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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.
Just recently i spent a most enjoyable week staying at the Shearings owned Dornoch Hotel, a very large but terribly dated mansion styled hotel, overlooking the sublime first hole of the Royal Dornoch Championship course.
I used to have a handicap of 11, but struggled with a recurring shoulder injury,resulting in me having to put away the clubs.
What amazed me, was the incredibly friendly nature of the staff at the course, and remember i had never met anyone working there before, so i was delighted to be told that they would allow me a few moments practice on the adjacent putting green.
Every morning at 6-15am or thereabouts, the green keepers were hard at work, on some of the most impressive lawn cutters i have ever seen at any British links, and the serious players were already teeing up at first light.
I was told that the only thing that had prevented the club from staging a major,was the poor infrastructure and accommodation in the locality.
Granted,Dornoch sitting ever so high up on the NE coast of Scotland, is a very long drive to get to, but the course and staff warrant its inclusion as one of the finest links courses in the world, and as there is a tiny airstrip adjacent to the championship course, getting there for those who really want to experience one of Scotland's finest courses, should not be an issue.
For a total stranger to be made most welcome, and allowed a few minutes practice on a quiet Wednesday evening, on possibly the finest practice putting area, was something i will not forget for years to come.
Dornoch tests your golf game in every possible way but it is also an undeniably fair course. But, be warned, you can be unlucky with the tide affected wind and you just may end up playing sixteen holes into a decent breeze.
The 5th is one of the best par fours anywhere. It is only 354 yards long but precision is required with both the drive and the approach. Trouble in the manner of thick rough and gorse runs the whole length of the left side.
Foxy, the 14th, can play much harder than 445 yards would suggest. It is one of the hardest holes on the course despite having no obvious hazards.
At 6685 yards off the championship tees, Royal Dornoch is quite a long par 70. Play there in late spring whilst the gorse is still in bloom and if you get a balmy sunny day then you just might think you are in heaven.
This review is an edited extract from Another Journey through the Links, which has been reproduced with David Worley’s kind permission. The author has exclusively rated for us every Scottish course featured in his book. Another Journey through the Links is available for Australian buyers via www.golfbooks.com.au and through Amazon for buyers from other countries.
In light of the recent controversy – or “storm in a tea cup” – regarding changes to the 3rd hole on the Championship course, it seemed only right to exercise a little quality control on behalf of the Top 100 site and so I ventured out onto the links a couple of days ago to find out what all the “fuss” was about.
To paraphrase the title of the 400-year old Shakespearian comedy which was written about the same time as golf at Dornoch was first recorded, as far as I could see the changes were “much ado about nothing”.
The fairway realignment and repositioning of bunkers may have whipped some people into a froth but the locals here seem to have taken the modifications in their stride.
As I was told in the professional shop, where the alterations have been welcomed, the changes actually help the higher handicapped player and hinder the more elite golfer so only a small fraction of those who play the course should feel in the slightest inconvenienced.
Therefore, as a non-elite golfer playing off a modest double digit handicap, I can exclusively reveal that the remodelling of this hole has had absolutely no influence whatsoever in me awarding a six ball score to a course that comfortably rides very high in the list of world ranked courses on this site.
PS The other 17 holes are none too shabby either…