- +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.
Where to start with Royal Dornoch? The first thing one perhaps notices is the peace and quiet. Yes, undoubtedly it can be a busy course, with golfers now flooding from all over the world to test themselves on this famous old links, but in my experience (2 visits and a few days spent in the onsite accommodation) it never feels busy.
Yes there may be beach goers passing by the first tee (on a very regular basis…sometimes when you’re set to hit your first drive of the day!) but the 1st tee doesn’t have that St Andrews feel of being permanently surrounded. It many ways the course mirrors Dornoch itself. Quiet, understated but perfectly formed.
The course itself is stunning. One starts with a simple, short straight away par 4 but the green gives you a gently introduction to what is to come, being slightly raised, leaving you wondering whether to try and run on a pitch shot, or fly the green.
The second immediately takes that to a new level! It’s not gentle! Don’t miss long, left or right. If you do you’d better have a) great imagination and b) the touch of a surgeon, or you may spend the next few minutes walking backwards and forwards across the green (as some of our group did). It’s been described as the shortest par 5 in the world… I can see why.
Having been tested to the extreme on 2, you then have the walk to the 3rd tee, which is where the course opens out and you get the famous views of the Dornoch gorse wall and the majority of the rest of the course. If you were frustrated after the 2nd, your mood will instantly be transformed.
3, 4 and 5 are fabulous par 4’s with generous but testing greens. If it wasn’t clear from the 2nd, it will by this stage that this is all about positional play, to give yourself the best line in to the incredible green complexes. The general theme is that right is safe from the tee. But that doesn’t always give you the best line in to the flags depending on where they are.
6 is the second of the modestly length par 3’s, with a green set into the bank amongst the gorse, which once again requires an incredibly precise shot. Any miss and you can get ready to criss-cross the green yet again.
You then make the climb to the 7th tee. Whilst you may be contemplating another frustrating failure to make par, what awaits is worth the climb. The view from on high is stunning, with most of the course (and gorse) stretching away below you.
The 8th is the hole that takes you out to the far end of the course with a blind but generous drive (trust the marker post) followed by another approach to an incredibly demanding green.
The return home starts with a fabulous par 5 with the sea always in the back of your mind all the way down the left hand side. The tendency is to stay well away and favour the right hand side. That’s a mistake as it inevitably leads to a much more difficult approach shot.
10 (another short but incredibly tight par 3) and 11 then tend to play into the prevailing wind and much longer than their yardages suggest, before a gettable par 5, which can be reached following a good drive.
Another fabulous par 3 follows before perhaps the 2 best par 4’s on the course, both very different. The 14th (Foxy) requires a long drive to give yourself a shot at the green. What is required from here is anyone’s guess. I’ve tried to float high mid irons in, and I’ve tried to run one in, but with no success yet. I will keep returning until I hit this green in regulation! It’s perhaps the ultimate Dornoch green complex, raised about 5 feet above the fairway like an upturned bowl. Good luck.
15 is considerably shorter, and potentially driveable. But if you don’t drive it, you must leave yourself on the correct side of the fairway for what will still be a difficult pitch to a raised green.
Any frustrations from 14 & 15 will be swept away when you stand on the 16th tee and look around. Situated almost on Dornoch beach with the hills in one direction and the beach and sea in the other should be enough to relax even the most hardened golfer. And hopefully enough to prepare you for the uphill slog of 16. It may be the longest 375 yards in golf. Not the best hole, but once again it requires precision, this time from the tee to give yourself a visible approach shot and then with the approach itself.
17 is slightly reminiscent of 8 with a blind drive to a fairway then jinking to the left, but more demanding. The green and the walk to the 18th tee gives you the last chance to soak in the views across the course. Take it, it’s stunning. Then take a deep breath, because unlike the gentle start offered by 1, the 18th is no easy finish. The tee shot has a sea of gorse down the left leading to a tendency to push the drive right. This is far from ideal as it gives a more demanding (long) approach to what may be a semi blind green, depending on how far you manage to get down there.
Some complain that the 18th is an anti-climax. I feel it’s Dornoch all over. Demanding, requiring precise golf shots and slightly understated.
Overall, a truly fabulous golfing experience. Grab it if you can. And stay onsite if you can in some of the lovely but reasonably priced accommodation. Having a wander around the evening before and being next to the 1st tee adds to the anticipation.
Are there frustrations? Yes. It’s not cheap if you’re paying a normal green fee. And like many top courses you will be asked to play off the tees of the day, with no choice to play from further back regardless of handicap. It can also get slow if you’re unlucky enough to be stuck behind a slow group of tourists.
However, there can be no finer place to sit, look out and contemplate life (and your golf swing) on a sunny afternoon than Royal Dornoch.
I like Dornoch, I'm not blown away by it like the hundreds that travel from far and wide, year on year to play on it's lush fairways. I guess I'm lucky!! I only live across the Firth from Dornoch and as a benefit of membership at my Club I get the opportunity to play Dornoch at least 3 times a year for a vastly reduced fee.
The first tee is magnificent, it stands out in front of the Clubhouse and provides a very ceremonial feel to start of your round. The 1st hole is a very simple straight forward opener, as most 1st holes should be!
The 2nd is where the fun really starts. A medium length Par 3 protected by deep bunkers and steep drop offs from the upturned green that are a feature of the course. The 3rd hole is where you begin to see Dornoch in all its glory. The banks of gorse on the left of the course and the Dornoch Firth on the right frame and lead your eye to the expanse of the majority of the Golf Course. My personal favourite of all the holes at Dornoch is the 5th, from an elevated tee, you are given an choice of shots, either go long or play for position. The green is a thin landing strip deceptively long, and just as the 2nd is protected by steep drop offs and well placed bunkers the same applies here.
My favourite tee shot has to be the 9th. With it's proximity to the Firth and the waves breaking at your back you can almost feel the spray on your neck.
I always feel slightly let down by the finish at Dornoch!! Maybe if, and when the new Clubhouse is completed it will improve. As it is, I always feel like you just finish in the middle of nowhere. Saying that though, you'll never stop me going back.
@Gus GURNEY, I agree with you about the finish at Dornoch, particularly 17th. But perhaps it's like a good story: the beginning introduces the main characters, the middle is where the drama happens, and the close ties up the loose ends.
I would say that the Royal it gets an additional 0.5 ball rating on any score due to the intangible emotions and feelings it evokes when you play it, which I think is what you describe about the 9th tee. No mention of 'Foxy' 14th which is refreshing!
Nice honest review.
Dornoch is somewhat complicated to rank. The tranquility and peacefullness of Dornoch is sublime - it's like playing golf and having a massage at the same time. Lots of great golf holes and a wonderful golfing experience, particularly on a clear spring day when the gorse is in bloom. But as a golf course, looking at all 18 holes, is it top 10? No. Top 50 - maybe. #7 is bland and # 8 and #17 are too similar, and not really good golf holes. #18 just routes back to the clubhouse. I could go on, but don't get me wrong - it's a great golf experience, just don't expect a top 10 top course
The championship course at Dornoch is sublime. It combines charm, challenge, beauty and tradition in a way that is hard to match elsewhere in the British Isles or indeed, I suspect, the World. I am fortunate to be a member at RDGC albeit not yet a full member and living 4 hours drive away means I don’t play it as regularly as I’d like to. Nevertheless I’ve played it over 30 times in the last 7 or 8 years and with each visit I appreciate more of what the course has to offer.
Dornoch is a demanding golf course. However it is not a course that beats you up off the tee. It is very possible to play driver on every par 4 and 5 and not lose a ball, even if you don’t keep it on the fairway. This makes it different to most of the other demanding courses in the British Isles. The challenge of Dornoch is predominately in the approach shots and short game.
The greens are often raised and always well protected, demanding accurate and well struck shots in order to score well. Missing a green in the wrong place (or on some holes in almost any place) places a high demand on a player’s short game. This makes Dornoch much less a test of braun than of strategy and finesse, especially when the wind is up and the ground is firm, as it requires more creative shots.
The par 3s at Dornoch are some of the best and most challenging I have ever played despite none being long (ranging from around 140 to 180 yards). The 2nd and 6th in particular are potential card wreckers. If you miss the green left, right or long on either of these holes then you invariably have an incredibly difficult second shot and are potentially looking at a double, triple or worse. I have seen, and unfortunately experienced myself, numerous high numbers on these holes.
I have finally learnt that if the goal is to achieve a good score (i.e. if playing in a competition) then the best strategy for me (a 7 handicapper) on both 2 and 6 is to lay up short of the green. Laying up on a 160/170 yard hole seems crazy but given the long narrow shape of the green this should ensure a 4 at worst and a decent chance of a 3. In a competition it’s vital to avoid big numbers, especially early on in the round. However, for the one time visitor or if you are purely focused on having fun (which we should all be most of the time on the golf course!) then I’d advise forgetting the scorecard and throwing caution to the wind. The joy in hitting either of these greens or pulling off a miraculous second shot is a key part of the Dornoch experience!
The remainder of the course is full of variety with each hole having its own distinctive features and challenges. They are all extremely good golf holes that make you think and provide a strong test of your approach play, short game and strategy. At the same time almost all allow you to let rip with the driver off the tee without too much fear of lost balls.
My one other tip from experience is that on 16 it’s best to take the club that won’t reach the drop-off on the left that is about 250 from the whites (which will depend on wind, how firm the ground is, etc.). It’s a high tariff shot to stay on the plateau on the right. A drive down the centre of the fairway that misses the plateau can often bound off to the left and never be seen again.
The charm of the course is matched by that of the town. It’s a delight to walk around the town and spend time in the few restaurants and pubs comparing war stories with other golfers.
I would urge every golfer to visit Dornoch at least once in their lifetime, despite the challenge getting to it, and, when you do, to play the course at least twice. It’s a wonderful experience.
Having heard stories of golfers arriving at Dornoch in helicopters, I was surprised of the lowkeyness of the atmosphere upon arrival. The whole town of Dornoch is genuinely about golf. Being a Dutchman who never wore clogs and lives in an appartment instead than a windmill, I asked myself where other than in Scotland is it that world famous tourist attractions still ooze the character and authenticity they represent for their rich histories?
The first tee experience is hard to beat and a fond memory in itself. After the obligatory picture of our foursome with the flags of Dornoch, my teeshot was interrupted 4 times by scattered golfers or cars crossing the public road to Dornoch beach in front of the tee box while I was ready to fire away.
The gentle opener gives ample room to pick up some confidence early in the round, but the green is as challenging as the other 17. After a silly bogey with 4 shots within 100 yards of the pin, yet still sufficient reserves of confidence, the brutal par 3 2nd is there to kill all aspirations one might have, the back to front sloping target narrow and steeply falling down on all but the front raised with deadly bunkers in front. A good, but not good enough shot and a double bogey on the card later, you will tell yourself to get it together after this suckerpunch, and the walk to the 3rd tee will provide you with a breathtaking view over the Dornoch Firth, looking down over the piece of land where a large part of the Championship Links is exposed. A strong set of 3 consecutive par 4s follows, with brilliant strategic options and fantastic green complexes where you need to hit the right shot to the right spot as the greens (or at least certain pin positions) will repel the unsuspecting approach shots.
The second par 3 ends the difficult opening stretch and is perhaps even narrower than the 2nd, and the fall-off on the right even steeper. As if that wasn’t enough defence, a few bunkers guard the front and side of the green. Hit the green or end up with an endless variety of recovery shots, or a lost ball if you bail out too much to the left. So much for the safe option!
Hole after hole Dornoch challenges you but teases you with genuine chances to pick up shots. The back nine plays longer, usually into the prevailing wind. On a calm day, I reckon it will play a bit easier than the front 9 but into the wind it is a tough cookie with some long par 4s. Whereas the front nine, mainly due to the devilish set of par 3s, has a slightly penal spiciness to it, the back nine is all strategy with a bit more width. Dornoch’s best holes are brilliant because they are so simple and pure. The 14th, Foxy, will require no further introduction but 15 might even be better. It’s a reachable par 4 with a mound as an obstacle for the view from the tee. I hit a great drive towards the green and found myself in the greenside bunker with a front pin position. I hit a decent bunker shot, only to find my ball topple over the wrong side of the ridge and leave myself a difficult chip/putt to this raised green and walk off with a sour bogey. I also felt oddly satisfied and honored to be tricked by this elite golfcourse architecture.
17 is one of my favourite par 4s anywhere. It resembles the also brilliant 8th hole, but with a more difficult teeshot and a unique green complex. You have so many options to play this hole, I doubt one would experience them all being a member for a decade. The player must choose between keeping the ball on the high plateau, which will be rewarded with avisible target on the approach shot with a long iron, or a shorter approach from the lower fairway with a blind shot, but also risk hitting it through the fairway into the gorse. Also possible - to hit the tee shot through the middle and let faith decide whether the ball chooses the high or the low road. A running approach or one through the air must then be decided upon, with the green and its surrounds sloping left to right and back to front. It doesn’t get any better. Strategic golf of the highest order, with breathtaking views. On 18, you can start to soak in the entire experience, no wows on this hole, but nevertheless a worthy end to a glorious day of golf.
Dornoch has its flaws and IMO is not a 10 on the Doak Scale. The 16th might be a steep slog uphill for the shorter hitter. And to be honest, the new Mackenzie and Ebert 7th didn’t quite impress me. Besides the astonishing panoramic views and the legendary green to tee walk from 6 to 7, it’s a long and wide par 4 with little visual or strategic interest and has a relatively flat green that is somewhat out of tune with the rest of the course.
I appreciate that Dornoch is a course to play over and over again in order to reveal its secrets. Nonetheless, playing it for the first time at 28 years old was a privilege and I look forward to many more returns over the next 5 decades!
World's 3rd oldest course is a beautiful course with so many tricky holes. Like so many links you have to battle the weather and avoid the bunkers to shoot well. Preferred the front to the back nine. The last hole was a little underwhelming but was very honored to have played this course.
Quite simply a cathedral of golf. I think Royal Dornoch and Castle Stuart might be the best one-two punch in golf, giving you tradition and modern, wild and manicured (to some extent) and views in abundance.
My only possible criticism is that when the wind is up, I think it might be too hard? We were lucky, on both rounds the wind was just 1/2 clubs and it was a stern but negotiable challenge. I'd go back any time.
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.