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.
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 ?
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)
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.
For those who haven’t visited before, it’s a unique set-up. One arrives along the low road running alongside the Dornoch Firth and leading to the former site of the Meikle Ferry. Once inside the gates the experience is first class. The clubhouse is relaxed and well laid out, practice facilities are great and the course is invariably quiet. The views on all sides are stunning, particularly looking across the water towards the Struie Hill and down the Dornoch Firth towards Bonar Bridge. The bulk of the estate is across Loch Evelix and while the spa and pool house is visible, Skibo Castle itself is hidden for the most part.
For those who have played earlier incarnations of the links (pre-2007) the routing of the course is now much improved. The definition of the holes is much clearer and this has been achieved by a combination of contouring and extensive planting and the strategic aspects of a number of the holes have been strengthened, i.e.; new tee and improved dog-leg on 2, better strategic bunkering on 3/5, split fairway on 7, lengthening and tightening of 10, new driving lines on 12. The closing holes remain really strong with a 16 a muscle par 4, 17 a heavily bunkered short par 4, eminently drivable from most of the tee boxes, but often played in a stiff left-right crosswind and 18 is a great risk-reward par 5 with testing shot into a visually challenging, well contoured green.
The views have always been spectacular and the condition of the course has changed beyond all recognition. The pictures on this site for example are significantly out of date, especially the oft referred to par 3 6th hole. It’s difficult to gain access which in itself is a conundrum, how do you allow genuine aficionados to share in the experience of a fantastic course, while still preserving the tranquility that is valued by the membership? I believe that they’re considering piloting limited visitor tee times, so possibly worth a call to them.
The ambience is genuinely friendly and there’s not a hint of stuffiness. The staff, whether on the golf house side or the course management side are all exceptionally knowledgeable and are mostly all talented and experienced golfers themselves. I’ve played all of the top 10 Highland courses on several occasions and I’ve also been round most of the UK’s top 25 tracks as listed by this website.
I’m reluctant to offer an opinion on where Skibo fits into the charts, what I am clear on is that with regard to the Highlands, Royal Dornoch is the standout number one golf course and is truly world class. I would rank Castle Stuart and Skibo very close to each other in second place (Skibo with just a nose in front) and Brora in 4th. Please don’t interpret that as damning others in the Highland top 10 with faint praise. They’re all fine courses and Durness, while not mentioned in the top 10 is a big favourite. That’s assessing the above mentioned as golf “courses”, in terms of golf “experiences” there’s a few that are guaranteed to delight, first tee times at Royal Dornoch as the sun breaks over the East facing Links and an empty track opens up in front of you. A round finishing into an early summer evening on the Old Course as the town is going about its business and several others. Skibo consistently delivers as a golfing experience regardless of the time of day, season or weather. For that reason above it’s a very special place and one that I hope you get to experience.