Our trip to Royal Dornoch exemplified perfectly the difficulty of golf trips without a car. It was another trip with my good friend Matt, and it lived up to all expectations. We took multiple trains, which eventually dropped us in the very remote town of Tain, Scotland. From Tain, we took a bus to the town of Dornoch. We then found that Dornoch has no taxi companies, so we hopped a ride on a school bus to our B&B. Our journey had taken us deep into the Scottish highlands to play what is one of the best ancient links courses in Scotland. I had a personal goal of playing Dornoch, because it was the home course to Donald Ross, the course design master who brought the world Pinehurst #2, and my home club, Biltmore Forest Country Club, in addition to many other greats.We played a twilight round the evening of our arrival. This allowed us to get a good look at the course before our early morning tee time, but also to slow down, and let everything sink in while the course was empty. The decision to play the twilight round was excellent. We made our scores irrelevant, and brought the design and course layout to the forefront. Between our two rounds played, we were able to grasp the course, and realize that it was one of the best ancient links in Scotland. As my dad would say, “We sat back and enjoyed the breeze!”The course begins to come alive on the par-3 second. It is a 175-yard hole with a raised green and severely sloping sides, both spilling into small collection areas. With green complexes like this one, it is easy to see where Donald Ross found his inspiration for Pinehurst #2. His signature small greens, with beautiful bunker complexes, definitely have their roots at Dornoch. The course dramatically opens up from the third tee onwards.
The bunkering on the 5th hole is classic. With a set of bunkers guarding a right side bailout and three massive bunkers endangering huge hitters and short approaches, there is plenty to think about on the tee. Lots of room on the left side of this fairway makes it obvious that if played correctly, a good score can be had. Getting greedy or leaking the ball right would lead to big numbers.The 161 yard par-3 6th has a massive slope on the right side, and bunkers and gorse guarding the left. A confident tee shot is a must. This is one of the holes at Dornoch that is truly fun. We spent time chipping around and hitting multiple approaches into this small challenging green.
This famous view at Royal Dornoch is from the 7th tee box looking back at the majority of the course. It was absolutely stunning.The 8th hole has a two-tiered fairway, featuring a beautiful view looking down towards the green. Longer hitters can try to reach the lower tier off the tee in the correct wind, but the long elevated approach from the upper tier is very fun.
The par-3s at Dornoch really stood out. This picture of the 10th green shows the clever green complex, with bunkers guarding nearly every miss, even over the green. The par 3s varied in length, with the longest reaching 175 yards. They were challenging and fun to play, while not presenting unenjoyably long beasts.
The finishing holes were strong, and the 17th was particularly fun to play. The 16th required a straight tee shot, which we found to be a theme on nearly every hole. A premium was put on straight drives, and long rough bordered by gorse was quick to catch any wayward balls. If you could drive the ball straight, you could go low. I had two eagles on the back nine during the twilight round (on 12 and 15), along with two double-bogeys (on 14 and 16), where I hit it in the gorse.The course conditions were superb. Being a “golf nerd,” I always look out for types of grass, and particularly the conditions of the greens. The greens had nearly no intruding grasses, poa annua, or other impurities. They rolled very true.
Unfortunately, we had a negative experience with the staff at Royal Dornoch. Due to our random assortment of trains and buses, we arrived for our 6:30 twilight round at 14:00, planning on slipping out early. After a massive meal in the clubhouse and an hour spent putting, we asked the pro at 16:30 if we could tee off early. The course was completely empty. He said that we were the next tee time, but if we wanted to go off early, we would have to pay 40 pounds each to upgrade from a twilight rate. I understand that rules are rules, but while we sat for two more hours, not a single person teed off. Letting two students off two hours early would not have hurt the club, and I wouldn’t be writing this negative blurb right now. The rude and illogical way they went about letting us tee off was a disappointment. It put a stain on what could have only added to the trip. Luckily, the great golf overshadowed the pro-shop staff.
In the category of “Old Scottish Links,” Dornoch is unquestionably one of the best. It had the beautiful Old Tom Morris design elements of Machrihanish, with some of the fun of Cruden Bay. Golf was first played in Dornoch in 1616, and if it weren’t so darn rural, it would get the same amount of play as Troon or other contemporaries. I don’t know when the next time I play Dornoch will be, but I would recommend it to anyone who is willing to make the journey.