At Skibo Castle, instead of a genie you have a telephone. Just dial zero and make your wish. Over the course of our three-day family visit, we tried increasingly hard to test the capabilities of the estate but nothing we asked for was either impossible or too much trouble. Yes, The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle, to use its full title, is an experience like no other. Since 2003, it has been owned by Ellis Short, the American businessman whose portfolio once also included Sunderland FC.
Short acquired Skibo Castle from Peter de Savary, under whose stewardship the estate became a favoured retreat for high-profile celebrities. Most famously, in 2000, it was here that Madonna married Guy Ritchie. They doubtless appreciated Skibo’s sense of discretion.
This isn’t the kind of place where you come to be seen. Quite the opposite, in fact. The kind of people who are members here are beyond the stage of flaunting their wealth. This Highlands estate is to be found, or not as the case may be, just off the A9 before, heading north, you reach the golfing paradise of Dornoch.
From Inverness, it’s an hour’s drive. You won’t notice it unless you know to peel your eyes as you cross the Dornoch Firth, and even then you could be forgiven for missing the left turn a few hundred yards later.
There are no signposts for Skibo Castle; but then most guests arrive by helicopter or in one of the estate’s black Range Rovers, having been collected from a private air field. It isn’t possible to stay here unless you are either a member or seriously thinking of becoming one.
Then there is the golf. Quietly, because that is the Skibo Castle way, the course here has been transformed since the original opened in 1995, designed by Donald Steel and Tom Mackenzie. Not many people realise just what an incredible job the director of golf here, David Thomson, has done, along with some practical assistance from Mackenzie, over the last decade or so.
Thomson, a former tour pro, has established a close working relationship with Short, who is understandably happy to trust his judgement. Over time, the Aberdonian has used the enviable natural attributes of the course and turned it into a true links of rare quality.
Yes, it helps that only a handful of rounds are played here on any given day but the conditioning is sensational. The course seemingly has water all around – occupying as it does a tongue of land. The Dornoch Firth is on two sides, with the River Evelix emptying into the firth on a third.
Beyond, and a constant backdrop, looms Struie Hill, Skibo’s answer to Royal County Down’s Mountains of Mourne. Thomson’s first challenge was to enhance these vistas by clearing out trees, foliage and gorse and encouraging the growth of fescue grasses. A course previously unsure of its own identity was therefore given a personality.
Then he set about applying his familiarity with many of the world’s greatest courses to improving the strategic challenge. Thomson is a particular fan of Muirfield and it shows. There is little ashy or quirky about Skibo Castle as a golf course; rather the holes are technically outstanding and varied. It is not that Skibo shuns the spectacular, far from it, just that the surroundings provide it naturally.
Thomson says that practically every hole has undergone significant change over time, though none more so than the 2nd, now a sublime left-to-right dogleg where the second is usually played blind or semi-blind over the shoulder of the dune that protects the angle. It would grace any Open venue.
This hole has involved bulldozers and movement of earth. Elsewhere, the changes have been subtler. Bunkers have been moved (and lovingly revetted in the old-fashioned way) into positions that force the better player into making decisions. They accept a ball running towards them rather than being concealed in the rough, just as bunkers should.
Skibo Castle closes for business over the winter months (apart from over Christmas and Hogmanay). When members return the following spring, Thomson and his team have invariably completed surgery on another hole or two, whether tweaking a back tee or redesigning a green.