Royal Dornoch Golf Club: Old Tom Morris course is Links Golf at its Best

By Kenneth Scott, Contributor

SUTHERLAND, Scotland - When visitors to the country are asked to name the great links courses in Scotland, most start to reel off a list including St.Andrews, Carnoustie, and all the homes of The Open Championship. But make no mistake, Royal Dornoch deserves a place alongside such luminaries. This is a championship course that has been consistently rated among the top courses in the world and it is easy to see why. Indeed, the reason that this course has not played host to The Open is due firstly to a lack of infrastructure in the town and secondly to the remoteness of Dornoch. However this course has played host to the British Amateur Championships twice in the last fifteen years and staged the Ladies Home Internationals last year.

Royal Dornoch was designed by the eminent course designer Tom Morris and is a true classic of links golf. This is reflected not only in the magnificent layout of the course but also in the playing of the course. Every golfer will be required to execute a wide range of shots in order to post a decent score, and for this reason many believe Scottish links golf is in a sense 'real golf' as there is not the option of simply hitting high drives and lofted approaches into receptive greens. Magnificent contours and undulations, testing winds, thick rough, and clever bunkering mean that good course management is essential at Dornoch.

The opening eight at Dornoch have been magnificently set in the grading of the old dunes. Tom Morris provides a beautiful contrast to this, with the home stretch winding its way alongside the Dornoch Bay. Classic features of this course are the use of raised teeing areas and large undulating greens. The former allows the golfer an ideal vantage point to savour the truly magnificent vistas around this course, including the distant Cairngorms and the cleanest beach in Scotland alongside the Dornoch Bay. However, your golf game will also have to be inspired if you are to come close to matching the card around this course.

In many ways, the opening stretch of holes is the calm before the storm of the back nine, but this is more a testament to the strength of the back nine rather than a suggestion that the first few holes are easy. The opening hole stands at an inviting 300 yards but is fraught with danger. Anything that departs from the straight and narrow will find deep rough that can swallow up your ball with a frustrating ease. Indeed, if you find your ball, the best you can do is to advance the ball around twenty yards or maybe lob out sideways. The cardinal sin around this course is to try a Seve type escape and land in further trouble. This course will pose trouble enough without you creating some more of your own.

A further illustration of an apparently easy, but in reality tricky, hole is the par 3 second. The 167 yards printed on the card is cruelly misleading as this hole is usually played into the teeth of a stiff wind onto a raised green with extremely deep bunkers ready to ensnare anything that misses the centre of the green. The four par 3s around Royal Dornoch feature up-turned saucer greens which seem to readily dismiss all but the most accurate of iron shots. At the second hole, deep bunkering leaves a blind sand shot onto a sloping green and par suddenly becomes unlikely.

A real trademark of Royal Dornoch is the large, undulating greens which are kept in prime condition. Indeed it is perhaps this feature that adds to the sense of playing a special course. Given the size of the greens, it is important to try and take note of as many pin placements on the back nine as possible while you are playing the front nine because there can be several club lengths difference between the front and back of these greens. The major benefit of such well-maintained greens is that good putting will be rewarded by putts staying on line if struck well and a consistency of roll around all the greens that is lacking at some courses.

The stretch of three par 4s at four, five and six require accurate tee shots above all else. It is important to remember the golden rule of the front nine: t everything falls towards the sea, so direct or shape your tee shots accordingly. These holes have extremely well-placed fairway bunkers which adorn the right edge of the fairway, and even straight tee shots can find their way into a sandy lie.

However, the left edge of these holes are far from inviting. A 'sea' of gorse bushes sweeps round the hillside to the left of these holes and it is not overstating their danger by saying there is no need to even look for your ball should you stray into there barbed confines. If these holes sound rather daunting then you are getting the right kind of image. But remember that one good shot will eradicate all these dangers off the tee and perhaps the best approach is to try and blank them out of your mind from the tee and then savour their beauty from a safe distance as you stroll onwards towards your perfect tee shot!

A particularly enticing hole is the par 4 eighth, named Dunrobin after the castle. This hole shapes from left to right, and around the landing area from the tee is a steep slope downwards to the lower level of the course where the green is to be found. The decision to be made from the tee is therefore whether to lay up to the edge of this slope and have a excellent view into the green with the waves crashing into the rocks in the background but with a slightly longer approach shot, or to send a tee shot bounding down the slope and take your chance with the vagaries of bounce among the mounds. Bear in mind that anything too far right will end up in a deep gully and that an approach from the lower level will also have to negotiate a large bunker to the front right of the green.

It is important to try and have a reasonable score in hand before the turn as the back nine is a difficult stretch of holes. These are played with the sea lapping the beach and rocks to the left. Anyone with a propensity to hook will be making an unexpected trip to the beach, which is of course out of bounds. There is something special about playing such a great back nine so close to a beautiful beach and vast expanse of sea.

The ideal shape of shot on the back nine is therefore left to right, the opposite of what is required on the opening nine holes, once again highlighting the true test of golf posed around this links course.

While the closing stretch features many good holes, the fourteenth is undoubtedly the signature hole of the Royal Dornoch Championship Course. It is named 'Foxy' which is very appropriate as few will get the better of this par 4 standing at over 440 yards. The sheer splendour of this hole is reflected in the fact that it has been consistently rated among the top ten holes in the world by a range of publications. Perhaps some of the mystique of this hole lies in the fact that there are no man-made hazards - this hole has natural defences.

Wild dunes seem to encroach into the line of the tee shot on the left while a series of hillocks on the right side of the fairway leaves a very narrow line in which to thread your tee shot. Moreover, a narrow raised green is extremely hard to find given the length of approach shot required. Anyone who escapes here with a par will be in rather select company I am sure. If anyone is in any doubt about the merits of this hole, Harry Vardon described it as simply the most natural hole in golf.

A further highlight of the back nine is the seventeenth, named 'Valley'. This hole shares the same choice of shot as found at the eighth on whether to lay up from the tee and play into the lower green or to send your tee shot onto the lower level. Tom Watson, an honorary member of the club, believes that the classic way to play this hole is to lay up with a mid-iron near to the bunker at the top left of the slope to gain the perfect view into the green awaiting below.

In terms of facilities, Royal Dornoch can only be described as first-class with all golfing needs being catered for including caddie and buggy hire, a practice area, and a recently refurbished clubhouse. It should be noted however that there is a handicap restriction of 24 for gentlemen and 35 for ladies.

Therefore, take the opportunity to play this often overlooked jewel of the north, to be found fifty miles north of Inverness off the A9. Royal Dornoch offers a truly magnificent championship course of the highest order and for those wishing something slightly less demanding, the Struie Course provides an alternative that is well worth playing in its own right. Greg Norman and Tom Watson regularly make the trip to Dornoch to complete their British Open preparation. This is a golfing haven that is must play for all lovers of golf.

'Large, undulating greens'

A real trademark of Royal Dornoch is the large, undulating greens which are kept in prime condition....

Making the turn

While the closing stretch features many good holes, the fourteenth is undoubtedly the signature hole of the Royal Dornoch Championship Course....

Royal Dornoch Golf Club
Golf Road
IV25 3LW
Telephone 01862-810219/ 01862-811220
Professional: Andrew Skinner
Secretary: John Duncan

Kenneth Scott, Contributor

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment