For golfers the world over, Royal Dornoch Golf Club represents a unique call to adventure.
It’s a pilgrimage which requires commitment, dedication and patience. After all this golfing outpost, tucked away in a stunning corner of the Scottish Highlands, sits 50 miles north of Loch Ness and just eight degrees below in the Arctic Circle. That sense of remoteness has helped to build the legend, as has the praise which has come from the great and the good of golf. Those who accept the invitation do so in pursuit of an experience which leaves a lasting imprint.
That’s how it feels as we turn off the NC500 from Inverness into the town. We pass the war memorial and it begins to feel like the outside world starts to melt away and time slows down. Rows of charming, stone cottages are broken up by cafes, antique shops, churches and the museum. It quickly becomes clear that golf is wonderfully unavoidable here. We turn onto Golf Road, drive past the stunning Links House hotel, and it’s then we catch sight of journey’s end.
The walk up to the club is wonderfully unassuming. In fact you’d be forgiven for not knowing this was one of the world’s great golf clubs, a fixture in the world’s top 10 golf courses since lists began. There are no gates or fences to keep people out. The opposite is true. Royal Dornoch Golf Club wants to welcome you in. General Manager Neil Hampton often says ‘there are no strangers, only friends we haven’t met yet.’ You really are made to feel like a member for a day, not a visitor.
The clubhouse is simple, not sprawling or fancy. Dog walkers and ramblers stroll along the narrow road which runs in front of the 1st tee en route to the beach. The Championship Course runs away in one direction, while its little brother the Struie Course goes off in another. Inquisitive tourists mill around the area in front of the pro shop, having come to see what the fuss is about. The atmosphere is relaxed – this is a place delightfully devoid of snobbery or stuffiness. The iconic sight of the flags flying above a sign which simply reads Royal Dornoch Golf Club, stirs the soul. At last, we’re really here.
HISTORY OF ROYAL DORNOCH GOLF CLUB
They’ve been playing golf on this rumpled linksland for more than 400 years and because of its remoteness it remains a wilderness unspoilt by the march of time. The sight of Sandpipers flitting through the bright yellow gorse is the perfect tonic to a long drive, as are the white horses charging across the Firth towards the pristine Dornoch beach.
We are following in the footsteps of some of the game’s great names, many of whom have left their fingerprints on Royal Dornoch Golf Club over the centuries. In 1886, nine years after the golf club was officially formed, Old Tom Morris himself was invited to survey this land and then to extend what was then a very loose 9-hole layout. He was tasked with designing a course that would not only stand the test of time but do justice to the wonder of the surroundings. Old Tom had previously laid out the links at Prestwick as well as the wonderful Himalayas putting green in his native St Andrews, where he went from club and ball-maker to ‘Keeper of the Green’, professional and so much more besides.
Donald Ross is Dornoch’s most famous son, however. Having learnt the game on the links before becoming the club’s first professional. He left for the US in 1899 and would go on to become one of the world’s most revered course designers, with his work at Pinehurst, Seminole, Oak Hill and Oakland Hills among his most celebrated. A blue plaque marks his birth place at No 3, St Gilbert Street, right in the heart of the town. We stop to speak to a handful of locals nearby and what is immediately clear is their obvious pride at living in a place so many around the world flock to see.
ROYAL DORNOCH IN ALL ITS GLORY
We wander back up to to club in the evening light. Only three holes of the Championship Course are visible from the clubhouse- the 1st, the 2nd and the 18th. However, we walk up towards the 2nd green and then on to the 3rd tee and suddenly the dramatic sweeping arc of links land that makes Royal Dornoch Golf Club what it is reveals itself to us.
For us, it was all to come the next morning. The anticipation was building.
The walk from Links House to the 1st tee the next morning was no more than 25 paces. The accents on the putting green reflected the global appeal of Royal Dornoch Golf Club nicely and we were introduced to our playing partner for the day, Zachary Pollock, who hailed from New York and was joined for the round by his partner Kendra. They had first visited Dornoch six months’ earlier and had fallen so deeply in love they had felt the pull to return as soon as they were able to.
Now, there are more than enough hole-by-hole reviews of the Championship Links without us adding to the list. Royal Dornoch’s own website has arguably the best of them but even that does not top the course guide, which is nothing short of wonderful. Not because of the information or the detailed yardages but because alongside each hole is a short piece by the local minister, Rev Susan Brown. For instance for the 1st hole, aptly named First, she writes ‘in the beginning … draw breath and enjoy the clean score sheet and all the possibilities that lie ahead. Choose now to take one step at a time and enjoy what those step holds.’ While on the 3rd hole, where the glory of Royal Dornoch is revealed to you for the first time, she says ‘the course opens up before you. Sea, hills, sweeping fairways. Pause to admire the natural beauty around you and appreciate what the Creator and humans can do together.’ Wonderful.
The highlights of the round are too many to detail and your own experience may differ from ours but the natural features are challenging and charming all at the same time, not least the green sites, the majority of which resemble upturned saucers. The run-offs are wonderfully penal for those who take on the flags with too much gusto while the fairways are firm and fabulously fast. The eight outward holes occupy the high ground, furthest from the coast, while the 10 back run closer to the beach. No hole will overawe you with distance, but each will demand good ball striking and strategy.
There were so many memorable moments in our round, the 184-yard par 3 2nd was once described by honorary member Tom Watson as the shortest par 5 in the world. The green is 41 yards from front to back but on either side steep slopes wait to race your ball away and leave you facing the prospect of a pitch to an elevated green with no room for error. If the front 9 didn’t quite qualify as a gentle introduction, it was the easier of the two loops on the day. ‘Whinny Brae ’, the beautiful par-3 6th, is fantastic – thick gorse bushes (also known as whins) await anything left, anything right disappears down a steep embankment and away. It is one of a collection of four par-3s that together are as good as anything we’ve played.
As you’d expect, wind is a constant factor at Royal Dornoch Golf Club but its direction is anything but. It can feel as though the breeze comes is changing all the time, it isn’t, of course, but the routing is so clever and subtle that you rarely feel you have a handle on it. Standing on the tee at the new 7th, you stop to take it all in. The views across the links, along the curve of the coastline is one that will endure long after you leave this place. There are no weak holes here. Harry Vardon once described the 14th as, ‘the most natural hole in golf.’ This 445-yard par-4 demands a drawn from the tee and a fade into the green, which is defended by a sand dune. It’s a terrific test of shotmaking.
On the 18th tee we read from the course guide for the final time. ‘As you prepare to tee off, think of the number of people in the last 400 years who have stood where you are. Regardless of your round be grateful for the energy to play and for the company and the scenery. Take a deep breath. Swing slow and true and give thanks for the exercise of body, mind and spirit.’ And we did. We drank it all in. We walked as slowly as we dared up the last and tried to remember how it felt to feel the turf under our feet, to breathe in that clean Highland air and gave thanks for the chance to be here.
How do you sum up a visit like this one? Does Royal Dornoch Golf Club deserve every word of praise? Of course it does and then some for a myriad of reasons not all of which you can put into words. So please consider this your call to adventure, plan your trip, find a way to Dornoch and drink in the wonder of the experience. You’ll never forget it