Where the ocean meets the sky I’ll be ….
Final leg of the Inverness trip was an hour drive north to Royal Dornoch. Not going to lie, the whole trip was devised around playing Royal Dornoch. I hadn’t looked at many photos and wanted to play the course with a fresh pair of eyes. The weather forecast was abysmal but lady luck was with us and we only had rain\snow for holes 2 and 3. I must say that Dornoch is an enchanting place. Lovely old houses seeped with history. World class beaches with views to match. Real estate not cheap either, this property overlooking the course is going for 1m+ – http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/property-48559438.html. What a lifestyle.
Anyway onto the course. The guide lays claim to golf being played on the site for over 400 years. John Sutherland, club secretary appointed Old Tom Morris in 1886 to add nine holes to the current course In 1892, Sutherland proceeded with an extension to the 18 and from there worked tirelessly to improve the course particularly the green sites. Donald Ross born in Dornoch, learned a great deal of his craft here working with Old Tom Morris and Sutherland. Ross would go on to design the likes of Pinehurst No 2 and Seminole and hope I get to sample some of his courses in the coming years. I read that the Pinehurst No 2 design in particular is influenced by Royal Dornoch.
Tom Watson is also an honorary member of the club and has famously claimed that it’s the most fun he’s had on a golf course. Major praise indeed from someone who would have played most of the world’s leading courses.Unfortunately or fortunately the course has never hosted a major championship and highly unlikely they ever will. The site is remote and infrastructure simply not in place. I would love to see the world’s best tackle the course but looks like that will not happen.
Back to the day, we arrived around 10 in slight snow. The pro shop was boiling hot by contrast with a warm welcome afforded to us. Caddiemaster was a member of Brora club, unfortunately we didn’t have time to play there. He said not to worry Royal Dornoch is a lot better, easy for him to say as he’s local! One day I’ll be back. The famous flags awaited by the first tee and we were off.
First hole is a gentle introduction to proceedings, a short Par 4 requiring an iron depending on the wind. A large pot bunker needs to be avoided to the front right of the elevated green. A number of greens are elevated on the course and fairways shaped like moguls which adds to the challenge. Dad managed to par the first and I bogeyed but we were away. 2nd is a shortish Par 3 played to a raised green, deep bunkers are located either side and it’s a tough green to hold. A brief walk through the gorse awaits to take you to the nitty gritty of the golf course and a great vantage point from the third. 3rd is a short Par 4 dogleg right downhill hole played into a three club wind on the day. Gorse decorates the left of the fairway with snow covered highlands providing the backdrop. The 4th is a longer Par 4 with a similar downwards shape to the 3rd, hole played very long on the day. 5th is a short Par 4 played again to a downhill fairway and elevated green. Bunkers pepper the right of the fairway here and the raised green is amply protected by deep greenside bunkers. The 6th is a gem of a Par 3 played against a background of bright yellow gorse. Tee and green are both raised with shots that miss the green harshly dealt with. When I was playing one of the later holes coming home I saw someone just hit the right downslope of the green and ball flew right buried in heavy wrong. Inches from perfection.
It’s a short trek upwards from the 6th green to another section of the course and the SI 1 7th. Yet another Kodak moment awaits from the tee with views to the clubhouse with the opening\closing holes featured. After taking the appropriate photos, hit a driver as far as I could into a strong headwind, 464 yards played like 520 yards. Hole is a masterpiece, totally enclosed with gorse. We felt like we were the only people on the course, again the snow-capped highlands loomed large in the background. The hits kept on coming, the 8th simply is one of the best holes I’ve played period. I wonder how much this hole has proved an inspiration for other architects particularly Coore and Crenshaw. The teeshot is blind to a degree with a steep slope carrying the shot at least 50 yards if you make it. The drop is significant and the approach is played to a raised green, on the day a very steep headwind. I had 150 yards to go and hit a three wood (luckily onto the green). The 9th hole is a Par 5 played towards the clubhouse, the tee-box marks the furthest point on the course. Hole plays right along the sea, you can feel the salt in the air and the noise is deafening. Heavily wind-assisted on the day, the 491 yards was easily reachable in two shots. If only I could putt! Story of my life.
“Inward” nine starts with short Par 3 again heavily wind-assisted. Think I hit a gap wedge on the day and missed to the right. As with the other Par 3s on the course, miss and your punished. 11th is a long Par 4 with heavy rough to the left and gorse to the right. 12th is a dogleg left Par 5, there is a quite a lot of space to utilise from the second shot to setup an easier approach to a narrow green. The 13th is the last of the Par 3s before a run of straight Par 4s home. Three deep pot bunkers frame the left of the raised green with one right, heavy rough surrounding the green complex. As with the Par 3s on the course, not much room for error here. 14th is SI 2 and is of course “Foxy”. Hole features a large dune to the right of the hole which looks driveable (stupid me) from the tee though risk-reward makes it not worth it. Safe play is left fairway to open up the approach to green, approach was wind assisted and yes green elevated. Hole famously features no bunkers, there is a good write up of the hole here. Synopsis of Foxy here from the World Atlas of Golf:
” The 14th at Royal Dornoch has it all. There is ample room on the tee shot, but the closer a player hits the ball towards the left rough the more likely they are to be able to go for the green. The fairway is beautifully crumpled, and also bottlenecked at a distance of 290 yards (265 metres), which can require the big hitter with little nerve to play up. Regardless of how close a golfer is to the green, the approach is never easy and can always be played high or low and with or without spin. The plateau green complex is just that – complex – heaving and rolling over the land like a microcosm of its fairway. All that is missing are bunkers. Who needs them?”
The 15th is a short Par 4, iron\hybrid from the tee required here to setup a straightforward approach. This hole is tagged as the easiest on the course. 16 and 17 are once again fantastic holes. The 16th plays sharply up a hill with a fatal drop left for hooked teeshots. Legs certainly felt heavy walking up to the green at this point. Gorse again is a heavy factor over the closing holes. Great views await from the 16th green. 17th is another of the best Par 4s I’ve played. Hole is fairly long and is dogleg left, teeshot is played into a valley of sorts with green not viewable. Significant run can be had from the tee which sets up a second to a sharply elevated green. Approach shot here is one of the toughest I’ve played, wind\elevation\tough green all in play here. Photos don’t do this hole justice. The last of a breathtaking round is played once again from a gorse backdrop with fairway bunkers to the right. It’s a long hole to finish on with the green viewable from the clubhouse. I messed this hole up but this was immaterial in the grand scheme of things.
Sitting in the clubhouse and writing this account a few weeks later, its hard to express how good Royal Dornoch is. Words and photos don’t do it justice, you have to come experience. On the pilgrimage so far I’ve played great golf courses but there are those then Dornoch. Dornoch has the best set of Par 4s I’ve played, tough established greens, variety of holes which require all the shots in the book, hole directly adjacent to the ocean, I can just go on here. Make the trip and see for yourself. I’m intrigued to see how Royal County Down compares.
Best Hole – Too many to name!
Hardest Hole – Hole 7