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.
Date: December 03, 2017