We then drove up to Dornoch before hitting off around 5pm. Absolutely loved RD and it certainly lived up to all my expectations. On the way back to our hotel we stopped and got a delicious fish and chips. We eventually go to the hotel just as it was getting dark - around 11pm.
One of the most enjoyable days of my entire life. Will never forget it.
I once played with Tom Watson back at my club in Melbourne. He absolutely raved about RD saying it was one his favourite courses anywhere in the world. He said that every time he is Scotland, for whatever reason, he always heads up to RD for a hit.
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.