Royal Dornoch Golf Club's Struie Course: A Highland haven not to be missed
DORNOCH, Scotland -- Although Royal Dornoch Golf Club in the northeast of Scotland is home to one of the finest championship courses in the world, many visitors to the country often fail to savour its splendour simply through a reluctance to travel for a few hours into the Highlands.
Moreover, those who do make the journey often overlook the enjoyment to be had from playing the less illustrious of the two courses at Royal Dornoch Golf Club, the Struie Course.
Many readers will question the claim to Dornoch being one of the true golfing paradises in the world, but simply look at some of the players who have played this course regularly. These include such luminaries as Greg Norman who frequently completed his British Open preparation here, Nick Faldo, and Tom Watson, who is himself an honorary member of the club and rates the course as one of his personal favourites.
The only reason that Royal Dornoch's Championship Course has been precluded from staging the British Open is that there is insufficient accommodation in the town to handle the numbers who attend this major. However this course has staged the British Amateur Championship in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Struie Course itself is thus somewhat in the shadow of the Championship Course, but it is a testing and beautiful course. A major attraction of links golf is that it is "real" golf in the view of many players. There is not always the easy option of flying the ball all the way to the putting surface and thus eliminating all the perils that await below on its flight.
Heavily guarded, fast greens, and strong prevailing winds mean that the golfer has to be creative to score well around this course. Indeed, many professional players now welcome the different challenge posed by the links golf courses in Scotland and find it to be a refreshing experience.
The Struie Course design as it stands today is mainly attributable to the course design work of Donald Steel and his team. A key feature of his work is the magnificent way in which he incorporates the existing landscape into the course and thus creates a truly natural golfing experience.
The first hole is a prime example of this and provides a stiff opening challenge. In my experience, this is one of the most pleasurable tee shots on the course, if not in Scotland. Played from a tee, hoisted above the beautiful beach with the sounds of the sea below, and played towards the distant but magnificent Cairngorms Mountain Range, this is an inspiring setting. Indeed, an inspired tee shot will be required to escape from this hole with a par in hand.
The drive requires it to be played down the right-hand edge of the fairway with a good deal of carry to avoid the frustratingly placed mound in the landing area. This approach allows your shot to be funnelled downwards towards the awaiting green. The alternative is to find the thick Scottish rough that can completely stop the clubface in its tangled grasp, or if you stray to the left, to see your ball go crashing into gorse from which there is literally no return or even to go tumbling downwards into a deep gully. However, this hole is not all about the drive.
The first green is no more than ten paces front to back and has a teasing gully in front, similar to the famous "Valley of Sin" at St.Andrews. Thus if you leave here with a par you can rest assured that your golf game is not in bad shape.
The second hole however, provides an ideal contrast to the ordeals of the first. At just over one hundred yards in length and with a fairly generous green, a straight high iron shot will be rewarded usually. The one place not to be here is short and right as this will leave a blind chip shot up a steep bank.
Completing a beautiful trio of opening holes is the par-4 third, and the first encounter with the snaking Struie burn that is integrated excellently into many of the holes, particularly on the back nine. This hole is played into a prevailing wind from the west and doglegs slightly from left to right. The main objective from the tee is to avoid the Struie Burn's muddy depths, which requires nothing out of the ordinary in terms of carry from the tee but yet still manages to capture a high proportion of tee shots.
However, the drive must either be directed up the right hand side to the fairway or be faded into the prevailing wind, otherwise you will run out of fairway and become acquainted with a sprawling bush that seems to devour golf balls, because no one ever seems to be able to retrieve their ball from it!
Perhaps the hardest hole on the course, as the stroke index reflects, is the par-4 fifth. Standing at over 450 yards and played into the wind, the fairway here is a difficult one to hit. Rough seems to encroach from the right onto what one could forcibly argue would be the fairway on any other course and leaves the golfer requiring both length and a left to right shape from the tee to avoid trouble.
A further challenge to be encountered on this hole is the bowl shaped green, partially obscured from view for most approach shots. Although this will generously gather in anything that falls within its confines, a marginally misjudged effort will be discarded disdainfully by the dry, undulating surrounds, and cast into yet more thick rough.
A particular highlight of the courses at Dornoch is the way in which they are both excellently maintained. An integrated, automatic sprinkler system ensures that all the greens remain in prime condition and all the bunkers are well-defined, although this is probably not of much comfort as you settle your feet in the sand and contemplate an escape from many a deep bunker to be found at Dornoch.
One striking difference between the Struie Course and the Championship Course is the presence of trees. Although this is not a common feature of links golf in Scotland, the recent introduction of small embankments of small to medium sized trees has added greater definition to many of the holes, not to mention a further hazard to be avoided at all costs.
Indeed, seldom will such a course as the Struie be found in such good condition, an asset which is attributable perhaps to the large number of visitors that the Championship Course attracts.
The par-4 11th hole is a particular favourite of many that play the course. Although quite short in length, this is an exercise in self- restraint for all but the longest of hitters. The safe way in which to play the hole is to take a mid iron from the tee into the heart of the fairway and leave a simple approach to the green. However the temptation remains to try and cut-off the corner and fly your ball directly to the green. Failure to achieve this however will leave your ball in a watery grave or if you are lucky, the surrounding rough.
A prominent feature of the course, in keeping with the links tradition, is the presence of mounds and undulations on several of the fairways. This results in the bad shot tending to be exaggerated by a cruel deflection off one side of a mound, into thick rough or a bunker. However it becomes especially testing when even a good shot is shortened or thrown off line - but this is the challenge of links golf, and the correct attitude is to relish it!
Having endured, and without a doubt enjoyed, the previous seventeen holes, the unsuspecting golfer arrives at the par-3 18th assuming that the worst must be behind him. However you neglect to take the final hole seriously at your peril. At under 150 yards in length this is not a long hole but it is certainly fraught with danger.
A large water hazard on the right is the main feature, but beware a fiercely sloping raised green that leaves a good shot trickling backwards almost to your feet. This hole is named "The Witches" as it marks the spot where the last "witch" was burned in Scotland- beware that your round does not also go up in smoke at the very last hurdle.
In terms of facilities, this course is excellent, with all golfing needs being catered for. A new clubhouse, practice area, buggy hire, caddy hire, and much more will meet your needs well. This course can be found 49 miles North of Inverness off the A9 motorway. It is definitely worthwhile taking the time to get there -- this is a golfing haven not to be passed up.