While Madonna may have married there, Dornoch is much more famous for being a golfing town...

Parky's picture
Martin Park
Wed, 27 Dec 2000

“Although Royal Dornoch is now well established in both serious and romantic golf, it still borders on the verge of being a hidden Gem”.

So says Peter Alliss, the voice of golf. And while I strongly concur with his comments, there is no better place to get away from it all and play one of the finest golf courses on the planet.

While Dornoch has been in the news for non-golfing reasons over the past few weeks, with the wedding of Madonna and Guy Ritchie and the Christening of their baby son Rocco, Dornoch has become synonymous as a golfing Mecca in the far northern reaches of Scotland. .

Royal Dornoch…golf does not get better than this

Royal Dornoch lies on the fifty-eighth parallel - in Canada you would be in the middle of the Hudson Bay, in Sweden you would be in Gothenburg and in Russia somewhere south of St Petersburg, but north of Moscow.

However the climate is much better that the latitude would suggest. Ecological studies prove that Dornoch only has one quarter of the rainfall experienced elsewhere in the Highlands and the Gulf Stream, which turns south after passing the North of Scotland, influences temperatures in the Dornoch Firth.

Long before there was a golf course at Dornoch, the game was played by the seaside of many of the eastern Scottish coastlines. And with the advent of the fishing industry in Scotland, the game, mostly played by fishermen at the time, spread quickly north along the coastline until it arrived by the perfect links land across the Tain estuary to the Dornoch Firth.

The first three golf links in Scotland are recorded as St Andrews in 1552, Leith in 1593 and Dornoch in 1616 and of these early courses, even back then it was regarded as one of the greatest piece of golfing terrain in Scotland. .

The Clubhouse by the first tee

But it was not until 1877, that the Dornoch Golf club came into being as the successor to the Sutherland Golf Society. St Andrews’ favourite son, Old Tom Morris is credited with its design when he created nine “proper” holes and added nine more three years later and the reputation of this wonderful links grew at epidemic proportions, all over Scotland and even across to America.

While most of the World will have only become familiar with Dornoch thanks to the Queen of Pop’s appearance here recently, the town has given rise to other stars in the past.

This small town is also the birthplace of one of the greatest golf course architects of all time…Donald Ross.

Ross, whose vast array of work includes Pinehurst No.2 in North Carolina, venue for the 1999 US Open, was born in St Gilbert Street in the charming town which is filled with an abundance of rose bushes and colourful flowers, hanging baskets and other eye-catching flora and it sets off the magnificent sandstone buildings. .

Classic linksland

Ross spent time as Head Greenkeeper at the club and then filled the Professionals post before he left to make his mark around the world in 1898 when he left Dornoch to take the infamous plateau greens his local course is famed for, across to America and throughout the world. Pinehurst being the prime example of his work and how the best golfers in the world were tortured during the 1999 US Open, John Daly especially!

And Andrew Carnegie, the great Scots philanthropist who made his money in the iron industry and emigrated to America in 1848, opened the new Clubhouse in 1909 after presenting the club with the famous Carnegie Shield when he was Vice President of the Club in 1901.

The Carnegie Shield is one of the oldest trophies in golf and each summer, the club invites some of the top amateurs in the world to play for this historic and huge shield. It is unquestionably one of the most beautiful trophies in the world with engraved on it two pictures of Dornoch Cathedral, Skibo Castle and the Bishops Palace - now the Castle Hotel.

Dornoch is a classic links with slopes and bunkers aplenty and position of the ball from the tee is essential if you are to score well here. The turf is tightly mown with an abundance of huge slopes that run off into bunkers filled with perfect soft sand. .

Springtime at Royal Dornoch

The greens are absolutely perfect…they do not get much better than this. Fast they are, sloping too, but with a constant top dress with sand from the magnificent beach, they will always be in tip top condition. Missing putts here is definitely your own fault!

To play golf on this kind of terrain is how it should be played. Tradition of the game is at its best here and if it were not for its northerly location, Royal Dornoch would be on the Open Championship Rota as it has everything that links golf should have.

So much so, that many of the world’s best golfers play Dornoch to prepare for The Open Championship in July and this year was no exception as Ernie Els travelled north from St Andrews in Fife before the “Tiger Woods show” to battle his way around with his father and tennis star Jim Courier.

But one of the proudest acclamation given to the club was when five times Open Champion Tom Watson declared that the hardest shot in golf is the second shot to the second hole here.

That may not be a great statement in itself, but when you arrive at the second hole and realise it is a par three, you begin to wonder if Watson had one too many whiskies at the time he said it. .

The hardest 2nd shot in golf

But after your tee shot to this 184-yard hole, you will have the devil’s own job of making par as the green sits perched on a plateau with two cavernous bunkers awaiting your ball to roll off the green and into them.

Think of the Road Hole bunker at St Andrews…one each side of this green, double its width and depth and fill them both with the softest sand on the planet and you might realise that being “plugged” in this bunker is not much fun at all! (It took me four to get out!)

If you are lucky enough to find the putting surface, a two putt from anywhere is a big achievement as the slopes are wicked. I for one have to agree with Watson…who am I to argue when I took a nine on that hole!

But this course is not about just coming to play the hardest second shot in golf because as soon as you meander through the whins to the third hole, the view is awe inspiring, especially in May when the Whins (Gorse to the English) are in full bloom and the gorse-filled bank enveloping the course is a profusion of yellow with a backdrop of Royal Blue sky…perfect.

The holes meander around the gorse banking with many greens perched above the level of the fairway, upturned saucers is a fair description and playing the game as close to the ground as possible is the only way to get anywhere near some of the flag positions.

If you play parkland golf or the US style “high ball” game…this course will eat you up and spit you out before you can say “put me down for an eight there!”

Pick of the holes are the short par three sixth with its plateau green and no bail out area at all. Find the green and then the fun begins. Augusta National has nothing like this fast green!

The eighth hole is also a gem. A gem of a view over the North sea and a gem of a green to fire into. The steep slope cuts diagonally across the fairway at about 260 yards and all you have to do is let your ball find the slope and run down the steep hill to leave a 150-yard bump and run into the well protected green. Play a high shot and your ball will undoubtedly run through everything and into some thick rough. .

Great view on the 8th

And the 11th, my favourite hole at Dornoch, needs a good long drive followed by an accurate long iron second shot, avoiding the deep pot bunker to the left. Make par here and life is as good as it gets on a golf course.

But one of the more memorable holes is the 17th with its thick whins lining both sides of the sloping fairway and the second shot requires unerring accuracy to find the green, 40-feet below you, but 15-feet above the fairway level. It takes a shot of world class execution to find and hold the green.

In the summer months, days of 18 hours are the norm and what better way to spend a holiday than to go round this gem twice in one day and still have enough daylight to finish it off with a barbeque or an evening stroll along one of the cleanest beaches in the world. .

Mind this bunker!
America’s Golf Magazine rates

Royal Dornoch as the 16th best course in the World and if you are planning a golf trip to Scotland for your society or just with a small group, you cannot afford to miss perhaps the mother of all hidden gems. It is well worth the four-hour drive from St Andrews and if you make a few detours on your way back, you could fit in the likes of Nairn, Cruden Bay, Blairgowrie and Boat of Garten near Aviemore.

But none of them will match the remoteness or the Royal welcome of Dornoch…golf does not get much better than this.



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