Royal Dornoch Golf Club
Location: Dornoch, Highlands
Designer: Old Tom Morris / JH Taylor / George Duncan
Royal Dornoch Golf Club is ranked number 4 in our Top 100 Courses Scotland:
Golf has been played on the linksland at Royal Dornoch Golf Club for more than 400 years. Golf World tries to capture its magic.
If you have golf running through your veins and down your fingers, it is inconceivable you will not one day find yourself at Royal Dornoch Golf Club. And when you do visit this quaint Highlands town and play its mesmerising links, it will surely ingrain the game a little deeper in your soul.
There may be golf courses in Scotland more exacting, more visually striking or with more championship pedigree but none match Royal Dornoch Golf Club for romance.
The fortunate golfer has the resource to return regularly. Distinguished architects such as Tom Mackenzie, acclaimed writers such as Lorne Rubenstein and legendary players such as Tom Watson.
Golf World Magazine has been in Dornoch in spring, summer and late autumn, and savoured it at dawn and dusk, and in sunshine, drizzle and a gale. The conditions are always irrelevant, in a stronger sense than at any other course in Britain and Ireland.
The reason may well be because there is so much going on at Royal Dornoch Golf Club, meaning you are distracted from inclement weather or impending darkness. There is history to be soaked up, views to be ingested, and dexterous shots to be played.
Perhaps only Royal County Down offers as complete a package in Britain and Ireland. Certainly, few could plausibly dispute Dornoch and Royal County Down as the finest links not to have held an Open.
Royal Dornoch Golf Club is the senior club of the two by 12 years, having been founded in 1877, although golf had been played on this linksland for much longer. Indeed, 2016 will mark the fourth century of golf being hosted on this unique seaside terrain.
Yet its remote location an hour north of Inverness – and thus four hours’ drive from Glasgow – meant Royal Dornoch Golf Club’s appeal had remained relatively unexplained for most of these four centuries. Then in 1981 Watson played here on his well-documented links education with Sandy Tatum. Playing in front of sizeable local crowds, Watson enjoyed his first 18 so much he asked the caddies if they’d discreetly return at 6pm for a second.
Playing his evening round in overcast, damp weather, Watson opined “this is the most fun I’ve had playing golf”. He added a third 18 the next day.
Watson’s visit followed Ben Crenshaw’s 12 months earlier ahead of the Muirfield Open. “Let me put it this way, I nearly did not come back,” said the future Major champion and celebrated designer, when asked if he had enjoyed the links.
Suddenly, Dornoch was firmly on the agenda for overseas visitors. Now there are nearly 500 overseas members and it’s a key target for big-name hunting Americans.
The well-informed had long travelled here though, no doubt intrigued by the course that had shaped the artistry and nous of Donald Ross, who was brought up yards from the 1st tee and learnt the skills that brought him fame and esteem in America on Dornoch’s links.
Fabled American writer Herbert Warren Wind was one of the earlier travellers, writing in the ‘New Yorker’:
“It is the most natural course in the world. We in America are just beginning to appreciate no golfer has completed his education until he has played and studied at Royal Dornoch. Golf at its best.”
Wind penned that in 1967, which was, despite golf here dating back to 1616, less than 20 years after the course was finished in its current form. For while Old Tom Morris extended his initial nine holes to 18 in 1886 and Ross returned from America in 1921 to redesign the first two, today’s layout was not in place until 1948.
Four holes were used as a WW2 aerodrome so, using compensation, the final remodelling took place under the eye of 1920 Open champion George Duncan and greenkeeper Robbie Grant. Six new holes replaced the original last six, forming the 6th to 11th loop. But for Dornoch-ophile Mackenzie’s revision to the 3rd, it exists as it was finished then.
Dornoch had long since (1906) gained its regal prefix, status that actually feels in discord to the down-to-earth nature of the club and town. It might be a cathedral town, but Dornoch and its people are decidedly unpretentious. The town has an appealing atmosphere that augments the visitor’s experience.
It oozes golf as it has for 400 years, and while a less romantic notion, it is true to say its prosperity is now closely linked to visiting golfers. The links itself, too, has a seductive atmosphere. Perhaps it is the glorious isolation and the attendant ‘pilgrimage’ factor. It might just as easily be the sense of history, or the epic landscape.
It may be a blend of all, and more, but playing here just feels right; an innocent pleasure. To those who have not been, this will seem whimsical nonsense. To some who have been, it might strike a chord.
Royal Dornoch Golf Club is also distinctive with its tumbling terrain lying in split levels alongside the Dornoch Firth’s sweeping bay. While there is significant elevation change, the linksland undulates only softly with no gigantic dune corridors.
Indeed Dornoch is often forgiving off the tee, bereft of lush rough. The tighter holes are made more nervous by gorse that lines them, but even so this 6,697 yard links usually turns out to be very much a short-game exam. Green side skills are non-negotiable for success. Its plateau greens, established in the 1880s by Old Tom, remain the soul of the course.
Often large in size, these inverted saucers are without lush fringes so even balls that locate the outer edge of a green are often escorted down steep slopes. One is frequently glad of finding the bunkers that menacingly reside in the banks, for that is very often an easier recovery shot.
The greens might be large but they are slick and sloping – three putts all too easily become habit – so only sagacious, well-struck chips do not skip dispiritingly and embarrassingly off the other side.
It is no exaggeration to say you can arrive at Royal Dornoch Golf Club regarded as the most proficient chipper in your group but, by the time you reach the turn, start conservatively reaching for your putter when possible. Such decline in confidence might well start on the par-3 2nd, a typical Dornoch green of steep slopes and tales of woe. Miss it and you begin the day’s short-game exams. Never impossible but, like County Down, the margin for error is minute.
You might well make a mess of it but your mood will improve as you move through to the 3rd tee and take in the majesty of the bay. This is one of the many quietly excellent, less celebrated holes here, the drive asking you to hit a fairway that slopes towards bunkers on the right while an ocean of gorse denies an easy bail-out left. The 5th is another, a sporty par 4 from a high tee to a well-guarded green; it’s Watson’s favourite. The strong, rippling 11th and the capricious 13th (while the mountains and Gulf Stream shelter and warm Dornoch, at 8˚ below the Arctic circle, it still gets plenty of weather) are two more. Even the more prosaic holes have appeal: the 7th – which sits on a ledge – affords a view of the links that is peerless in You might well make a mess of it but your mood will improve as you move through to the 3rd tee and take in the majesty of the bay. This is one of the many quietly excellent, less celebrated holes here, the drive asking you to hit a fairway that slopes towards bunkers on the right while an ocean of gorse denies an easy bail-out left.
The 5th is another, a sporty par 4 from a high tee to a well-guarded green; it’s Watson’s favourite. The strong, rippling 11th and the capricious 13th are two more.
Even the more prosaic holes have appeal: the 7th – which sits on a ledge – affords a view of the links that is peerless in Britain to this golfer’s eye; the uphill 16th is a similar story.
Of its much-discussed outstanding holes, the 4th and 14th might be the best known, especially the latter. ‘Foxy’ is a bunkerless par 4 that Harry Vardon described as “one of the finest natural holes in the world”. The raised green sits at right angles to the double-dog-leg fairway and if you find it in regulation on your first visit it is akin to an ace, for holding the ball on the elevated surface with a long iron is a mighty feat.
You might prefer the split-level 8th, or the 9th, whose tee next to the beach begins the journey home with a par 5 of rare distinction. It is followed by another superlative short hole, a stout 176 yards with bunkers wedged into the banks around the green.
You could stand there all day and search for the place to miss. And don’t forget the 17th, with its split fairway, a blind approach over a hill with a bunker in it, and a devilish bowl green.
Try to avoid being entertained there. It is as unlikely to happen as being immune to the seduction of Royal Dornoch Golf Club.
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