Carnegie Links at Skibo Castle still a work in progress
DORNOCH, Scotland. - Having left his home of Scotland a youth of modest means, Andrew Carnegie returned to his native land some 50 years later the richest man in the world. As the 19th century drew to a close, he purchased Skibo Castle a stone's throw from Dornoch as a retreat for himself, his American wife, Louise, and their only child, Margaret.
The estate was fixed up nicely, the family entertained grandly, and at age 63 Andrew Carnegie took up golf. The diminutive titan built himself a course on his 7,500 acres and played the game ferociously. He did not take well to losing and was known to tee the ball in the fairway, sportsmanship be damned.
In 1990, the opulent Carnegie getaway was acquired by British businessman Peter de Savary for a fittingly grandiose venture: an exclusive private getaway for well-heeled captains of industry, patrons of the arts and celebrities. The very same types who'd famously gathered 'round Carnegie's dinner table. This would be a place to be pampered and to enjoy the recreations the wealthy covet. Riding, shooting, wandering about. And of course, golf.
It was the stuff of big dreams and the Carnegie Club enjoyed an auspicious launch. Members joined. Greg Norman sang its praises. Madonna came to get married. A golf links created by the respected Donald Steel was opened to excited reviews. Writer James Finegan breezed around the course and reported it to be "exhilarating."
In 2003, de Savary jumped ship. Or was pushed. Perhaps under pressure from investors, he sold the club to a small group of members, whose names to this day are a Skibo state secret. The new owners poured in millions for needed renovations and improvements, including a fine new spa. They also took a knife to Steel's young layout, altering the routing and replacing several holes altogether. A decade after it opened, the course is still a work in progress.
The Carnegie Links at Skibo Castle plays across a slipper-shaped peninsula, bounded on the south by the placid Dornoch Firth with the brooding Struie Hills beyond it. To the north runs the pretty River Evelix, which flows at a pace Bobby Jones once suggested for walking a round of golf. Briskly. It is a fabulous setting that's scenic, windy and a little bit wild.
Starting off with two substantial par 4s, this is not a course you ease into. No. 1 has length, 449 yards worth, and a green-fronting bunker that drops straight down eight feet. The dogleg second hole is shorter than the first and perhaps a bit easier, but the greenside bunker is a tough escape. Getting the ball out is one thing, extracting oneself from the depths of the pit takes some physical ingenuity.
The best hole out here may be the par-3 sixth. Don't be lulled by the moderate length, the marvelous view of the firth, or the sheer exhilaration of standing atop one dune and taking dead aim at another; it's a hole with sharp teeth. Left is dead. Right is oblivion. Carding six from out of the bunker, I walked off oddly relieved.
Unexceptional. Unexciting. Lacking inspiration. To a club of high ambitions, such words had to sting when applied to a stretch of Steel's original layout, even by those like Finegan who praised the course overall. So in 2003, up sprang two new holes on the course's inward nine. No. 12 is another visual stunner, now hard against the river. At 429 yards, it plays as the No. 1 handicap, a lion into the wind. No. 13 is a comfortably pleasant respite, a short par-3 with flanking bunkers to the right and a hollows at the left. No. 14, once a par-4, is now a true three-shotter at 556 yards.
The finishing trio is plainly strong enough to have remained pretty much untouched. The 16th is a long par-4 with a rolly, oblong green. Seventeen, another par 4, is potentially drivable. From a cozy tee perched high atop the firth, it plays straight over a family of bunkers. No. 18 is a watery par-5 finisher that cajoles a daring drive for the chance of getting home in two. Some of the very best golf saved for last.
With all the changes to the course so far, there's more still to come. Each of the 57 bunkers is soon to be revamped, with more to be added. No. 10 may get a new green. And perhaps most welcome is the plan to eliminate the thick green rough that grows beneath ubiquitous thigh-high hay. Balls that enter it don't come out.
The Carnegie Links at Skibo Castle gives the golfer some memorable holes that present a real test. But for those who happen to care about such, the course's original shortcomings, and perhaps the attempts to correct them, may have produced a layout that's less than the sum of its parts. Something out here feels slightly out of whack and the club is still working to fix it.
The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle is a private members club. Non-members are permitted to stay at Skibo Castle only once. Members pay an initial joining fee and an annual membership fee, which entitles them to visit Skibo as frequently as they wish.
January 6, 2006