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Golfers who make the drive to Dornoch discover one of the world's finest historical links courses.
Golfers who make the drive to Dornoch discover one of the world's finest historical links courses. (GolfPublisher.com)

Historic Royal Dornoch Golf Club in Scotland's Highlands is well worth the drive

Brandon TuckerBy Brandon Tucker,
Managing Editor

DORNOCH, SCOTLAND — When you're planning your big, seven- to 10-day golf vacation to Scotland, it's easy to forget about Royal Dornoch Golf Club. After all, it isn't a British Open venue like Turnberry, Carnoustie, Muirfield or St. Andrews, and it's located way up in the Highlands: a four-hour drive from Edinburgh and 45 minutes north of Inverness.

But as anyone who's played the storied golf course on the shores of the Dornoch Firth will tell you, it's impossible to forget. Royal Dornoch is links golf at its pinnacle and is arguably the finest course in the British Isles.

And golfers have been discovering the grounds even long before Old Tom Morris was commissioned to revamp the course when the club was established in 1877.

"There are records of golf being played here since 1616," secretary manager John Duncan said. "So we suspect Morris took some holes that were already in some playing condition and redesigned them and turned them into a proper layout."

Sure, this course is too isolated, too short and not spectator-friendly enough for The Open Championship, but that's the Open's loss, not Dornoch's. Open winners Ernie Els, Tom Watson and scores of other golf legends come to Dornoch for leisure, full-knowing they won't be playing for any prize money anytime soon.

Designers from all over the world also come to Dornoch to see where legendary architect Donald Ross, who grew up in Dornoch and serves as a greenskeeper before coming to the U.S., learned the game.

It's a spectacular, visually dramatic and challenging but fair test of golf. The outward nine plays into the wind, and is narrow and difficult. But golfers can also use the driver on about every hole, unlike Morris' other mind-boggler Prestwick Golf Club in Ayrshire.

The par-5 ninth is a real treat. It's the first hole with the wind at your back and the shores of the firth coming into play, you can really let one rip down the hard fairway. A good poke and you'll have a mid-iron into the green in two shots for a two-putt birdie.

The 10th, while short, isn't so easy. It's a 140-yard par 3 with a small, heavily guarded green and demands a precise wedge that should be kept as low as possible, or the ball will be at the wind's mercy.

For the rest of the course, even if you've put your drive in position A, green complexes make every approach shot a different challenge. Each green possesses different obstacles: crowned, swails, false fronts, multi-tiered or heavily bunkered.

Surrounding pot bunkers that are difficult to identify from the fairway are often lurking. Like most premier links courses in Scotland, these greens are in great shape and run fast and true, even in the off season.

The verdict

Royal Dornoch is the anchor of the Highlands golf scene, which also features Nairn Golf Club and local favorite Brora. But Royal Dornoch not only trumps the rest of the Highlands, it can likely trump about any course in the isles.

Simply put: don't let a three-hour drive get in the way of you and this gem. It should be on everyone's itinerary. It's far more fair to first-timers than one of Morris' other designs, Prestwick.

The course is also much easier to get onto and cheaper than the other premier courses in Scotland, a result of its Highlands location. Green fees are £75, compared to the £115-50 at courses like St. Andrews, Turnberry, Muirfield and Royal Troon.

Places to stay

The Royal Golf Hotel is a three-star hotel located right on the first tee's doorstep. Just walk through the back yard and you're there.

It also has spacious rooms and a nice dining room and lounge that serves free breakfast for guests and there is also a nightly dinner. From the hotel you can easily walk to downtown Dornoch as well.

Another option is to stay down south in Nairn. The Claymore House Hotel (a GolfEurope.com luxury, value pick) is a favorite of golfers who enjoy the Highlands and the comfort of staying in a smaller, inn-like setting - but who also demand quality service and stylish surroundings.

Dining out

Royal Dornoch's clubhouse serves lunch and dinner in the lounge upstairs and overlooks the course. The menu is very reasonably priced versus resorts like Turnberry and Carnoustie's after-round menu.

Entrees range from a start sampler appetizer featuring just about everything you could fry, to burgers, salads and steaks. Or eat at the Royal Golf Hotel just a chip shot away and serves dinner until 8 p.m.

Fast fact

Like Turnberry, Royal Dornoch was closed during World War II and turned into an airbase for the British military. Following the war, some of the original holes were converted to what is now the Struie course.

Today, you can still witness military fighter jets performing test runs over the firth while on the course.

Spotlight on: The 17th

The 17th is a tricky hole before the long, wide-open finisher at Dornoch. It plays about 400 yards from the amateur tees and you must choose whether to lay up with an iron and have a downhill shot over bush to the green, or knock it over the hill and have a shorter, but blind shot in.

There's plenty of room right or left of the green, which slopes left to right. From the lay-up zone, there's a bailout zone that lets you run up shots. From the fairway below however, bunkers and mounds guard any possible run-up to the green.

Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

 
Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Royal Dornoch

    Jeff Tolman wrote on: Jun 21, 2008

    Royal, the course should be. It is a mixture of wonderful, difficult holes (one golfers described the greens as "like trying to stop your ball on the back of a VW Beetle.")and often tough conditions. The course will challenge your best shots and make you want to return. When you tell your at-home golf companions "I shot 108 and loved it" they won't understand. Once you play the great RDGC course, you will.

    Reply