I got the golf bug at the age of 30 and immediately fell in love with the game. My start in golf consisted of playing golf courses in Canada and the United States. As I improved as a golfer and convinced my wife Diane that it was the game for us, we expanded our travel to golf courses in Europe. A two-year stint in Wales had me fall in love with links golf.
I set the goal of playing all the British Open Rota courses (just missed doing that) and all the best links in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Scotland. Royal Dornoch was high on my list but when we went there, we could not play as a special little tournament was being held – the famous Carnegie Shield. I returned with three friends in the summer of 2006 and played the course twice. I knew this was the course for me, and it did not hurt that I had a pitch in eagle on the shorter par 4 first hole.
A quick explanation about the British Open Rota courses: The British Open is the oldest championship in golf, and this major rotates venues each year. Fourteen courses (Carnoustie, Muirfield, Royal Birkdale, Royal Liverpool, Royal Lytham & St Annes, Royal Portrush, Royal St George's, Royal Troon, St Andrews, Turnberry, Musselburgh, Prestwick, Prince's and Royal Cinque Ports) have hosted the British Open since the beginning in 1860, and today, nine courses make up the rota.
In the few years after that memorable visit, I learned that the Royal Dornoch offered international memberships, so my application was set in motion. Royal Dornoch is home to two golf courses: the Championship Course and the Struie Course. Full application to the club is a two-step process. The initial application is as a member of the Struie course. Members must be proposed by present members in good standing of the club. I became a Struie member in 2009 and immediately began the annual trip to Dornoch.
As a Struie member, I was able to play the Championship Course a few times at the guest rate and I had unlimited play on the Struie Course. Once memberships come available (through resignations, retirements, etc.) and you make your way up the waitlist, you are invited to apply for full membership at the club and full access to the Championship Course. I was lucky as my wait to get on the full membership roster was only two years and I became a full member in 2011 (I understand the wait is much longer now).
Again, this application process requires applicants to be proposed by present members. In my case, my main proposer was Lorne Rubenstein, a famous and accomplished golf writer from Canada. His book, “A Season in Dornoch” is a great read and highlights the area and the golf experience at Dornoch.
The Championship Course is always rated as one of the top ten in the world and truly is one of the best links courses on our planet. The course is a par 70, from the regular and championship tees, with only two par 5’s. The two sets of forward tees set up for a challenging par 76 with many of the par 4’s converting to par 5’s. The course offers a great variety of holes, and the course layout challenges all aspects of the game.
There are some shorter holes like the par four 1st hole (FIRST), 5th hole (HILTON) and 15th (STULAG). Each of these holes place a high premium on your short irons as even an average drive is going to put a wedge in your hands. In contrast there are some longer par fours like the 11th hole (A’CHLACH), the 14th hole (FOXY) and the finishing hole (GLENMORANGIE). Foxy is my favourite hole and maybe one of the toughest holes on any of the courses I play. The hole demands a solid and accurate tee shot. This will leave the golfer with a medium to long shot into an elevated and contoured green that is shallow in depth.
Another highlight for me are the fabulous par 3’s on the course. None of the par threes are very long but they are extremely well protected by the deep sod wall bunkers and the bowled greens which are a normal feature on each hole on the championship course.
The Struie course is quite different from the championship course but by no means is it a letdown or an easy playing links course. This course originally opened as a 12 hole Ladies course in 1899 and opened to the present 18 holes in 1999.
The course has very small greens that have very subtle breaks. The course plays especially tough in the wind that can come whistling off the Dornoch Firth. This is especially true when playing the holes furthest from the clubhouse. The par five 9th hole plays along the Dornoch Firth and is a particularly challenging hole. Another very interesting hole is the finishing 18th hole an incredibly challenging par three. The tee shot must be accurate as a shot not on the heart of the green can come sliding off leaving a challenging pitch or chip. It is not an easy 3!
For many years, the north of Scotland was not a main golf destination for those who travelled to Scotland. In my opinion, the Highlands now has some of the best golf courses and best links to play in the world. The beauty of the area is that there is a good mix of golf courses to accommodate each skill level of golfer and price point.
The Dornoch membership includes reciprocal offers at Brora, Tain, Golspie, Alness, Orkney and Fortrose & Rosemarkie. Members also receive a preferential rate at the exquisite Castle Stuart. Other links courses well worth the drive from Dornoch include Nairn, Nairn Dunbar, and Old Moray Lossiemouth. For those who want to be treated at a very high-level, a round at the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle will do the trick. As you can see there is no shortage of great golf options in the area and most of these golf courses offer Overseas or International membership.
I suggest to also check the great overview that Leading Courses provides of all golf courses in the Highland.
Dornoch is an exquisite, quaint little town, and it is great to stroll around when you are not on the links. The people of Dornoch are wonderful and some of the friendliest people we have met on our golf travels. Dornoch has many great places to stay, eat and drink.
The options for accommodations include house/flat rentals and hotels. The three hotels that I would recommend include the Royal Golf Hotel (which is just off the first tee), the Dornoch Castle Hotel and the Links House. Each of these hotels offers its guests a true highlands experience.
I have spent many times enjoying a meal or sampling a few whiskeys in the hotel restaurants and bars. The Royal Dornoch Clubhouse is a wonderful place for a bite to eat or a drink after the round for lunch or dinner. The town has a few excellent places to eat besides the hotels mentioned earlier. The Sutherland House (traditional Highland) and Luigi’s (Italian) are two of our favorite places for a tasty Highland meal.
The Highlands has much to offer besides the golf. The city of Inverness and Loch Ness is roughly an hour's drive from Dornoch. On the shores of Loch Ness is Urquhart Castle. Time on the Loch and at the castle is a wonderful way to spend a morning or an afternoon.
Culloden Battlefield is just outside of Inverness and would be of special interest to all the fans of the TV Series “Outlander.” Also, a trip to the Highlands would not be complete without time for a distillery tour and tasting. The Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain is a great local option or for those whiskey aficionados, a trip to the Speyside area is well worth the effort. One of my favourite experiences was the five decades tour at Glenfarclas.
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