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Royal Dornoch Golf Club

Sunrise over Royal Dornoch Championship Course
Sunrise over the Royal Dornoch Championship Course. Photo by David Scaletti

What a golf course! Royal Dornoch Golf Course alone is worth the trip up to the northern Scottish Highlands. On just about everyone's "Top 25" list, it is certainly one of the finest golf experiences you will ever have and one of the best golf courses in the world. Yes, it's out of the way, but go out of your way to play it. If you are an independent golfer planning your own Scottish tour, you will forever thank yourself for including Royal Dornoch in your itinerary.

Strange, you may think, that being such an exceptionally regarded course hasn't hosted the Open Championsip. But the reason is not any deficiency of the golf course but rather its relative inaccessibililty. In addition, the town of Dornoch would be hard-pressed to absorb the hordes of people and media and fuss that the Open Championship brings. (The town of Dornoch had trouble enough coping with Madonna's wedding.) Dornoch itself is a small, quiet, unassuming town that takes in its stride the fame of its great sport treasure.

The Dornoch championship course was originally designed by Old Tom Morris, a man responsible for more fine Scottish courses than perhaps any other single individual. Donald Ross, certainly one of the greatest golf course designers of all time and himself a native of Dornoch, served his apprenticeship under Tom Morris. He credits his early years at Royal Dornoch Golf Course with influencing his design of the renowned Pinehurst #2 in North Carolina. Anyone who has played both courses will note a similiarity.

The 14th green at Royal Dornoch
#14 - Nary a bunker in sight on this difficult hole, but it's the toughest on the golf course.
Photo by Iain Lowe

Royal Dornoch Golf Course is a timeless design

Royal Dornoch is a jewel set between the North Sea, mountains and hills and, in the Spring, sprinkled with flowers. It's something of an enigma in that it's not at all a deceptive golf course and there are precious few blind shots and few hidden bunkers to contend with. In fact, virtually all of the hazards are clearly visible. That's the good news and also the bad news because seeing the hazards presents an intimidation factor. Unlike many links golf courses where a bump and run will bring you closer to the pin than a high pitch shot, the greens at Royal Dornoch Golf Course are protected by bunkers at the front of the green and/or are set on plateaux so that a bump and run has to be perfectly executed. And, of course, there's the wind which will always discourage extra high shots. Decisions, decisions!

Royal Dornoch #1 Royal Dornoch #2 green Royal Dornoch 3
Don't let the gentle start fool you.
Photos by Iain Lowe
And don't miss this inverted saucer green. Note fairway sloping toward bunkers.

Royal Dornoch is a classic links golf course, but with a twist

The championship course is a classic out-and-back links golf course but with a twist--an "S" shaped twist. When playing the usual out-and-back layouts you have to contend with the wind blowing in only two directions--one way when you're going out and the opposite way when coming back. But Royal Dornoch is laid out in more of an "S" shape, which means that no matter which way the wind is blowing, on every hole it will be blowing in a different direction. Now that's an ingeniously great design.

Royal Dornoch starts out gently enough. Number 1 is a matter-of-fact par 4 of only 331 yards. However, there are 9 bunkers to negotiate and plenty of gorse lining the fairway. Number 2 is a simple-as-can-be looking par 3 that plays only 177 yards but you could be hitting anything from a 3 wood to a wedge depending on the wind. And take note, the green is an "inverted saucer" so that any shot not landing and holding the green rolls off and presents a devilishly difficult recovery. Tom Watson--not a stranger to links golf having won 5 Open Championships--said with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, "The second shot to #2 at Royal Dornoch is one of the toughest shots in golf." He was right on target. In other words, don't miss the green on this deceptive par 3 and take note of the inverted saucer green because you'll see it throughout this course. It not only makes for a difficult approach shot, it makes the greens seem smaller than they are, again adding to the intimidation factor. A well-struck shot that is able to hold the green or a well judged shot that rolls up and stops will serve you well on this course.

6th and 11th greens at Royal Dornoch
#6 and #11 greens. Just seeing this photo of this fabulous golf course should be enough to make you want to drop everything and come and play it at once! Photo by Iain Lowe

The 4th is a good example of what is in store. At 427 yards it's not the longest par 4 on the course but it requires a demanding second shot from an undulating fairway to an equally undulating plateau green guarded not only by two deep bunkers on the left, but a severely sloping fall-off on the right and rear into tall grass. The 5th is equally demanding with a tee that is about 40 feet above a fairway which slopes dramatically and has a bunch of tall mounds covered with deep grass. The green is no gift as it has three bunkers in front to discourage a bump and run and two more on the left of the green. As if that's not challenging enough, there is a nasty hollow between them and a severe fall-off on the right side and an equally severe fall-off in the back into thick grass. (Are we having fun yet?) The 6th would seem to offer some succor at only 163 yards but, again, the green is on a plateau and is built right into a gorse-covered hillside which continues up on the left and with two bunkers also on the left side. Any ball too far left will end up in deep gorse with a side-hill lie. Any ball to the right will fall about 15 feet down the side--if it doesn't hit a deep bunker first. On you go, hole after hole, seeing clearly what needs to be done and trying your best to do it. As with so many well-designed links courses, any mistake brings swift retribution. The bunkers are deep and can require your hitting the ball backwards or sideways onto the fairway rather than playing it toward the green. A sand save is cause for celebration because the alternative can easily be two or three more to get it in the hole.

The 14th, named "Foxy" (always be suspicious of a hole named Foxy), is one of the best holes on the course and the only one without a bunker. It doesn't need one any more than Jack the Ripper needed a bodyguard. A par 4 at 445 yards from the medal tees, it requires a lot of thought because it is a double dogleg with plenty of length. The fairways are guarded on both sides by grassy promontories that manage to jut out just about where an errant drive will fall. It also has (guess what?) a plateau green. This one narrows to only abot 8 yards on the left before it falls off steeply. The front of the green varies from about 5 feet on the left to double that on the right so a second shot needs lots of thought and lots of skill. A bogey is not bad on this hole. If you are scoring well up to this point, don't let this hole spoil your day. Don't force a shot. Take what it gives you. If you have a great drive, go for the pin. Otherwise, use good course management and make a good decision. If you get into the rough you won't have a lot of fun getting out.

Royal Dornoch Golf Course is a fair course despite what you may have inferred from my review. Yes, it's tough and, yes, you have to think your way around it, every shot has to be planned and well executed. But the course is not deceptive. What you see is what you get (even though it may not be what you think you deserve!). I'm a mid-handicapper and, although it was all I could handle, it wasn't impossible. I had some pars and even one birdie on my way to an 84. And, by the way, don't think that 6,514 yards from the medal tees is short. With a par of 70, the AFSD is a very respectable 186 yards--right up there with the best golf courses in Scotland.

To my mind it is absolutely worth the effort to come up to this high latitude to play Royal Dornoch. And plan to stay some extra days. After you play it once you'll definitely want to play it again. Some golfers come and play it for a full week. Actually, when you realize that three other excellent courses--Nairn, Brora, and Golspie--are in the same general area, the effort to come this far north will seem worth it. Along with Royal Dornoch Golf Course they are a fabulous bevy of fine golf. But I feel that even if Royal Dornoch Golf Course were the only golf course within 100 miles, it would still be worth the trip.

#17 A tough dogleg left with hills and dales in the fairway and two huge bunkers guarding the green. Lots of luck! Photo by Iain Lowe

After your round get a seat at the window of the upstairs bar. It will give you a great view of the golf course and you'll have fun watching the "first tee jitters" of the golfers getting ready to tee off just as you had a few hours previously.

Which reminds me. Keep up with the group in front. Scottish golf is not like golf in the States. Rounds of under 4 hours are the norm in Scotland. In fact, virtually all golf courses expect you to complete a round in 3 1/2 to 3 3/4 hours. Be ready to hit your ball after your partner has hit. Since you'll be walking (no buggies allowed except with medical certificate), you'll always be in position.

Give their website a look. It's excellent--friendly and informative--with photos of the golf course, the staff, and some 360 degree panoramas. You'll get an idea of the graciousness and the spirit of the staff.

Golfing tradition is uphelp at Royal Dornoch
Roddy Dingwall, starter, is part of the tradition that makes Scottish links golf so unique.

Golf Nook Scotland rates Royal Dornoch a rare HOLE-IN-ONE.

Check out this golfing bonus - One of the best golf bargains in Scotland

For a very attractive price you can play 36 holes on the Championship Course and also the second links course, the Struie Course. Keep in mind that at this latitude in the summer you can play golf until 11 PM!

The Struie is laid out on the same topography as the Championship Course, and you still have to knock the little white ball into a 4 1/4 inch hole in 3 to 5 strokes. And besides, you're playing golf in Scotland!

The Struie Course at Royal Dornoch
Royal Dornoch has a little brother called Struie. The Struie Course is right next to its big brother and shares the same links topography and obviously the same winds and weather. As I said, it's not as difficult as the championship course but is still a nice test of golf and great fun to play. I never go to Dornoch without playing at least one round on the Struie. It's the perfect second course if you've had enough of the big boy (although, who could ever get enough of it?). A morning round at the championship course, which the locals call "The Top Course," then lunch, maybe a short nap, then a second round on the Struie Course, another nap, dinner, a short walk around town, maybe a wee dram of single malt whisky and then off to bed. What a perfect day. (More details at Links Lite - great Links golf for the not-so-great golfer.)

Struie Course #3 Struie Course #7
Struie Course #3 Struie Course #7
Photos by Iain Lowe

Royal Dornoch has an excellent website, easy to navigate and filled with good info. --

Greenkeepers Cottage, a sheer delight Announcing....
The Greenkeepers Cottage
. owned by Royal Dornoch Golf Club.

Self-catering, beautifully designed and outfitted, and part of Royal Dornoch Golf Club. We were delighted to visit this exceptional just-opened (June '12) accommodation. The cottage is everything one would want -- top class, luxury comfort, sleeps 6, great location, golf course views from every window, and very attractive rental fees. We highly recommend it. For info & booking, click here.
Greenkeepers cottage, amid the golf courses
Any closer it would be in a bunker !!!


Mary-Alice suggests....
For What to Do All Day, please see Northern Highlands

Or maybe you'd rather just relax in the Greenkeepers Cottage !!