If you’re looking for a course to anchor a northern Scotland trip around, Royal Dornoch is the one. While we’ve touched on a few other great places in the area (Castle Stuart & Brora), this place is in a class of its own.
I checked into my modest accommodations at the Dornoch Hotel (far from luxurious, but perfect for someone ballin’ on a budget) on the night prior to my scheduled 36 hole day across the street, and quickly discovered that I was essentially out of luck for dinner for the evening. Though there was still plenty of sunlight at 10:00, the town of Dornoch is a bit sleepy and mostly void of dinner options at this hour. It’s small inconveniences like that this that remind me of my location on the planet, and in a country of just 5 million people, I’m likely north of at least 90% of them. But what’s lacking in terms of infrastructure is more than made up for in Scottish charm.
Royal Dornoch is almost always ranked in (at minimum) the top three among golf courses in Scotland, and easily the highest ranked among courses that are not on the Open rota. The reality is that the town and the property itself are not capable of housing a crowd of that size. The course itself doesn’t try to pretend to be a championship test, as it tips out around 6,750 yards, but to me, this only adds to the uniqueness of the experience.
The club was founded in 1877, when Rutherford B. Hayes was the president of the United States. The U.S. was barely a hundred years old when this place opened up! It might get a bit repetitive to hear about the ancient dates of some of these clubs, but it will never cease to amaze me how long places like Dornoch have stood the test of time through wars, depressions, storms, erosion, and extreme advancements in technology. Before venturing across the pond to the British Isles, I had always imagined that these old courses would lack modern conditioning, and that that was simply part of the charm. I was surprised to find that this is rarely the case, and certainly not here. Royal Dornoch is as pure as pure gets.
Paired up with three American visitors, we’re off at 10:20 with overcast skies above. The first hole immediately puts your mind to work. At just 331 yards, and a modest 12 on the stroke index, it appears to be a breezy start. But the two bunkers on the left about 200 yards from the tee are situated perfectly. If you want to blow past them, feel free, but just know that the fairway narrows there and the deep shit is waiting for you. If you lay back with iron, you’re likely taking these two bunkers on, so you better be accurate with that one too.
While I’m not going to break down the strategic elements of each of the next 17 holes, the first one paints a perfect picture for how many decisions you’re going to have to commit to over the next four hours. It’s fantastic. And the more I pour over my yardage book some two months after playing it, the more I realize how many great holes Dornoch has that are worthy of discussion.
The second is a par three measuring 184 yards, and home to what Tom Watson calls “the hardest shot in golf.” No, it’s not the long iron off the tee into the prevailing wind. It’s the second shot. When you inevitably miss this green, you’ll see why. The surface is narrow, and sits perched well above the two bunkers that frame the front. If you’re wayward, it might take you a few back and forths across the width of the green before it finally finds the surface.
Going out towards the third hole, the course really begins to open up. After a short walk down a tight path through the gorse, you emerge onto the piece of the property that you see in all of the pictures. The 413 yard par-4 bends to the left, but of course there are four perfect little pot bunkers lining the right side of the fairway, waiting to collect anything that runs out too far. The wind helps you move the ball away from these traps, but the gorse comes in tight on the left waiting on any shot that cuts the corner too closely. The green is huge, and I kind of lost focus on the golf as I wandered around the surface imagining all of the possibilities.
The view of the third green from the fairway, with the 4th in the distance:
The fourth is another strong two shotter (like, a really strong hole, but I’m on pace for about 4,000 words so I’m sliding past it), followed by a 353 yard par 4 that really tickled my senses. It’s wide open and inviting off the tee. There’s doesn’t appear to be a reason to keep the driver holstered, so I let one rip way down the fairway. I arrive at my ball, and quickly realize they got me. Three small bunkers guard the front of the green, and the pin sits on the front. I’m way too close. This place is like a crossword puzzle, and just when you think you nailed one, you realize the word you just inked in pen doesn’t fit the answer you need for 27 down.
The sixth is another great little par-3 that seems to be clinging for dear life on the side of a hill. You then walk up a steep path to a near isolated part of the property for the 7th, a screaming 479 yard par-4 back into the teeth of the wind. From there, you get perhaps the best view of the day:
A blind tee shot on the 8th brings you back down the hill and out to the furthest point, and the walk back to the 9th tee brings you seaside for the first time.
The shadow cuts in the fairway are perfectly appealing to the lusting eye, and with the sound of the waves crashing on the beach behind you, before you’re nine holes in you already understand what everyone has been talking about. While the course is scenic, it doesn’t need the scenery. The golf course itself stands on its own from a design, conditioning, and fairness standpoint.
The fairways are wide in general, yet there are great benefits to playing from your approach from the proper angle. On more than one occasion, I was thankful that I was going to get a second go around later that afternoon because by the time I had reached my ball, I realized I was out of position due to the pin placement.
Holes 9-16 all run along the coastline, and after a quick stop at the charming halfway house, the back nine greets you with a gentle gem of a par three. Right to left shots are preferred on the difficult par-4 11th as well as the par-5 12th. One final par-3 at the 13th, then five straight two shotters to finish.
The course peaks at at the par-4 14th. Tom Doak calls it “one of the greatest holes in the game.” It’s 445 yards from the tips and ranks as the most difficult hole on the course. While the fairway doesn’t dogleg, a right to left shot is again preferred as the tee box sits a bit at angle left of the center cut line. There are no bunkers, but the right half of this green is protected by deep rough. Therefore, your long iron approach is perhaps better played left of the green rather than at the center, yet your instincts don’t allow you to get comfortable aiming so far away from the flag.
Here’s the 14th green:
The 15th is another fun par-4, then the 16th takes you back up the hill towards the clubhouse. This climb is “skipped” on the front nine as you climb a hill between the 6th green and the 7th tee, but there’s no avoiding the climb on this side. It’s not the best hole out there, but two more nice par-4’s bring you back to the clubhouse for lunch.
16 tee (foreground), 15, and 14 in the distance:
I sit in the grill room with a beer, my scorecard, and my notes and just reflect on the masterpiece I just traversed. With 54 holes down in less than 24 hours, I’m still chomping at the bit to get back out there for another go at it. I make the classic mistake of visualizing a game plan for a links course and to respond to the strategic mistakes I made in the first round, only to discover that the wind had changed directions. I’m now playing a different golf course.
For some reason, afternoon/evening golf in Scotland seems to be a relatively unpopular thing. This is my favorite time of the day to play, and I zoom around solo for the first 11 or so holes before hitting a wall of singles. For some reason, no one was joining up for the walk in. Two members (Iain and Martin) stroll up behind me as I wait on the 16th tee. I’m not sure if it’s against custom to ask members to play with me, but I do, and they’re appreciative.
The banter between Iain and Martin was fascinating to watch. To this point, the only thing missing from my day was this local flavor, and though we only joined up for three holes, the Scottish welcome came pouring out. They argued about their match, laughed, and though they see it plenty, marveled at the ridiculous evening we were blessed with.
The wind picks up big time down the finishing stretch, and when I make a comment on it, Iain replies: “You don’t think this is strong do you?”
The members invited me inside for a beer, which quickly turned into four. We talked about the area, golf courses, life, and anything else that came up over the course of the hour and a half. For some reason, Scottish and English golf clubs can get a reputation as being stuffy, and while there are certainly elements of that in some places, I find that reputation to be mostly inaccurate. It’s actually the complete opposite here at Royal Dornoch, where I felt welcome as a guest by the club at the start of the day, and even more welcome as a guest by two members at the end of it. This is Scotland, and these 19th hole experiences are more memorable than any shot you play.
I got on the grounds at 9:30 AM. It’s now 9:30 PM and I’m leaving. I’m far from an expert on golf architecture, but I do know golf experiences. From a golf course perspective, it does not get any better than Royal Dornoch. And from a golf experience standpoint, Royal Dornoch shoots straight up near the top of places that I would want to play every single day.
I can’t picture a better place to spend a day of golf.