Located on the edge of the beautiful Dornoch Firth with views of the Struie Hills, the 8,000-acre Skibo Castle estate is something special, very special. It’s a place where fairytales meet reality. Schytherbolle, its Celtic name, roughly translated means fairyland. But it wasn’t always like this – there was once much bloodshed when Sigurd the Mighty and Thorstein the Red, the early Nordic settlers, descended upon Dornoch. Things are much calmer these days and a trip to Skibo, whilst making a dent in your wallet, will make you temporarily feel like a millionaire.
In 1898, the original Laird of Skibo, billionaire Andrew Carnegie, commissioned Royal Dornoch’s Secretary, John Sutherland, to build a private nine-hole links course. But after Carnegie’s death in 1919, Skibo Castle and the golf course soon became fallow. British entrepreneur Peter de Savary bought the Skibo estate in 1990 and he asked Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie to resurrect a links. In 1995, a new Carnegie Club links at Skibo Castle was born.
US billionaire Ellis Short bought the club in 2003 and Tom Mackenzie was re-commissioned between 2005 and 2007 to alter the original design – aided by David Thomson (Skibo’s Director of Golf) and Gary Gruber (Course Manager at the time, now Estate Director). Gorse, which lined a number of holes, was removed and the landscape reshaped along with rebuilding and revetting every one of the seventy-two bunkers. In total, eight holes were refashioned, including the opening of four new holes.
The updated new millennium Skibo, which stretches from 5,400 yards to more than 6,800 yards, contains many tough holes at the start of the round, but the best of the bunch by a long way is the wonderful par three 6th, it's a magnificent short hole with its elevated plateau green which is guarded at the front by a deep, threatening bunker. There is a slight lull in proceedings around the turn before the dramatic three closing holes kick in. The 17th is a risk-and-reward gem, a short par four measuring 304 yards from the back tees with the green definitely in reach, but you’ll need to flirt with the beach and the deep bunkers guarding the front of the green. The 18th, a sweeping par five, concludes a memorable and varied round. The hole doglegs left, hugging the salt marshes. Big hitters might reach it in two.
In June 2012, for the first time since becoming private in 2007, the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle announced that limited public tee times will be available on special request. Click here for more details.
“This is just like millionaire’s golf,” we often say at Chilwell Manor, my home course, when we are the only ones playing. Today we actually meant it.
At Skibo Castle’s exclusive Carnegie Club, 60 per cent of the members are Americans and, therefore, have not been around for the past 18 months because of the pandemic.
Even when they are, they can expect the championship track largely to themselves because members of the public are only allocated one tee time a day.
The lucky few, for a premium price, can experience what it is like to be one of the fortunate few.
This was concierge-style hospitality from the moment we drove through the understated brown gates which guard the property on which Madonna celebrated her nuptials to Guy Ritchie in 2000.
We may have only been guests but were treated as if we were superstars by a chap called Callum from the Carnegie Club’s professional staff.
He appeared as if by magic as we approached the entrance and guided us to the changing rooms where we had our individual named lockers with a substantial goodie bag.
After a relaxing cup of coffee, we practised alone on the impressive driving range and putting green before teeing off on the side of the beautiful Dornoch Firth.
Even on a dull day, the views at Skibo were superb. In the sunshine, they would have been staggering.
And you really can hear the birds sing! We were literally the only people playing golf and we felt at one with nature.
This is a cleverly conceived course – a cracking layout with some memorable holes using natural terrain, dotted with 130 varieties of lichen, as well as long grass and dunes.
It was just as well that both Mrs W and I were driving well because misplaced shots off the tee would have either found the rough or the myriad deep bunkers which pepper the course.
My favourite holes were at the waterside – both on the outward and backward nines.
The 6th is a fiendish par three, hidden by a dune to the left with a steep bank to its right. I sent in what I thought was a perfect eight-iron but it ran through.
The 7th is an outstanding curving short par four to a high green framed by a glorious backdrop of hills and water. It demands adept course management.
The back nine brings water into play if tee shots leak to the right or greens are overshot and then there are risk-and-reward holes such as the 17th – a short par four over cavernous bunkers.
Skibo Castle’s course is good enough to be rated in Great Britain and Ireland’s top 100 – although there is much work going on to improve the greens which were frankly scratchy despite true lines.
However, let us be honest, the abiding memory will be the service.
For example, there is an upmarket halfway house which can be accessed after the fifth or 12th holes, offering drinks and snacks and the cleanest toilets I am ever likely to see on a golf course.
If this wasn’t enough, our host drove out to feed us bacon rolls, coffee and even offered us whisky after only seven holes.
We declined a wee dram then but accepted it from the young lady, in traditional Scottish garb, who greeted us with a warmer as we walked off the 18th green.
In the clubhouse, the standards of service were gobsmackingly good as we noshed through our mains and desserts.
And, with that, it was all over. As the half British, half-American flag fluttered behind us, Callum gave us a hearty goodbye and said he hoped to see us back one day.
Only if have won the Lottery, will that be the case, I suspect. But was it worth pushing the boat out for one day? You bet.
Skibo Castle was a revelation for our Golf Tour. We were expecting good, but not this good. The setting in the Dornoch Firth is spectacular and the course is so enjoyable. The fairways are wide enough to give everyone a chance to get into the hole and the rough is not too penal. Quite a few drives tempt you to cut the corner and the driveable par 4 17th is great fun. A wonderful collection of Par 3s capped what was a most memorable day.
I managed to play Skibo Castle with my son during our recent trip to Brora. The club is ultra private with only one tee time set aside for visitors per day but if you are lucky enough to get the opportunity to play it is worth it.
The routing is good and considering the course is set on a strip of land only 700 yards wide it is testament to the designers that you rarely see another golfer due to clever use of the dune system.
Skibo has a nice blend of holes with long and short holes, dogleg’s both left and right alongside some slight elevation changes. My standout holes are the 2nd a shortish left to right dogleg par 4 which is nicely framed by bunkers before you approach the elevated green. Holes 6,7 and 8 are amongst the best on the course. Hole 6 is a short par three plays slightly uphill. The green is guarded by a solitary deep pot bunker at is entrance and a steep fall on the right will catch the pushed tee shot. The 7th is a drivable uphill par 4 with a split fairway with bunker protecting both the centre and the left side. The green is set above the player and any shot that is leaked to the right will be caught by a steep run off. Hole 8 plays from an elevated tee to a fairway which runs alongside the Dornoch Firth. The longer the tee shot the narrower the fairway becomes and anyone who bails out left will find heather.
The run of holes from 10 - 15 are solid rather than spectacular but 16 is a cracking par 4 with an excellent green complex before you reach the 17th which is possibly the best hole on the course. This short par 4 has all the ingredients of a great risk and reward hole, heavily bunkered with run offs around the green complex are its protection but if you hit a good tee shot this hole presents a decent birdie opportunity.
I agree with a previous reviewer that the 18th is not overly links like but it is still a fun finishing hole. The course was presented very well apart from the greens which have undergone some maintenance but this did not detract from a great day.
If you look past the beauty of the Dornoch Firth and River Evelix setting, you’ll find a rather low-key lie of the land course at Skibo Castle, with modest ground movement.
The bunkering is now much stronger than it was when I first played here in 2004 and there are some other improvements, including a lot less gorse, which on second play I found rather stark, as some of the holes – previously defined by yellow gorse – seemed to have lost their definition. However, there’s certainly plenty of width and therefore abundant strategy.
The par three 6th and short par four 7th are two of my favourite holes in Scotland, in fact, the run from #6 to #10 along the lichen heath that flanks the Firth is, in my eyes, Skibo’s most compelling stretch. The short par four 17th is also a wonderful hole. From the elevated tee it seems unlikely that you won’t end up in one of the five bunkers that guard the right side. However, the par five 18th is not a good closing hole. It’s out of kilter with the rest of the course and wouldn’t look out of place in Florida.
On both occasions I’ve played here, the early-season course conditioning has not been up to scratch when directly compared to nearby Castle Stuart and Dornoch. I can see why Skibo has a seductive effect on many golfers. There’s certainly plenty to enjoy and admire here, but it’s not my cup of tea. My golfing soul is much more at ease at Dornoch, Castle Stuart and Brora.
If you’ve not played the Carnegie Links at Skibo Castle since around 2008 you’ve not really played “Skibo”.
The current version of the layout was designed by Tom Mackenzie under the watchful eye and guidance of PGA Professional and Director of Golf at Skibo, David Thomson, around a decade ago.
With no expense spared they have taken the previous re-design of the early 1990’s by Donald Steel and have turned it into a golf course that can now be talked alongside the upper echelons of links golf in the UK.
In summary the changes saw myriads of gorse, trees and other shrubbery cleared to expose a links course that now contains a bountiful amount of strategy and beauty. When I say no expense spared consider the movement of 300,000 tonnes of sand to re-build the second hole!
The all-encompassing property has a celestial feel and a truly diverse fabric which blends together flawlessly to create unparalleled golfing terrain.
For most of us a visit will provide a glimpse into another world, certainly away from the course. The term ‘millionaire’s golf’ will never be more prevalent than at Skibo.
I didn’t quite make a millionaire’s entrance myself… erroneously arriving at the ‘Goods Entrance’ thanks to my Sat Nav (arguably user error!) and then ending up in the staff car park!
The upside of arriving at the Castle – the former residence of Andrew Carnegie - instead of the clubhouse was that I got an escorted journey through the scenic Carnegie Estate by one of the stylish black Range Rovers that are stationed in line outside the impressive 19th Century building.
The golf course itself can be easily split into two sections because the feel and style of each one is so different. Holes 1 to 10 and 11 to 18 offer two contrasting types of links golf.
The first two holes provide a real championship feel and lead us nicely into the front nine. The exceptional build-quality, appearance and positioning of the bunkers are immediately noticeable and any fears about how good the golf will be are quickly laid to rest at this pair of excellent two-shotters.
The 3rd and 4th weren’t my favourite holes on the course (the latter will soon be altered to provide more visibility) but they keep things moving nicely before we hit a stretch of golf that is arguably unrivalled.
Holes five through ten simply do not miss a beat. They are infinitely beautiful and strategically supreme. They sum up perfectly the type of golf I personally love.
For the final eight holes you play right alongside, or at least very close to, Loch Evelix. The setting is equally as beautiful as the front-nine but in a different kind of way. The holes have a more manicured, tranquil feel in nature but still play linksy and the quality of turf, which is tight and pristine throughout, is still there. The bunkering is a little cleaner and the changes in elevation slightly less. I personally preferred the front nine but I suspect others will enjoy this section more so.
Are there any negatives? I hear you ask, especially since you may be forking out the most expensive green-fee in the United Kingdom. I tried to think hard for things I didn’t like (it wasn’t easy) because I’m sure anyone considering playing here would surely want to know.
Well, the course certainly isn’t without fault but in the grand scheme of things these are very minor.
My main personal niggle is that the routing wasn’t quite as seamless as one might hope for. Long walks from tee-to-green are the norm nowadays at most modern 7,000-yard layouts but here you must awkwardly cross the 3rd tee to get from the 5th green to the 6th tee, you must also walk back almost the entire length of the 150-yard 13th to get to the 14th tee and you need also to cross the front of the clubhouse to reach the 16th tee. It’s not a game spoiler by any means but in an ideal world the flow would be better.
There is also a long walk to play the isolated 7th and 8th but this is countered by the fact that it is through a mysterious looking lichen heath which actually adds to the charm of these two handsome holes so is easily forgiven.
The inward stretch alongside the loch is surreal and contains some fine holes but the 11th and 12th both have a similarity about them visually and strategically; notably heroic drives over the water. Both are lovely holes, it’s just a shame you must play them consecutively.
Finally, the second shot on the par-five 3rd could maybe do with a bunker or two 50-yards short of the green to makes things more interesting (for either the lay-up or if trying to to go for the green in two) and the 18th tee shot is just not for me; in my eyes it looked a bit too manufactured but I can imagine others will love the heroic nature of this shot which plays over a tidal inlet.
However, none of these things, all considered from an uber-critical perspective, should not deter from you visiting Skibo. Ultimately there are many, many more things to praise Skibo for than to be damning. Their attention to detail both on and off the course is second to none.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
I played the course towards the end of the hot and dry summer of 2018 and I am afraid the course was not great, with both fairways and greens in poor condition. In a year where I played 52 of 'Scotlands top 100' this was definitely the worst conditions I faced all year. The layout is great and the clubhouse service is first class, as you would expect. However I felt a little let down, I think courses should flag up their condition when charging full price, to allow you to decline. In another year, with more supportive weather, I have no doubt this would be an excellent track. Several holes were fantastic in their layout and I look forward to the day I return and play the course in better condition.
I very rarely question the rankings on the website but I am staggered that Skibo is at 84. I'm sorry but Today's Golfer has it spot on at 25. I've played over 90 of the top 100 and this course should be low first quartile or high 2nd. It seems also that my views are replicated by a number of others (with the notable exception of David Worley who rated the course 4 stars - bad day on the links David ?) - yes I know it's an opinion based assessment !!! I'm just surprised it's not rated higher considering the number of stellar reviews. It is a majestic golf course with memorable holes everywhere in fact all are ! Holes 7 and 8 are stunning consecutive duo set on the water. Water runs to the right of holes 11 to 15 then again on 17 and 18. Great variety also from a drivable par 4 17th to a near 500 yard par 4 - same with the par 3s. The par 4, 16th is, in my view the best hole on the course and would not look out of place on any of the links Monuments. The only slight negative (and I say that loosely as they are both superb holes) is that 11 and 12 are both par 4s that move left to right. The whole experience is worth the fee. In summary, I could happily play this course every day of the rest of my life.
Good day on the links David ?
Yeah, drained a double breaking 1 foot putt at the last for a 94
I usually miss those and sign for a 95.
Ironic you make this comment now because just last night I was reading James Finegan’s account of playing up at Skibo Castle, where he suggests “Donald Steel has captured in a contemporary Links the true feel and challenge and spirit of traditional seaside golf”.
Perhaps David Worley did have a bad day on the links after all
I recall trying to see where Carnegie fits in my rankings and when I reached Goswick I knew that for me, Carnegie, had reached its limit. An argument could be made that Carnegie is a top 40 GB&I course. I was pleasantly surprised after my only game. However, when I look at the courses I place higher it is safe to say Carnegie is in good company, even if it doesn't quite make my top 50. The front nine hums along, however, once turning for home the quality turns a bit south...starting with the incredibly similar 11 and 12th. That isn't to say 11-18 is a poor grouping of holes, but there isn't much I find compelling.
Played Skibo twice, most recently in 2016 and it's style over substance in my opinion. Skibo has some stellar holes most notably the par threes but there are a too many mundane ones after the turn and the Americanized closer around the lake is akin to a chilly Florida rather than a Scottish links. Simply looking at the North of Scotland rankings, I'd place Brora, Lossiemouth and Askernish ahead of Skibo. No way is Skibo Top 25 in GB&I even if you factor in the overall opulence.
I was very lucky to have played at Skibo Castle while on a golf trip to Dornoch. There are only 2 tee times per day available to the public and that seems to be a fairly well kept secret.
The whole experience of playing Skibo is different class. I've never enjoyed a golfing experience quite as much as the day we spent here. First off, once the green fee has been paid everything there after is free. We arrived and had a round of Gin and Tonics, no charge, all part of the service at Skibo. Next we went into the dressing room to find lockers fitted with our names, a very nice touch. Use of the range was complimentary too which we took advantage of. After hitting some balls we sat down for lunch and got ready for our round of golf.
We had arranged for 2 buggies and a caddy to take us round. Because there are so few rounds of golf played a Skibo the caddie advised that we should just drive the buggies straight onto the tee box, we were a little taken a back but did it. Slowly we were getting into what playing golf at Skibo was like...
For the entire round we saw 2 other 4 balls, the caddie's serious response was that this was the busiest he'd ever seen the course. There is a half way hut at Skibo stocked with all the usual food and beverage for you to help yourself to, of course, all complimentary.
The course itself was in fantastic condition, possibly the best kept course i've ever played. I honestly didn't see a divot anywhere. The grass tracks between tees and greens are in as good a condition as most golf courses greens. Its a really fun track to play too. Considering its a new design they've done a great job to make it feel like its been there forever. Lots of waste bunkers and then proper pot bunkers on the fairways and greens. I can't remember a weak hole but the final 2, 17 and 18 really stand out. 17 is a short par 4 which is reachable in 1 depending on the wind, 18 is a great risk reward par 5. The greens run fast and true while the rough isn't like any rough i've seen on a links course before. The rough looks long and intimidating but when you actually get into it, its not thick, it just has long whispy grass growing. Its actually quite easy to find your ball in and not overly tough to play out of. I thought it was great and made for a an extra fun round as you knew that only a really offline shot would get the worst punishment.
One of the stand out things for me about the course is the feeling of remoteness. Apart from Carnegie's Castle and the clubhouse there's literally no civilisation in site. The views of the mountains and the surrounding lakes are just as gorgeous, the types of views that will stick with you forever.
My lasting feeling was that this course was better than both Royal Dornoch and Castle Stuart. I know they come higher in the rankings but for me this was the best of our trip. The course is absolutely top grade and i'm sure if they were interested in getting the course up the rankings they could easily break it into the top 20 of the world. I played all 4 courses at Bandon Dunes about a month later along with Pasatiempo while in the US. All of those courses are in the world top100 and this course is better than all of them. Pacific Dunes was the closest but its not in as good a condition as Skibo and that ranked 16 in the world right now.
My last comment on Skibo is that although its very expensive, it somehow feels like value for money when you leave. If you can stretch yourself to pay the green-fee, do it, you won't be disappointed.
"and i'm sure if they were interested in getting the course up the rankings they could easily break it into the top 20 of the world".
Not sure this is their choice to make - usually down to fairly independent reviewers, and even the most private of places get their rightful place in the rankings if the course warrants it (Pine Valley, Cyprus Point, Augusta, etc).
It does sound like a good experience though and glad you enjoyed the day though!
...although I've not played it, my boss played there recently and ended up finishing his round with Jason Connery (!) as they'd got held up by several groups of golfing tourists in front of them (so sometimes it is a bit busier there)
I managed a game at Skibo Castle yesterday with three other golfers, two of whom hadn’t played the course before and one who was last here ten years ago. Everybody was keen to see just what it was that had recently propelled the layout into the upper echelons of Scottish and GB&I ranking lists with a number of other golf publications.
I know I was certainly in raptures when I last visited almost three years ago, discovering that the layout had vastly improved since my first visit in 2008. This time, although it was the first day of June, it felt more like late Winter/early Spring, with a cold wind blowing and blustery showers passing through on a regular basis.
Consider also that growth in the area has been really slow this year because of the cold weather and you can understand why we didn’t see the course at its very best, which was a real pity.
That didn’t detract from the quality of the layout, of course, where the excellent par three 6th and short par fours at 7 and 8 remain my favourite sequence of holes on the course.
Holes 11 to 15 around Loch Evelix still don’t enthral me as I find the fairways really flat and a little repetitive, basically requiring you to avoid water all the way down the right hand side on every hole. The closing triangle of three holes does lift the spirits again, though, especially at the driveable short par four 17th, which is far tougher than it appears from the elevated tee box.
I understand that Jack Nicklaus visited in recent times and had good things to say about the course so an endorsement from the Golden Bear is not to be sniffed at. I thought Skibo could make the Scottish Top 20 last time I was here and it subsequently soared from 34 to 19. It’ll be interesting to see where it’ll be placed in the next edition of the chart, published later this year.
Sadly it fell into disrepair but then in the early 1990s, the new owner, Peter de Savary, embarked on a major repair and upgrade which included the building of a new 18-hole championship course in this stunning location, regarded by Andrew as “heaven on earth”.
All the par threes were challenging with the 6th being particularly difficult to hold the raised green. The 9th is very demanding at 215 yards from the back tee and has a large pot bunker guarding the front left of the green. The 13th and 15th each have water in play all along the right hand side.
The 18th is a picture perfect par five with a sharp dogleg left. If you are left of the fairway with your drive then you are in the salt marsh. You then have an estuary from the Dornoch Firth all the way to the green. The stately baronial castle is nestled in the trees on the other side of the estuary.
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.