A trip to the Highlands and Dornoch should be a spiritual journey for golfers and, as Steve Carroll reveals, he’s a full convert
Think of the road to Royal Dornoch like a pilgrimage. It can be long. It can be arduous. It can feel like it’s never going to end. True believers, though, know what’s at the end of the journey.
Some of the finest golf you’ll ever play.
Believe me when I tell you, if you truly love the game, this is a trip you simply must make. For in this corner of the Highlands is a remarkable collection of courses, and you can experience some of them as part of the NCG Top 100s Tour.
But golf and Dornoch are inseparable. It’s believed the game was first played here in 1616 and it is no surprise it has such a rich history. The stunning coastline, brooding mountains beyond, and wild scenery are perfect for the sport. There are few better places to arrive with a pencil bag over a shoulder and a child-like enthusiasm to get straight out onto the fairways.
In summer, you can keep going almost until midnight. Plenty do.
Royal Dornoch is many people’s idea of the best course in Great Britain and Ireland. And when you’re there, bumping your way carefully through plateaued greens, almost impossible run-offs, and sea views, you find yourself agreeing with every word.
Where do you start in measuring its brilliance? The short 2nd, with its deep bunkers guarding the green and sharp banks on each side that make par almost impossible for anyone who misses the putting surface? Or is it the wonderful 4th and the fairway that slopes seawards?
The 6th, Whinny Brae, is simply magnificent – the three bunkers on the left of the putting surface drawing your ball, like a magnet, away from the superb green and the severe slopes behind.
Tom Mackenzie has re-worked the 7th, which slides across breath-taking views of Dornoch beach to a skyline green that has taken what was considered an ordinary hole and lifted it to the standards of its siblings.
The wonderful moments continue throughout, and you could list every hole with justification, but the 14th, Foxy, is probably the best known. Royal Dornoch’s signature is an anomaly on a links course. It has no bunkers and is a double dogleg.
The magic extends far beyond the course. I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in many clubhouses. At few have I been welcomed with the warmth extended by the locals. It’s very easy to let the Guinness flow and the afternoon slip by.
That extends to the accommodation. Links House, found right next to the 1st tee, offers five-star, award winning rooms and fine dining. It is simply stunning – rightly described as the “perfect Highland retreat”.
The Main House was built in 1843 and the heritage oozes out of every pore. The two restaurants, Mara and The Courtroom, offer a varied and pleasurable dining experience to cater for all tastes.
As a vegetarian, I often struggle for options when eating out. Links House is a welcome exception.
There are 15 individually designed rooms, spread out across the Main House, The Mews, and the Glenshiel building, where I stayed.
Luxury isn’t a word that can adequately describe what you’ll find if you stay here. Excellence emanates from every nook and cranny. It is quite simply the finest accommodation I’ve ever seen.
If your trip to the Highlands must centre on Royal Dornoch, it would be a mistake to make it the only focus.
Twenty minutes up the North Sea coast is brilliant Brora and the most northerly memorial to James Braid is a course that almost became a victim of the coronavirus pandemic.
But a worldwide appeal raised a six-figure sum to secure the club’s future and it would have been a travesty had this masterpiece between allowed to close.
With bent grass, amazing conditioning, burns, holes that hug the contours of the bay amid the shadows of the Sutherland foothills, and the odd engagement with some cattle, a round here is a quite remarkable experience.
It’s links golf at its most natural, and it’s got the holes to compete with the backdrop. Like the phenomenal par 3s, all of which play in different directions and harbour a series of incredible green sites.
Don’t let the length, just under 6,000 yards from the yellow tees, determine whether you visit. If you let the scorecard alone determine your thinking, you’ll be missing out on delights like the Sea Hole 9th, and the quite sensational 16th, with its green that sits on top of a hill at a right angle to the fairway.
If Dornoch might the reason you go to the Highland in the first place, Brora must be the reason you stay another day.
Nairn Dunbar, further down the Moray Firth, might be in the shadow of its more illustrious near neighbour but there are compelling reasons to ensure you drop into this outpost at the start of the journey home.
Picking up a series of plaudits and awards for their environmental work, the club is a shining example of how golf clubs need to be run in the age of climate change.
New sand areas and dunes are being re-established at various points on the course and the huge scrape that separates the 10th and 11th holes has wowed visitors.
Underneath that effort, though, is a seriously good golf course. The 7th, in particular, is spectacular. A huge bunker barely 175 yards off the tee should never come into play but it sits there unsettlingly in the eyeline. It feels like the fairway leans around it and the green, with another large sandy area sitting to its right, is tough to hit and contains three separate slopes.
The short 8th, with a narrow green set at an angle against four front bunkers, is down on the card as Nairn Dunbar’s easiest hole. Be assured it is not.
And the 13th, Long Peter, enjoys a linksy tee-shot that wouldn’t be out of place at any of its Highland rivals.
The journey may be long, the road may be winding, but if you make the effort to embrace Dornoch and the Highlands, you’ll return with memories to last a lifetime. That’s what a pilgrimage is all about, isn’t it?
Strap yourselves in. There’s no getting away from it, it’s a trek to the Highlands. Google will tell you it’s nearly 11 hours from Central London and a whopping 612 miles to Dornoch. For those who take to the air, Inverness is the nearest airport and is 50 miles away from the Dornoch fairways. But it’s only a 15-minute run from the plane gates to Nairn Dunbar.
What you didn’t know
You might think Dornoch is just about golf, and its heritage with the sport stretches back hundreds of years. But the town has a cathedral which has held services for more than seven centuries. If you’re a fan of castles, and particularly the TV show Outlander, there are 24 of them to wander around in Sutherland, including Dunrobin, in nearby Golspie.
Where to eat and drink
There are two restaurants to choose from at Links House: Mara and The Courtroom. The former is described as one of the “finest dining experience in the Highlands” and focuses on seafood and Highland fayre. The Courtroom, meanwhile, is a buzzing bar and brasserie.
Golf and whiskey go hand in hand in this part of the world so make sure to pop in to the world famous Glenmorangie Distillery, and spend some time on the tour learning about mashing and fermenting – before buying out the shop!
Culloden was where the 1745 Jacobite Rising came to a tragic end and you can see the site of the confrontation between the British and those seeking to restore the Stuarts to the throne. The battlefield is close to Inverness and an hour drive from Dornoch.
Have you visited Royal Dornoch, Links House, Brora or Nairn Dunbar? Let me know of your experiences in the comments below, or tweet me.