- +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. 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."
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!
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.
Dornoch is a great track with lots of character and some truly exceptional holes. However I am not sure I quite understand how it is rated as highly as it is. There are in my mind too many not quite world class holes. I'd love somebody to correct my ignorance. I am after all a mid handicap so maybe I could not appreciate some of the subtleties but for me... 7,9,11,12,13,15,16, 18 were not special and as other reviewers have said 17 is too similar to 8. If I compare for instance with a much lower rated course, Saunton (East), I think Saunton has more memorable holes than Dornoch although the stretch from 2 through 6 and Foxy are amazing, and it is a highly enjoyable round... As I say I would welcome being put in my place by those better qualified to judge!
I wouldn't imagine myself in a position to judge architecture, but i do know that I'd enjoy 3.5 hours just walking around Dornoch more than any course other than Ailsa. Saunton should be happy just to be mentioned in the same review.
It really isn't that much of a journey to make it up to Dornoch, though after flying 7-10 hours and driving another 4, one may think he/she has been on a Lord of the Rings quest when finally arriving at the course. The travel is more than worth it, and if planning to visit Scotland again, the difficulty of getting this far north probably doesn't register at all when you remember the first time you played the course. The wind was blowing fairly hard for our 36 holes, probably starting off at 20 in the morning and increasing to 30 or so by the evening, according to the starter, with gusts up to 35 or so. Great mix of short, scorable holes (if played well) and tough, demanding holes where a bogey really is a fine score, along with holes that land somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. The 3rd hole starts from an elevated tee, curving a bit left before straightening to the green. Three pot bunkers await a drive that doesn't hold that curve enough, and the green is partially obscured by mounding some 40 yards or so in front. Bunkers on the left and right allow the ground game, if desired, but only from the fairway. All the way down the town side of the fairways is gorse, which I imagine is quite brilliant when in full bloom, though we were late by about two weeks. The 5th is a short par 4, indicative of the general theme at Dornoch - you've got some room, but if you don't find the fairway, you will struggle mightily. Too close to the green and you have a delicate shot, so you have to play your yardages here. Many greens are like the 5th, with severe drop-offs that punish mis-hits or overly ambitious irons, and enough bunkers to make one think twice about the next shot. These are real, Scottish bunkers that you do not want to visit. It will be interesting to see how the 7th plays as they move it directly next to the coast, though I doubt there'll be much difference. The 8th is one of those quirky holes that really isn't all that wild - you simply have to hit it 170 or so to get it over the edge where it falls down to the fairway. The course turns at this point to head back in along the coast, into the prevailing wind - and it does prevail! The 2 par 3s on the back are short/mid length, but terrifying, calling for a low punch towards tiny greens that are protected EVERYWHERE by bunkers. A bit of courage from the nice little halfway hut after the 9th is needed (probably more than a bit). I hit my best shot of the 2-week trip on 11, a low, punch 215 yd 3-wood directly into a 30 mph wind that found the surface and stopped 15 ft or so from the hole, though I missed the putt. That's the type of golf you travel to Scotland to play.
And then there's the 14th - a long par 4 whose fairway curves right to left, with a green that has that signature fall-off all the way around the left/back. If you're too far right, your best bet is to play to the right of the green, though you'd have to hit over deep rough and mounds to get there, and hope you don't go too far towards gorse. It's a tough, tough hole into the wind, and playing for a 5 probably gives the best chance at a 4. 15 is a short par 4, though directly into the prevailing wind, as is 16, a mid length par 4 that is a march uphill. 17 is essentially the same as 8, though a welcome respite from the wind as you head down to the fairway, and 18 is a solid par 4 that winds back up at the clubhouse. It is a fabulous course that has just enough weirdness to make it fun and unforgettable, and if the wind is blowing, forces you to at least think about how to hit low shots that hug the ground. It doesn't have the scenery of Turnberry, the lore of TOC or the stateliness of Muirfield, but it doesn't need that. It's a fun round of golf, regardless of your score. Can't recommend it enough.
It was enjoyable to play this course at the height of summer when the conditions were sublime and the championship course was at its best, but it was packed with tourists on every hole all day.
I love the challenge of the par 3 2nd hole and, if I’m being honest, I was thinking about that tee shot for hours before my round started. The green is raised and the fall offs are brutal on every side.
I thoroughly enjoyed the stretch of holes 3 to 6 as you migrate away from the clubhouse and navigate through wonderful angles, but again, the par 3 holes are by far the best, including the 6th hole which is such a small target surrounded by deadly bunkers. Conditioning is supreme despite the amazing volume of play.
The days of the original 7th hole are limited as the club is currently growing in a new 7th hole parallel to the existing one, but running along the ridge closer to the sea. We’ll see how successful it will be when it opens.
There are so many stunning holes on the front side, but the 8th is a truly spectacular with the blind tee shot and a steep drop down to the angled fairway. The 9th is a par 5 that turns back along the coastline, and downwind will yield plenty of birdies. The 10th continues the string of truly gorgeous par 3 which, once again, is a different length so you’ll hit every club in the bag before long. As you move back along the coast towards the clubhouse and hug the coastline, the topography is flat but more dunes appear to introduce challenge and some awesome back tees.
You’ll eventually climb up the hill on the 16th which is a highlight on the inward routing before you turn around and play the 17th which is remarkably similar to the 8th hole with a blind tee shot a drop down the fairway. It’s either a big coincidence or very well-planned course that found a routing where the 8th hole on each nine plays so similarly and high above the rest.
In my humble opinion, the 1st and 18th holes play on relatively benevolent terrain and aren’t the most exciting, but it’s all part of the adventure.
I don’t agree with this course being in the World Top 10, and in fact, I confidently have both Trump Turnberry and Muirfield ahead of it in Scotland alone. While this is the primary attraction in the Highlands of Scotland from a golfing perspective, don’t underestimate the value of nearby Golspie and Brora who offer a refreshing contrast on every level.
I'd play Dornoch once for three goes on either Trump or Muirfield. I have yet to par 18, a brutish closing how with scary gorse left and magnetic dells right.
I played Royal Dornoch for the first time on Monday 3rd June 2019. I had travelled up from Gleneagles in the morning for a PM tee time. I arrived in good time and walked up to the 1st tee from the car park. I was instantly aware that this was not going to be an easy day. The wind was a constant 25mph, blowing straight down the 1st hole.
We teed off at 14,30 with the wind not having abated at all. I was amazed how soft the fairways were and that even down wind the ball would still make a pitch mark on the greens. Apparently the area had had one of its wettest Springs for many years. It was not really like playing links Golf apart from the wind which was relentless, The thing which struck me most was that apart from the famous upturned greens, the course just followed
the natural contours and meandered along the coastline. There were some fabulous holes and others that seemed a little bland, but all in all we had a great day. I felt I had achieved something, by scoring on every hole in a Stableford comp off 6 handicap.
We had a quick drink in the clubhouse afterwards. It seemed strange to be in a clubhouse at an historic course that did not feel 'special'. I have played some of top clubs in Scotland, Troon, Muirfiled, Prestwick etc all of which have a clubhouse that has an aura about it. I'm not quite sure what was missing.
Ref the club house observation and its lack of "specialness", I think that the difference between RD and the other clubs you mention is that it is a thriving, welcoming local golf club that happens to play on a World class course (with a nice second course such allows membership without the waiting list or cost of the Championship course).
I have always wanted to visit Royal Dornoch after hearing stories about how good the course was, its continual high place in pretty much all the rankings and that it is set in one of the most perfect settings for a golf course. We arrived early to take a look around the clubhouse and to warm up before taking on the challenge ahead. The first hole is not overly long although we were playing it downwind which made the second shot tricky. Hole 2 again a shortish par 3 with a green raised on both sides which falls off severely at the back of the green. Three of my group pitched the ball onto this devilish green only to see it fall off the back never to be seen again as the gorse swallowed the balls up! Holes 3 - 6 are excellent with a mixture of short and long par 4’s plus a very nice par 3 set alongside the gorse covered dune. Hole 7 is slightly weak and I am sure once Mackenzie and Ebert work their magic this hole will be much improved. Hole 8 is brilliant with a blind tee shot to a left to right sloping fairway leaves a short iron to the green. The turn home does not disappoint. Hole 9 a long par 5 which runs along the sea is excellent and a real test into the wind. The 10th a shortish par 3 plays to a narrow green which slopes from right to left which if you miss will test the short game of even the most accomplished player. Hole 11 is an exacting par 4 that requires two good shots to reach the putting surface and this hole is followed by a cracking par 5 which dog legs very slightly from right to left. The par 3 13 gives you a little rest before you tackle the brilliant 14th which some describe as the best par 4 in golf which is hard to argue…the green complex is amazing. Hole 15 is a solid par 4 before you reach 16 a hole that I was not overly keen on as it played directly uphill with a blind second shot. 17 is a fine par 4 with a blind tee shot to a sloping fairway and then a second shot to a slightly raised green. The 18th hole gives no respite a long par 4 that plays into the wind to a green with a small gully running along the front section. A couple of things that stood out from my visit were the bunkering which is world class and the excellent green complexes which will test every facet of your short game. The course was in reasonable order considering the long season although its was a shame that the fairways had been scarified. All in all Royal Dornoch is very much worth a visit but I am not sure its worthy of its Top 10 in the World status. Played October 18.
Royal Dornoch is overrated. It’s clearly a very good golf course, but has weaker moments like 7 & 16. Several holes, despite being good, are also too similar: 3 & 4, 8 & 17, etc.
You expect more of a world top 10 course, in terms of variety and consistent quality. After all, we’re talking about the top 0.3% of all golf courses.
I wonder if much of the valuation of this course comes from American visitors on a golfing pilgrimage, perhaps inspired by Donald Ross associations & comments from the likes of Tom Watson et al, who are just not used to experiencing this kind of golf
Ref BB'S "over rated" points, I'm certainly not a sentimental visitor but return every year. RD has a great blend of being a top quality course but retaining fun and peril; the "pleasurable anticipation" that Darwin writes of to see where one's tee shot has alighted on 8&17, or the approach on the 16th which I actually think is under rated, particularly in match play. Maybe you're a better golfer, but for a ten handicapper is perfect.