- +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.
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.
What a stunning golf course.
We were a bit late booking so had a tee time of 7:50, and the rules say that before 9am only two balls are allowed on the course. However, given the number of visitors, a round of 4hrs was perfect.
Strangely, when we reviewed the mornings play in the old clubhouse, we found it difficult to think of an exceptional hole, but concluded that it was just because the whole 18 holes were brilliant. The fairways were mostly wide, and beautifully kept, and the greens were very true, and very consistent.
An added bonus was the terrific views from most parts of the course.
A must play course this one, which certainly deserves its high ranking.
I had been excited about playing Dornoch for about 12 years, since my father played it and nearly left the family to stay up there and become a member. Finally managed to get up there in April this year and was overwhelmed with quite how brilliant it was. I’m always nervy playing courses for the first time that have been given such brilliant reviews, and in the back of my mind I feel that they cannot possibly be as good as reviewer after reviewer claim they are.
Dornoch is every bit as good. The first is a lovely start, the relative width of the fairway diminished somewhat by the presence of the members peering out from the dining room and the Royal Hotel being within striking distance. From the second onwards, it is magnificent. Like reading a great book (or watching a great box-set if that’s your thing), you cannot wait to turn the page and immerse yourself in the next chapter. Dornoch really is a brilliant place and a brilliant golf course. It is remote, and that adds to its charm. It is also about as natural as a golf course gets.
It goes straight into my top 5, and is definitely threating my top spot (currently Turnberry). In summary, it is a course that everyone who loves golf simply has to play.