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If I were banished to one course only, which would I choose?
County Down, Muirfield, Hoylake, Lahinch, Ganton, Brancaster, Portrush, Notts(Holinwell), Portmarnock, Rye and Deal, all compete and get a 5-star “joy to be alive” rating but in terms of continuous enjoyment, golfing challenge and pure magic, where every bump, hollow, ridge, trap and whin has a purpose, with its views across the Dornoch Firth, the quality of running turf, the feel of a wildness tamed under the back-drop of purple mountains, this course makes you prefer to be nowhere else in the world.
I have made the ‘pilgrimage’ every year since 1985 and the anticipation and enjoyment never dims.
Dornoch is a course with a Club rather than a Club with a course and the locals make sure it is a friendly place without pretensions.
There is evidence of golf being played at Dornoch since 1616 with the first 18-hole course being developed by Old Tom Morris of St Andrews in the 1890s, from which many changes have been made, with the five wonderful holes at the far end of the course being only added in 1946 by George Duncan.
It was the granting of the “Royal” in 1906 and the leadership of the Secretary John Sutherland across 58 years that helped Dornoch, only 80 miles from John O’Groats, to be recognised, though in modern marketing terms it was not until Ben Crenshaw and Tom Watson in the early 1980s publicised it (both now Honorary members) and spread the word in America that it fully came of age.
Non-resident members have equal rights with local members, who though continue to be very much in charge (and they pay the same membership fees!). A reflection of Dornoch’s world-class reputation is that there are more American members than Dornoch resident members.
Golf Digest has recently placed Dornoch as its 5th ‘best’ course in the world, only behind Royal County Down in GB&I, that is placed first, with Muirfield and St Andrews Old as 9th and 10th. Dornoch is firmly on the overseas visitors’ circuit, now often combined with Castle Stuart.
The course is routinely in immaculate condition with the wiry fine grasses giving a true ‘running game’ experience.
There is a call these days, driven to some extent by television golf coverage, to have very fast greens. I have experienced Dornoch’s greens in different Augusts with a stimp of 14 and 8. The greens are predominantly fine fescue with some highland bent – a type of coarser browntop bent (much work has been done recently by Eoin Riddell’s team to replace the ryegrass and yorkshire fog in the greens) and are never cut at less than 4mm and up to 6mm in the winter. Though the ironing machine is used on occasion to flatten out spike marks, essentially the speed is determined by how much rain there has been. This is the natural way with FineGolf courses.
A kilted starter welcomes you to a 1st hole that in a dry summer can be driven downwind but it can get up and bite you. Indeed, on any of Dornoch’s holes, you might be going along steadily, but have one bad shot and in the blink of an eye a 7 or 8 will appear on your card. This is without tough, lush rough (though there are huge hillsides of gorse) and its predominantly wispy nature is not overly penal. There are no lush fringes around the many raised greens to ‘arrest your errant ball as it rolls off and casually explores nooks and crannies until settling on a spot where gravity can influence it no longer’.
I don’t know of a tougher start, Dornoch’s second to sixth holes frighten with their requirements rather than their length. Before you have your confidence, you have to choose to hit to the first of Dornoch’s four well-defended short holes. This has a plateau green with deep front bunkers left and right and a steep slope from three sides.
An eight iron played short hoping for a bump and run, up and down is often chosen in a medal round, though even then a small mound just in front of the green can still throw the ball off into either bunker. If the green is missed on either side, a sand wedge from tight turf or a putt up the bank has to stop the ball on the green or a similar next shot is presented from the other side! A bump and run is the best option if you have the expertise and confidence.
It is not surprising that some wag suggested that the most difficult shot in golf was the second shot on the second at Dornoch!
Let’s hope for no more than a four here and quickly move to the third where the links is presented in its full glory. Over the last 25 years the drive and the rough at this hole has been changed several times because of the new houses built above its left hand-side and the danger of hooked balls. Royal Wimbledon I am told has also had an issue on its first hole, perhaps both problems now exacerbated by the power of the modern ball and the length fit youngsters are hitting it.
One reason why Dornoch is so highly thought of is that if you don’t get any shot quite right your next is much more difficult and so the emphasis is on higher expertise, strategy and control rather than mere length.
The new design by Tom Mackenzie at the third hole is an improvement for the scratch player as the previous layout suited the bomber who took little risk in not running out beyond the last bunker, whereas even a well-crafted draw down the middle, the shot of the expert, could still run out into a bunker because they were too close to the spine. The visibility of the bunkers has been restored and with the last bunker now 25 yards further on and there being a longer carry over the corner, they now have a more difficult decision to take which for most will be to throttle back leaving a longer second shot, particularly as the slogged ball will still run-out to the further away bunkers when the new turf matures. Both Sandy Lyle and Paul Lawrie in their 2016 exhibition match both went for the long carry but failed to fly the high rough on the corner.
Nevertheless the ordinary golfer who doesn’t like change may remember that the drive used to be one of Dornoch’s most crucial decisions as to which side of the mound one took, with the wind being part of the calculation. Now there is only one choice while the angle into the green is easier, if longer.
So has the length the ball is being hit these days forced a change that has improved the hole for the scratch player but has also brought a blandness for most and is it now down to the brilliant green complex to provide the primary interest on this hole? The pin is always down the middle of the green and the best approach is off the mound on the left on which is hidden a bunker, as anything to the right of the pin will disappear down a slope and into another difficult bunker. The green is also tilted down the middle against the main slope which puts you off-balance and there are few putts ever conceded on this green!
The 4th (Achinchanter) along with the 14th (Foxy) are Dornoch’s best holes. Donald Steel not surprisingly had the 4th in his Daily Telegraph 18 best holes in GB&I.
From a tee on the side of a hill of gorse running the length of the hole, a drawn shot has to be hit to stay on the sloping fairway or it will run off under a series of gullies on the right. Many a time a great drive that looks to be perfect bounces left off the spine running up the left of the fairway and down into rough hollows and hillocks.
The triangular green with swales is typical of Dornoch’s raised greens which stimulated Donald Ross (a son of Dornoch and considered by many as America’s greatest golf architect) in his design of Pinehurst No 2, a particularly famous US course which was recently updated by one of Dornoch’s honorary members Ben Crenshaw.
A decision has to be taken on this 440 yard hole whether to pitch the green and risk running off into purgatory over the side on the right or to play through the valley in front of the green risking falling back from the bank or ending up in low bunkers left or right. A birdie on Achinchanter will give you two against the field.
A tee shot down the left of the short par four 5th (Hilton) helps in the challenge of holding another long narrow plateau green, pinched in the middle from the right.
Standing on the tee of the short 6th is perhaps even more terrifying than the 2nd. The green is a side-shelf half way up the left hand gorse hill with three pot bunkers in a line between the hill and the green and a precipice on the right that gives a similar challenge as at the 2nd except that the bank here is rough grass and a bump and run gets stuck. So the only shot available is a flick with a sandwedge off tight turf! There is a deep bunker guarding the front right and the only safe place is on the green or perhaps in the swale in front if your bump and run is working.
Nevertheless, it has its attractions, as, when I found myself 3 down after 5 in the final of the Davidson Cup in the Carnegie Shield week in 1999, my opponent (Alan Grant, the amiable Director of Golf at Skibo) showed the first chink in his armour by missing the green and I hit a spanking 5 iron to its heart. It gave me the boost to start attacking the course and by the 12th the small band of family and friends who were walking round were able to stop avoiding my eye and will me to victory on the 17th.
Dornoch is a course where you are required to hit 100% shots, which concentrates the mind and lifts your game. Precision and strategy are needed and, being only 6,600 yards off the whites, the need for brute strength is less important. It is par 70 and SSS 73 which normally goes out to 75 in competitions when there is any wind.
The 460 yard 7th along the top of the hill between banks of gorse and across one of two areas of heather on the course, requires some thought as to how to negotiate the subtle swale between two bunkers at the front of the green and a four feels like a birdie. The club has decided to re-route this hole, in order to create an even more dramatic panoramic vista from along the top of the escarpment. The wonderful seventh green will be moved but exactly replicated.
The 8th with its fairway half way along dropping down 40 feet can leave a glorious long iron from the top or a difficult 7 iron from the bottom. The changed seventh hole will allow the eigth tees to be moved so once again, as originally designed in 1946 by George Duncan, most second shots will be played from the top. A bunker on a rise in the middle of the fairway 30 yards shy of this bowl green can fool the unwary but at last we have a green that gathers a ball in, though the putting is no easier for that.
The 9th turns for home back into the prevailing wind and runs along the seashore where the sandy beach can be easily visited with a bit of a hook. Down wind it is a possible birdie four if you can run up onto the green protected either side by deep bunkers.
The 145 yard 10th (Furan) small pulpit green is protected on the left and in front by devilish bunkers but, if you miss on the right, you have to play what I contend used to be the most difficult shot on the course off a tight mown lie up a little rough vertical bank, which will not accept a bump and run and requires exquisite delicacy of touch to stay on the green sloping away from you. This flick shot is now a little easier as the turf has been left semi-rough making it possible to get under one’s ball.
The 11th (A’chlach), 445 yards, has another raised green that is enormous with a deep bunker on the left and a pot biting into the middle of the green on the right, a brilliant if somewhat hidden hazard. A modern architect would be unlikely to design the lay of this bunker in the way it is and indeed it has been left over from when the green used to be approached from a different angle!
A 45º swale in front of this green suggests the need for a high approach onto the green but into the prevailing wind a low running 1 iron is the best choice and if accomplished remains in the memory for sometime.
The fairway of the par five 12th (Sutherland) is to be moved further left to create more of a dogleg and this will allow the eleventh green to have run-offs to both sides and back as typical of Dornoch design. Sutherland’s whole strategy is created by the green’s tight approach with a knoll on the centre left that hides the bottom of the pin and requires bravery. We are then onto the last of Dornoch’s quartet of well-protected short holes, this one completely ringed by bunkers and hollows.
Why is the 440 yard 14th (Foxy) so famous? It has no bunkers but an S-bend fairway leaves you with either a steepling mid-iron if downwind and hit with back-spin, might just hang onto the raised, wide but shallow-in-depth, green. The other option is a fade with a running low iron up the mown five-foot-high bank in front of the left half of the green. These are not watered target greens and they usually do not even take a mild divot in the summer. Over the back is not the place to be.
My old friend Gavin Gilbey and I had played the Open Burghfield three-man team event in the first weekend of May for 18 years and also played a practice round on the Friday and the Open medal on the Sunday. In twelve years neither of us had been on Foxy‘s green in two. A bottle of champagne, which was then increased to a magnum three years later, was staked and I had at last the satisfaction of offering to share his liquor with me after 90 full-blooded combined attempts.
Most are quite happy to find the bottom of the bank in two and hope for a putt up the steep bank to give some chance of a par, though this green is arguably the most difficult on the course with its subtle movements and shelfs.
Click Here to read my article in Golf Quarterly as to why I chose ‘Foxy’ as my favourite hole in golf.
The 15th (Stulaig) gives some respite and a birdie chance if your pitch to the upturned saucer green is exact. A large mound has to be avoided off the tee and with a green sloping away many shots go through. As is normal at Dornoch there is a difficult swale in the pitching area in front of the bank of the green, so imagination and confidence are required as all but the most well executed running approach shots will die and not reach its hoped-for destination.
Some people think the 16th (High hole) is unfair but if you have remembered to look across from the 2nd to see the pin position on its long flat green you have a chance to pick the correct club for your approach after a challenging and risky drive.
The normal way to play the dogleg 17th is down into a valley (now that the gorse has been cut back one should not run out) and then up an escarpment onto another bowl green with the safety line coming off the slope on the left. The heroic method is to stay on top and hit over a sea of gorse.
The 18th is not the best visual hole at Dornoch with so much of its trouble hidden in front of the huge green that slopes away from you but, if a par four is achieved, you will be well satisfied.
The fishing village of Portmahomack across the Dornoch Firth competes with Dunbar for the greatest hours of sunshine in Scotland. Dornoch often has its own micro-climate that is dry and, with the Northern Latitude extending the hours of daylight in the summer, is an attractive holiday spot for its beaches and village (actually the Church of Scotland cathedral makes it a city!) beauty.
Save 30% on green fees for both of the courses and also at Tain, Golspie and Brora by buying a Dornoch Firth Golf Pass for just £40.
See: “A History of Royal Dornoch Golf Club 1877-1999”, by John Macleod,
Review by Lorne Smith 2008 and updated in 2014
Returned to RDGC last weekend.As ever, it felt perfect with a superb course and equally superb welcome in the Clubhouse.Greens in wonderful condition.
Unmatched UK links course in my view.
Played Dornoch last week and it was fantastic, lovely club and somewhat jealous of members that play it every week (for £330 a year)
One comment to make is the 14th (Foxy) won 8 to 0 against our 4 ball that played twice, truly a wonderful hole.
Cant wait to get back
I spend several days each May in Dornoch. Playing Royal Dornoch is wonderful. The wind conditions change as does how you play the course. There are many different types of golf holes which makes each golfer play many challenging golf shots. Always can’t wait to return.On May 7th, 2011 Jerry Lingerfelt Said:
I had the wonderful pleasure of playing this superb course three times last August with one of your American members, Jay Joines. Jay is a big supporter of RDGC and now I know why. Never been treated any better than when we were there. The atmosphere is so casual and yet you have this feeling of being some place very special. I will return someday.
Dear jerry, I was introduced to Dornoch in the early 1980s and have had to return every year since to scratch the addiction! I know the club will be appreciative of your comments. Warm regards, LorneOn August 29th, 2011 Paul Dolton Said:
I played Royal Dornoch for the first time in this years Carnegie Shield and found the course easily living up to its world class billing .Fast and firm conditions and testing holes from start to finish. Combine that with the inclusive atmosphere of the clubhouse and you have a great golfing experience.On October 12th, 2012 David McIntosh Said:
Tremendous golf course with an atmosphere about it that cannot be described.On December 25th, 2012 tom morris Said:
Just going to the first tee and being started by Hugh (in kilts) my old friend for many years always guaranteed that I never lost the Dornoch fever in my love for links golf-One is never the same after -guaranteed.On March 22nd, 2014 Paul Mills Said:
Played in the Carnegie Shield as a youngster, had a week practicing on the aerodrome and was lucky to play the course several times. It remains my favorite golf course and inspired an obsession in turf conditions for golf. I agree that Foxy is an incredible hole and hitting that green gives an enormous sense of accomplishment. Golfing heaven for me, nothing that I would change.On October 24th, 2014 Clark Altwater Said:
My secound trip to Scotland revolved around the need to play two golf courses. Royal Dornoch and
Machrihanish. Although there were other stops on the way, they were the jewles of the trip. Royal Dornoch continues to be the best test of links golf I have ever played, and favorite golf course in the world. nothing would please me more then to spend as much time there as possible. The perfect day would be an 8;00 am twosome followed by a couple pints before the secound round of the day 🙂 and maybe one more before dinner and preparation of the next day. Can’t wait to go back