The best line from the 4th tee at Royal Dornoch is the distant statue of the Duke of Sutherland perched atop the hills above Golspie. The aristocrat is best known for his part in the Highland Clearances of the 19th century, when thousands of local people were evicted from their homes to achieve land improvements. But it must have been apparent even to the Duke that the linksland the world’s most northerly championship course occupies was already perfectly suited to its purpose. At Dornoch, golf and history are inseparable.
This is, after all, the United Kingdom’s third oldest club. It is believed the game was first played here in 1616, meaning only St Andrews and Leith can definitively pre-date it. Surprisingly, it was not until 1877 that a club was formed, and that is why the club’s crest bears two dates.
The town itself goes back much, much further, with its cathedral built in 1239. A few years ago it and Dornoch were thrust – reluctantly – into the public spotlight when Madonna and Guy Ritchie were wedded there. Thankfully, it seems to have had no lasting effect on a community as far removed from the artificial glitz of Hollywood as is imaginable.
This is a land of brooding mountains and wild scenery; of simple, generous hospitality and self-reliant people still living largely off the land. On a calm day, an almost eerie calm falls on the links, punctuated only by the roar of an occasional jet on an RAF training mission. Otherwise it’s a simple contest – just you and your ball against a course of rare cunning.
In the late spring, when Dornoch’s omnivorous gorse is in full gloom and the evenings seem to last forever, there can be few finer spots on earth for the true golfer. Yet despite its entirely justified reputation for peace and glorious isolation, reaching the region of Sutherland, in Scotland’s extreme north east, is now relatively straightforward.
The much-improved A9 puts Dornoch within a comfortable hour’s drive from Inverness, with the capital of the Highlands now boasting an airport that connects with most major UK cities.
Nor is the climate as rugged as the surroundings. Protected on at least two sides by the hills of Sutherland, Dornoch, much like St Andrews, enjoys a micro-climate of surprisingly dry and mild weather. That’s not to say it can’t get wild up here, just that it happens less frequently than you might reasonably expect from a course so far north of the equator.
But a pilgrimage to Dornoch is much more than a round of golf. History seems to bubble from its every pore. The current layout is based on the original work of Old Tom Morris, under whose tutelage Donald Ross served an apprenticeship, although there have been significant amendments since.
Ross, whose father was a Dornoch stonemason, would go on to emigrate to the United States in 1898 and become a world-renowned course architect in his own right. His finest achievement is widely regarded to be Pinehurst No 2, in North Carolina, but Ross always claimed his designs and beliefs were founded on the simple and uncluttered brilliance of his hometown course.
Dornoch’s defences are largely based around the greens. There are no pot bunkers, few blind shots and relatively generous landing area from the tee. The difficulties are much more subtle than that.
Raised greens reject average shots while chipping is at best awkward and at worst – try recovering from missing the short 6th to the right – close to impossible. Putting, meanwhile, can require the deftest of touches. Being on the wrong side of the hole on several greens is a three-putt waiting to happen.
A pilgrimage to Dornoch is much more than a round of golf. History seems to bubble from its every pore.
It would be misleading to suggest the chip-and-run is redundant here, but it is certainly less of a prerequisite than at other links. Because of the plateaux greens, bumping chips into banks – that most subtle of short-game skills – is sometimes the only way of getting the ball close to the hole.
Dornoch’s location has long precluded it from hosting any international championships, although that may change with the new and improved access. One consequence is that it has not been repeatedly lengthened over the years and so even for the average player it is not impossibly long.
So although scoring well is exceptionally difficult, Dornoch tends to bleed the bogeys and doubles from you in a gentle fashion. Like being the victim of a pickpocket, you don’t see it coming until it’s too late.
That feature is encapsulated by the gentle start: a drive-and-a-pitch par four followed by a short hole and then a downhill tee shot at the 3rd. It can’t and doesn’t continue. The 4th is the first of Dornoch’s more famous holes, where a hog’s back fairway must be found from which to attack the devilishly contoured green.
Another elevated tee at the 5th gives a prime view of the 10 bunkers that decorate this hole, and the raised green is set at an awkward angle to the approach. Missing the green at Whinny Brae, the short 6th, hardly bears thinking about, due to three pernicious bunkers left of the green and a steep slope to the right.
Negotiate that, and a walk through the gorse up to the next tee takes you to the 7th, played on a ledge a level above the rest of the course. It’s by no means the most seductive hole on the course, simply 463 yards of unrelenting par four, and arriving at the 8th is a relief in more ways than one.
From an unremarkable beginning, the fairway crumbles away then sweeps gloriously down towards Embo point and the Dornoch Firth. At this furthest point of the course begins a stretch of eight consecutive holes played parallel to the ocean. The 10th is another short hole where the putting surface simply must be located while the 11th, a long par four, features a huge green protected by a nasty bunker.
Dornoch’s best-known hole is the 14th, or Foxy. This S-shaped double-dogleg par four is an anomaly, since it does not feature a single bunker. The best line for the drive is dependent on the distance, and from the right side of the fairway, the pin can appear to be cut in the middle of the rough, because the green extends so far to the right.
Trying to establish a safe way of carrying the ball onto the raised putting surface without simply running off the other side is a real conundrum. The 16th, High Hole, is the only one to travel significantly uphill but it’s worth it for the views. The 17th is another with a split fairway, and from the lower level a view of the green is denied. Instead, the approach must be flown blind over a dune with a large bunker cut out of it.
The last is long, straight and demanding with a patch of rough in front of the green making a running approach impossible. It is a worthy if unspectacular closing hole. Yet somehow it encapsulates both the course and the region. Just as Madonna seems to have concluded, life in the Highlands owes much more to substance than style.