It used to be the case that only the most determined golfers made it to Royal Dornoch, the world’s most northerly championship course. Happily that has changed and the long journey up the A9 through Scotland’s central belt to the Highlands is now so enjoyable it is part of the overall experience. Nowadays Dornoch attracts something like its fair share of golfing pilgrims but too many visitors to this special town – and I include myself in this category until very recently – fail to stay around long enough to discover Golspie.
The fact is that a long weekend in Dornoch and the surrounding area is about as good as it gets if you value natural, seaside golf and unpretentious, genuinely warm hospitality. Apart from the main attraction, within a 20-minute drive up or down the coast you can play Tain (Old Tom Morris), Brora and Golspie (both designed by James Braid).
Golspie was once perhaps the poor relation but not anymore, largely thanks to the tender loving care of experienced greenkeeper and fine amateur player Alex Macdonald. As well as having great architectural merit, Golspie is now impeccably presented.
Achieving consistency of playing surfaces cannot be an easy job for Macdonald on a course that passes from meadowland to links to woodland to pasture and back to links – and there might even be a touch of heathland around the turn as well.
It measures little over 6,000 yards and begins with an inland feel yet the sea is soon close by. The second of three par 5s comes at the 4th, when it becomes apparent that Golspie is much more than a pretty holiday course.
Running parallel to the beach, you must either play short of, or carry, a piece of rough ground 80 yards short of the green exactly where you would least like it to be. Then comes a wonderful short 4, within reach yet intolerant of a drive that is nearly good.
The green, slightly sunken, is tight against the beach and protected by a hillock on the other side. Lay up and your approach is blind from an uneven fairway. Another short 4 soon follows, this one uphill and over a crest to a billowing green that invites an imaginative chip with just about every club in the bag an option.
Now the links land is left behind, which in most cases would signal a downturn in quality. Not here though – the next four holes might just be Golspie’s best. Two tough par 4s feature trees, gorse and heather, and a short hole is played downhill to a cute green.
Then there is a clever two-shotter where the smart play is to throttle back from the tee to the widest piece of fairway. There is nothing wrong with the next meadowland phase, but nor is it especially stimulating so it is with real delight that the view from the 16th, the first of successive short holes, is taken in.
A conundrum is posed by an elevated green on two distinct levels. In the wind, this must be fiendishly difficult. The next, over 200 yards and blind, is a classic Braid hole. Cross the broken ground in front of the tee and you find a generous landing area short of the large and flat green.
The work is not done yet though – the last is the longest par 4 and also the most difficult, due to a pointed hill in the middle of the fairway at driving distance. Thankfully, as at 17, there is some respite in the form of a welcoming final green.