Royal Dornoch: King of Scottish links courses
The following article was originally written for PGATour.com by David Brice, President of Golf International. The articles represent trips available to Golf International customers.
Any visit to Scotland that doesn’t include the Scottish Highlands is an incomplete visit. Miss out on this stunningly beautiful part of the country and in many ways, you will have missed the essence of Scotland, a fact that applies as much to golfers as it does to visitors with no interest in the game. There’s a magic to the Highlands that manages to capture every visitor’s heart — it’s the quintessential Scotland we all imagine.
The scenery is a breathtaking canvas of spectacular mountains, deep valleys, plunging glens and glittering lochs — Mother Nature has excelled herself and her handiwork is only made even more magnificent by the isolation and a tranquility that refreshes body, mind and soul.
The Highlands have witnessed much of Scotland’s rich and often bloody history in the making and impressive ancient castles, medieval churches and cathedrals, centuries old villages and Royal Burghs, remain to tell the story. The locals, among the friendliest of all Scots, are only too happy to assist in the telling, as they share their stories of plunder and pillaging; massacres and bloody battles with the English, wars between Catholics and Protestants, of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Rob Roy and other Highland heroes.
Highlanders are known for their warm hospitality, generously showered upon every visitor. There are wonderful hotels to stay in, the food is great, the whisky is only the best and the golf is as good as golf ever gets. From rugged links courses to some of the best inland layouts to be found anywhere – famous names and little known gems, the variety is endless and the quality, superior in every way.
The pride and joy of Highland golf is and always has been, Royal Dornoch, where the game has been played since 1616 in the early 17th century. Ranked among the top dozen courses in the world and one of the best 3 links anywhere, it’s a layout that belongs on every golfers short list of courses that must be played before they die.
Wild, remote and unforgiving, this was the home course of Donald Ross, the renowned golf architect responsible for so many excellent courses in North America, including the fabled, Pinehurst No. 2. Born in Dornoch, it was at the Dornoch Golf Club (now the Royal Dornoch Golf Club) where Ross learned the game and became an accomplished golfer by the age of 14.
After a year-long apprenticeship in St. Andrews under the tutorage of another famous Scottish golfing name, Old Tom Morris, Ross returned to Dornoch Golf Club to take the position of club professional and head greens keeper. He held the position for 4 years before emigrating to the USA in 1899.
It was the links at Dornoch that influenced much of Ross’ development into the great master of American golf architecture, responsible for the design of a quarter of the Top 100 Classic Courses in the USA — Pinehurst, Oakland Hills, Seminole and 400 more, all contain shades of Royal Dornoch. Any who are impressed by Pinehust should take the pilgrimage back to Scotland and the charming Royal Burgh of Dornoch to experience the original; it will be a journey back in time to be appreciated by any golfer.
Visit during the spring or early summer and Dornoch will be ablaze with brilliant yellow as the abundance of gorse and a predominant hazard here, shows off its one redeeming asset. Don’t be deceived by the good looks, it’s a hazard with a voracious appetite for errant shots and to be avoided at any costs. As with any links course, the wind has to be contended with, but at Dornoch the challenge is greater than normal. Here it seems to have a strange ability to change both direction and velocity at will, to confuse, frustrate and raise the challenge by a notch or two — and sometimes three.
Dornoch’s front nine is a delightful and so polite introduction, as the course helps build confidence in preparation for the stern backstretch, where the real test begins. The great Harry Vardon reckoned the 14th was, “the most natural hole in golf”. It’s a wicked 448-yard dogleg requiring a draw on the tee shot and a delicate fade into the green, well protected by a gigantic sand dune.
Elevated greens and raised tees on the Par 3’s are standard fare at Dornoch and it’s the shorter holes that can be the most daunting, the 6th being one of the toughest. A 165-yard tee shot with thick gorse on the left and a steep embankment careening off on the right. Unless there is accuracy, it’s a damned if I do and damned if I don’t hole that makes mice out of mighty men and shows no favors to any — commonly number 6 will take a double bogey.
There is no doubt Royal Dornoch is well deserving of its place at the dizzying heights of world rankings, a fact endorsed by all who play here, including our own Tom Watson who considers it to be the best links he has ever played — and Tom has played a few.
But if you do make the pilgrimage to Royal Dornoch, take full advantage of the trip and play at least a few of the other gems in the immediate area. Their names may not be as familiar, but they have unique qualities of their own and shouldn’t be missed. Brora, Golspie, Tain, Fortrose & Rosemarkie, Nairn, Nairn Dunbar and Old Moray are just a few of the more notable links layouts and I guarantee, none will disappoint.
For a few ideas on how to fit Royal Dornoch and other Highland gems into your Scottish golf trip, visit our Royal Dornoch Course Page.
©2015 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.