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Old Tom Morris, John H Taylor, George Duncan
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."
Played a couple of weeks ago. From the hotel to the staff to the course, fantastic. Caddies are great, course has incredible views, great mix of holes, and a joy to play.
I first visited Royal Dornoch quite a few years ago early in the season. It was wonderful then and it was wonderful this time around as well. I couldn’t have been more fortunate to be there with the gorse in full bloom and the sunny perfect weather all but forcing us to wear shorts at a balmy 30 degrees C. Almost hard to believe these temperatures and left me thinking, wait I didn’t come up here for this, if I want 30 deg C I’ll visit Spain! Hard to complain nonetheless. As it turned out the entire trip was tropical summer weather.
Dornoch is such a great experience, has such wonderful views and is such an idyllic place to be but I believe the course itself is slightly overrated. Not the experience mind you just the course. Is it great? Yes, but is it a top 20 in the world course, nope.
Naturally I’m certain most will disagree with me and I’m certainly picking at straws but no way could this course be Top s0 in the world. Take the par 3’s for example. We had a nice breeze on the day and all my playing partners and myself hit the exact same club on both the very similar but excellent par 3’s on the front 9 only to hit the exact same club on both the very similar par 3’s on the back. While each of these are excellent holes, this I certainly would not argue. There is also a lot to be said for variation and that honestly could be better and would have to be for me to consider this one of the top courses in the world.
That being said and I realize how critical it sounds, there is not a bad hole on the course. One of my favorites on the way out is the par 4 8th. Which requires a centerline to left side tee shot to take advantage of the steep slope that adds an extra 50 yds to your shot and sets up a tricky semi blind approach into an undulated green guarded by a huge mound on the front middle and right side.
On the inward 9 my favorites would be the par 4 16th and par 4 17th. Both excellent two shotters.
16 plays up hill and a strong driver can carry up the ridge allowing for a look at the pin. Important to land the approach short in most cases as even though this shot seems uphill it always plays shorter for me than I expect and the yardage indicates.
17 is remotely similar in feel to the 8th a solid drive to the center or left can benefit from a sizeable yardage gain by running down the steep hill. The approach is a tricky one into a well protected green that is raised.
Royal Dornoch is one of the places that golfers dream about, a sort of mecca for American golf tourism thanks to classic and favorable comments from people like Tom Watson. There is no doubt it is one of the great experiences in golf given the entire package and a must play for any traveling golfer. Catch it when the gorse is in full bloom as I did on my last visit, get a peek at the sun and I can promise a day you won’t soon forget.
Have only played the course once, but I think 16 may be a bad hole - at least compared to what has gone before it. I agree with much of this review on the course. The experience goes a little the other way for me. Dornoch is still very much a must-visit though
Royal Dornoch was my first experience of a World Top Ten course so expectations were naturally high. Playing the course in Spring of this year also meant the gorse was in full bloom meaning that my first visit to Dornoch would come at a time when the appearance of the course was at its most dramatic. It did not disappoint.
First impressions of Royal Dornoch was that this is a very unassuming golf club. It appears to do very little to announce itself as one of the world’s top courses. In this new “Trump” world where everything needs be pompous and lit up in lights, the arrival at Royal Dornoch is extremely modest starting from the drive up the side street to get to what is a rather humble looking clubhouse. Admittedly, there’s the mega sign next to the first tee to announce where you’ve arrived, but I got the feeling that there’s a sense of reluctance to the attention that Royal Dornoch has received rather than it having been particularly sought after.
Onto the course and the first hole is one of those that eases you in and gives you an opportunity to get your round going, golf doesn’t need to be a slog from the start. You best soon have your wits about you though as a mountainous plateau green then awaits you at the par three 2nd, miss here at your peril. But it’s following the long walk to the 3rd tee where the full beauty of the course reveals itself. You’re greeted with an open expanse of links golf gold. This is Royal Dornoch. Swathes of gorse line the banks next to the fairways and the layout looks and feels as though it’s been untouched.
The 3rd through to the 5th were all picture perfect holes, but there was just something about the string of bunkers stretching diagonally across the fairway on the 5th that got me. The cute 6th looks like a strong storm could wash the away the green as it sits tucked, almost stuck on to the side of a hill. I kept my tee shot straight on this hole but it looks deadly if you miss left, right or go long.
The 7th hole, with a tee that presents the most obvious photo opportunity at Royal Dornoch is a tough hole, particularly into the wind, but compared to the very high standard of holes that surround it, doesn’t reach those same heights. This appears to have been recognised by the club and they’ve just involved Mackenzie and Ebert to locate a new green site, removing gorse that obscured the sea views from the right-hand side of this hole to make the most of the setting.
The 8th as well as the similarly styled 17th were two of my favourite holes on the course and captures the essence of Royal Dornoch in a nutshell. Both holes tee off from a raised area of ground and you’re met with a diagonal ridge half way down the fairway that divides the hole. This means you’re presented with a choice. You can drive your ball down the hillside to the lower ground leaving a shorter iron but a lesser angle of approach, or lay-up off the tee making the most of approaching the hole from the higher vantage point and better line of entry. Royal Dornoch is all about choices and I’m sure that your strategy can completely change depending upon time of year and the weather conditions. Many of the fairways are wide, but you can snooker yourself by putting your ball into the wrong position. Finding the fairway but coming into the green at the wrong angle can mean that you’re facing a fight to save par. Take Foxy for example, the infamous par four 14th, with a pin and green tucked behind a row of protruding low banks, it was a hole that had me stumped. I felt like I had to almost hit the ball into the rough or have the ability to hit a high cut to have any chance of finding a way to get anywhere near the hole. Foxy would probably still have me scratching my head if I played it a hundred times.
Some of the holes also take you right up alongside the beach, particularly the 9th that plays parallel to the beach for the whole of its 500+ yards. There’s no out of bounds here so the beach is in play, my playing partner made the most of this and hit a three wood off the sand for his second. Something the locals wandering by didn’t even seem to blink at.
Mentioning sand, the revetted bunkers here are a real highlight. Some of them are wonderfully placed and they’re immaculately maintained. You’re going to be severely challenged if you’re hoping to have a bunker-free round of golf and once in them, you best be visiting with your bunker “A-game” in tow. In fact, I can apply that thought to your whole short game. Chipping and pitching were especially difficult. The bump and run option is often not viable as many of the greens are located on raised ground and there are slopes and puzzles that you have to try and figure out to determine what the best shot is to get you close to the pin. I’m afraid I have neither the skill nor the imagination but it’s fun trying.
Ultimately, this is a course like no other. It’s a stellar layout that provides endless options and left me baffled on numerous occasions. Referencing the review below, Royal Dornoch may also be a victim of its own success. I love to read golf rankings, but with their prominence brings increased attention to those highly ranked courses from all corners of the globe. Sure, it would have been wonderful to play the course in the 70s and 80s when the allure of the course was less recognised, but despite this, I personally found that Royal Dornoch has still maintained plenty of its charm and soul.
Royal Dornoch is clearly considered a very good golf course, but does it deserve the reverence it receives? Well, I was looking forward to forming an opinion.
Shortly after arrival I noticed a paradox between what is a fairly "normal" club golf set-up and the coaches full of Golfing tourists arriving to play it. Facilities are basic but adequate, whereas the pro/gift shop is fairly comprehensively stocked.
On to the first hole: Nothing special but very useful as a good getaway hole. The second hole: Again, nothing breathtaking, but an interesting raised green with trouble on (I think it was) three sides. An early taste of things to come I assumed. Then it all becomes a bit clearer from the third tee as the course then opens up before you. That was more like it.
Holes 3-6 were great and our group enjoyed both the views on offer and the shots into and around the greens. Think hole seven was a bit ordinary before reaching the turn with the dogleg left Par 4 eighth. The anticipation as you walk to the precipice to see where your ball has ended up was great. Highlights for me on the back 9 were driving onto the beach at 11 (always satisfying to have a beach in play), and then 14 & 15 (I think), with the former being really difficult to hit the striking raised green in two with our relatively high handicaps and the latter a short par 4 where you have a decision to make with regards to the central dune that guards/obscures the green. The pace of play was pretty good - 3 hrs 45 mins for our 4 ball (with every hole loaded with 4 balls who presumably didn't know the course that well). Castle Stuart was a good 30-40 mins longer the previous day.
As we walked off of the 18th green and started unloading our gear, the group behind us holed out shortly after and then almost immediately jumped into two helicopters that had landed adjacent to the green. Possibly one of the oddest things I've seen on a golf course and not sure how normal this was, but another reminder of the contrast on offer at Dornoch. Real or imagined, it does make me feel there is a tangible "Disneyfication" to go with the Deification of Royal Dornoch. This took a little of the shine off the experience for me, but sure this places me in a minority. For better or worse, it's always difficult to distill the golf course essence and de-couple it from the total experience when offering up an opinion.
On the course itself: I'd say it is worth 5.5 balls. And on the assumption that it has been rounded up on occasion to a 6 ball, I'll round my review down to a 5 ball. Royal Dornoch apparently only has a handful of superior courses in the world, and despite not playing that many top tracks, I do find that at least mildly surprising. Will have to defer to those with more experience. Having said this, I did really enjoy the course - and it did more than enough to ensure I look forward to returning to see if I have undervalued it. BB
There are reasons why a golf course is ranked no 1. the course, the staff, the town, the people the everything.
I came here because of a book that Lorne Rubenstein wrote,
A Season in Dornoch.
It became part of my bucket list.
I finally made it this past week. The course is that good. 8 holes out 8 back 1 out 1 back on the ocean.
this is a must play when in Scotland, its along extra drive worth every minute
It’s Christmas Eve. Well, not quite, but it certainly feels like it. It’s the evening before we are due to play Royal Dornoch for the first time.
We are in an eatery in the historic town debating just how good tomorrow could be as we embark on playing unquestionably one of the World’s greatest golf courses.
We overhear a conversation at the table next to us. Clearly a member of Royal Dornoch a man tells the couple he is sat with, “It’s so green and soft at the moment…. So un-pure…. So uninspiring.”
It was like a 5-year-old boy being told that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist.
I was acutely aware prior to our visit that Sutherland had experienced one of its wettest summers on record and from the four golf courses we had already played on our trip to The Highlands that the revered links wasn’t going to be the browned-off, firm and fast test I had seen in many photographs. However, to hear these words was worrying. We finished our meal in silence and went to bed a little despondent that the 800-mile round trip may not prove to be as magical as we had hoped for when it was planned almost a year beforehand.
As it turned out there was absolutely nothing to fear. The round at this timeless links proved to be one of the most memorable and pleasing I have ever had and the quality of the course not only shone through but also met, and at times exceeded, my high expectations of it. Royal Dornoch is undoubtedly in the top echelon of golf courses and one that ticks all the right boxes for me personally.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Dornoch is Scottish pure golf, ie, golf as it should be.From the access to the club, through the picturesque village, through one of its main streets, the simplicity of the clubhouse, without unnecessary artifices and the fact that the road to the beach crosses the hole 1, all this makes us see how the golf course is integrated into the community and viceversa.
It is a pity that the aura of remoteness and mystery has been partially lost since it has become a usual destination of golf tourists (of whom I am part, not to go any further).
In any case, the experience is still highly recommended, because it is a really special course.
The truth is that Dornoch has been praised from any point of view and by many writers, architects and aficionados, but what I would emphasize is that the club retains the spirit according to which the first thing is golf itself, without the need for artifice or extras.
And, by the way, the golfing experience at Dornoch really deserves it.
In addition, I think the management and maintenance of the course has been able to maintain the balance between what is a golf test for the scratch player without being unaffordable for the average golfer. In this sense, Dornoch emerges from his comparison with other equally famous courses, among which I can think of Royal County Down.
As for the holes, apart from the world famous 14th (in which I was able to make a beautiful par, my highest achievement in my Scottish golf week), in my opinion the essence of Dornoch is in holes 2 to 6, which represent a significant degree of difficulty, but without being the par an impossible goal, and in a landscape of great beauty.
Definitely a must see in the Scottish Highlands.
On the longest night of the year, my thoughts turn to the long summer days of the far North of Scotland and a first trip to Royal Dornoch in June this year.
The abiding memory 6 months later is one of peace and tranquillity, especially a few holes into the out and back layout once you leave the town. Others have explained many of the attractions of each hole and I’m not about to disagree. All are memorable but amongst such gems, my favourite part of the course was around the 8th green and 9th tee at the very end of the course. I think this was down to the fact that the first 8 holes had been of the very highest quality and I was drooling in anticipation that, now I was down by the beach, the best was still to come!
I would echo the message to urge all golf lovers to make the journey to Northern Scotland. You won’t be disappointed and your thoughts afterwards will centre on just how soon you can get back. If I could play just one course for the rest of my life, this might just be it! RdeD
Dell Leigh wrote the following about Dornoch in 1925 and it is still true today, "The very journey thither is a pilgrimage of pleasure of the kind which remains crystal clear in the memory long after the return to the drab side of life. And the very fact that one cannot say in bald words that the links are definitely this, that or the other thing instils into the mind a predominant feeling - the desire vehemently expressed, to play over them again, and then once more." There are few places—Royal County Down comes to mind also—as beautiful to play when the yellow gorse is in bloom, and, although hard to travel to, it is a treat. The out-and-back layout plays along a broad raised beach and it is hard to point out a hole that is not beautiful, challenging and fun to play.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
Dornoch is unique is so many ways! A trip to Scotland is not complete without making the hike up to the Inverness area. While there are many great courses in that area, Royal Dornoch is King!
This course is Links golf at its best, the way golf was meant to be played. The setting along the Dornoch firth is beautiful. The stretch of holes from the 9th to 16th along the ocean is magnificent. Yet the stretch from the 1st to the 8th hole, somewhat ''hidden'' from the sea provides you with incredible golf, hole after hole. The two par threes on the front nine, 2 and 6, have beautiful green complexes and strategic bunkering. The 7th is one of the most challenging par 4 out there, yet is incredibly fair. Then you come to the 10th, a short par 3 with arguably the most beautiful bunkering in the British Isles. The hole isn’t tremendously long, but don’t hit it short. From there, the links takes you on a beautiful ride along the water to the 14th hole. Foxy is, as far as I’m concerned, the high point of this golf course. It is one of my favourite holes in all of golf, yet it doesn’t have any bunkers. The ridge at the front of the green is something we would never see in modern courses. The approach shot from the fairway (or the rough if you’re unlucky) can be played in so many ways depending on the wind, it is just incredible fun. If the wind is blowing from behind you, trying to hold the green is pointless. You either roll it up onto the green, or hit it directly into the ridge and hope it bounces up onto the putting surface. If the wind is in your face, you can be more aggressive, provided you don’t curve it too much.
What makes Dornoch fabulous are its setting, its memorable holes and most of all, its greens. They will test your short game in its entirety. Wayward shots will be repelled by the natural plateaus of the greens. After playing Dornoch, you truly understand why Donald Ross’s courses are built the way they are.