Royal Dornoch holds the distinction, behind the Old Course at St. Andrews, as the second most famous links venue in Scotland. Golf in some form has been played in this Scottish Highland neighborhood for over 400 years. Rumor has it that the local clergy from the Dornoch Cathedral sanctioned playing the game in it’s early years and ushered in the first period of growth in this region. The current iteration was laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1886 about 10 years after the club was officially formed. It sponsored many distinguished competitions throughout the early 1900’s and in the 1940’s, with the acquisition of additional ground on the north end, allowed for extension of the holes on that end and the redesign of the final six holes that we play today.
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There were many hands in this development but honestly it seems like nature and the big force are most responsible for what you will experience here. Once you get into the heart of the course, as James Finegan says, “there is a strong sensation of heading toward land’s end. The remoteness is total. We feel we may….penetrate the very wilds…on this journey over ancient landscape where so little is owed to the hand of man.
John Sutherland guided the affairs of the Dornoch Club for 60 years starting in 1883. A fine player in his own right, a knowledgeable contributing course designer, and a journalist is credited helping refine the original design and spreading the word about Dornoch among industrialists and people of influence in the United Kingdom at the turn of the century.
Andrew Carnegie, the rich American entrepreneur, bought the castle at Skibo down the road in 1900 and took up an interest in golf. He became Vice President of the club in 1901 and his involvement brought notoriety and interest that helped proliferate the knowledge of Dornoch among his colleagues.
Finally, Donald Ross who later became one of the premier course designers in America in the Golden Age, and his brother Alec, a talented professional who won the U.S. Open in 1907, were born and raised in Dornoch before emigrating to the United States at the turn of the century. Resultant fame of these two favorite sons added to the mystique of this place and fueled the continued growth of it’s rich golf lore.
Royal Dornoch is a course that makes you use every arrow in your quiver and then some you did not know you had. It is not a brute but with only two par fives the long par fours will wear on you. Throughout you will see plateau greens with sharp and shaven fall offs where low running approach shots are often called for. The scuttling putt or rolling fairway metal up the steep slope on a green side elevation play can be very effective as well.
The course is routed out and in on a narrow strip of sandy links land that sits between a tall, gorse covered dune wall and the beach on parallel shelves, the front eight on the higher shelf at the foot of the dune with the inward ten running lateral to the beach on a slightly lower shelf. Unlike some out and in routings like the Old Course the tiered shelving provides distinct playing areas for the parallel holes. You will not all that often find yourself playing out of another fairway by intention or just chance.
The daily wind speed and direction are the most important playing parameters at Dornoch because they will change your teeing club selection and preferred lines into the greens dramatically. Be discerning in picking your tees to play from so that you have a chance to enjoy your round each day. Prevailing wind is downwind the first eight and upwind coming home which makes the back side a much tougher scoring challenge. Having played it the opposite I can tell you that controlling your distances downwind on the back 11 is no piece of cake.
After a somewhat meek opening hole, the holes from two through six make as tough a start as anything you will every play. Your total focus is required right out of the gate if you scorecard stands a chance of not being in tatters by the time you hit the high ground. The dune wall on the left smothered in gorse dominates your view on the early holes and forces your mind to want to play safely to the right but you have to resist that temptation since the ground pitches right toward the sea and there is plenty of sand and furry mound trouble waiting below the fairways.
After putting out on the sixth you have a Machu Picchu hike up a steep dune to a balcony above the links to play the next two holes. The view off the back of the seventh tee is a Kodak moment you do not want to miss, a spectacular visual of what you have already played and what will come in the second have of the inward side. Playing the next two holes along the ridge will give you maximum effect of the day’s wind. Plummeting back to the floor on the second shot on eight can provide a vertigo moment.
The ninth turns you back in the direction of the house so your wind direction will change 180 as will your attitude of how to play the rest of the way. Keep in mind as you play in this direction the beach on your left is kindly considered a lateral hazard so if you should turn your Titleist into fish food you can play next to where you cross the line to the beach with a single stroke toll payment. The trail along this lower shelf is vintage links golf with rumpled fairways and creative green complexes that will require creativity and precise shot execution to be successful.
From ten to thirteen you get two really short par threes and a par five that could give you a chance for some scorecard triage. But the four par in between is a survival moment.
From fourteen to the house just grab a hold of your bootstraps and pull hard, staying atop the steed the rest of the way is a major effort in this stretch of holes. There is a symbiotic relationship between the lay of these holes and the land that is just exquisite. The designers just needed to discover the inherent lines of play and let the land dictate the challenge. Throw a little wind into the batter and this is a recipe for a sequence of some of the greatest golf holes you will ever play.
When you are done make sure to take the time amble through the clubhouse and sit in the grill for a refreshing one so you can take in the enormous cache of memorabilia that hangs on the walls throughout. The Carnegie Silver Plate upstairs is one of the most impressive looking trophies I have ever seen. If it is late in the day and the sun is setting over the golf course below, listen carefully, you will swear the walls are whispering and sharing the secrets of Dornoch with you.
(Note: I would like to acknowledge a useful resource I purchased in the Royal Dornoch pro shop called “Experience Royal Dornoch” by Richard Goodale. This is a unique book with wonderful topographical photos and descriptive text of every hole which was invaluable in reconstructing and clarifying my impressions of the course in preparing this review. You can buy it through their website at http://www.royaldornochproshop.co.uk/shop/prodtype.asp?strPageHistory=compare&CAT_ID=60 for about 20 pounds sterling. Not sure if the shipping will be prohibitive. )
Architect: Old Tom Morris, John Sutherland (1886)
Tees Par Yardage Rating Slope
Blue 70 6711 74 139
White 70 6626 73 137
Yellow 70 6265 71 135
For more pictures click to review Northern Scotland-Day 3: Royal Dornoch Golf Club