As far as golf courses go, Durness is one of the remotest that I’ve visited. Durness is north of Moscow and on a similar latitude to Anchorage, Alaska. It is the most northwesterly golf course on the British mainland and to put that in perspective, the course is a 2+ hour drive north of Royal Dornoch. What a rewarding and beautiful drive it is!
I made the journey to Durness as part of my trip on the North Coast 500. The NC500 is a 500-mile road trip following the coastal roads of the Scottish Highlands. During stops on the road trip, nearly every local golfer recommended, “Stop and play Durness – you won’t regret it!” Lucky for me, my tee time was already booked and my good friend Ru Macdonald of the Scottish Golf Podcast had introduced me to Ali Morrison, the Durness superintendent (check out his Instagram for great photos!). I arranged to meet Ali on my morning of play to hear more about the course and its history.
He explained to me that the course is designed with 18 tees and nine greens so that two loops of the course provide two different experiences (the holes below are the “front” nine). He also told me that despite its historical look and vibe, the course only opened 1988. The project was the brainchild of a group of three local enthusiasts and they took on the challenge of building a course on an ecologically sensitive site. Because of its environmental sensitivity, few pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers can be used on the course. Additionally, the land is a grazing area for local livestock. All of those factors create a challenge for Ali, but he manages to keep the course was in top shape during my visit.
The clubhouse at Durness (seen in the first photo of this review) is a small building with an “honor box” where players pop in to pay their greens fees. It also offers respite from the strong winds and an opportunity to soak in the panoramic views of the famous 9th green which hangs on the cliffs above the North Atlantic.
You could wish that Durness was in a more accessible location, but that would take away some of the charm. The challenging drive to the course, particularly if following the NC500 coastal roads, crescendos as it approaches Durness. The road winds around giant sea lochs with only windmills and the occasional fishing village to break up the drive. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen and it cements the Scottish Highlands and Islands as one of my favorite regions in the world.
The layout at Durness is divided between holes (1, 8, and 9) overlooking the ocean and expansive views beyond, and holes (2-7) in the rolling hills set back from the sea. The hills are prototypical Scottish Highlands and they look more akin to a Lord of the Rings movie than the backdrop to a golf course. Loch Lanlish sits next to the 6th hole and is a focal point of the second half of the course. The scale of the site seems even bigger due to a lack of rough (thanks sheep!) and lack of definition between holes.
Balnakeil Beach runs behind the course with the turquoise blue water found up and down the west coast and western isles of Scotland. To walk the entire beach is nearly 1.5 miles – one way! The water looks Caribbean-blue on a sunny day and this view has to qualify as one of the best parking lot vistas in golf.
Hole #2 – With a stunning view to your back, the course heads toward the dark Highlands hills. Drives can crest the hill and run down toward the green, seen in the second photo below. The aim point off the tee is the center fairway mowing line.
Hole #4 – The first photo below was taken from the hill above and behind the 4th tee. The faint white marker is the aiming point in the fairway, which is a “trough” shape running uphill to the green.
Hole #5 – The 5th turns back toward the sea and clubhouse. The fairway is wide and due to grazing livestock, there isn’t thick grass in sight. Golfers have to navigate two rocky areas in the landing area and the small raised green presents a great challenge.
Hole #6 – The 6th is a dogleg right par 5 that hugs the border of the loch. Play well away from the water because the loch cuts in more than expected!
Hole #7 – This is a long par 3 heading to back to the hills. The two bunkers initially seem like the challenge here, but I missed the green long right and was faced with a really tough pitch back onto the green. The right to left slopes around this green are much more pronounced than they seem from the tee.
Hole #8 – The 8th puts you squarely back on the seaside holes. The green sits next to the cliffs directly over the aiming post, as does an all-world view. The scale of the vista beyond the green can’t be captured in a photograph… Even on a dull, grey, and rainy day, I could have soaked in that view for hours!
Hole #9 – The famous 9th hole plays over cliffs and crashing waves to a multi-tiered green. The right side of the green – the natural bail-out area – is guarded by two bunkers. The designers made the most of a great stretch of coastline and while it doesn’t feel as untouched as the rest of the course, it sure is cool.
I plan to drive the North Coast 500 again to focus on all of the non-golf activities I passed on my way to the courses. When I do make that trip, I only want to play one course. I’m going to play Durness again.
I also want to spend more time in the village of Durness where you’ll find one of Scotland’s best chocolate makers – Cocoa Mountain Chocolate. My plan? Play a quick nine and head down to Cocoa Mountain for a sandwich and hot chocolate. Sounds pretty darn good!