ROYAL DORNOCH - 19 POINTS
If Royal Dornoch was positioned on the south coast of England it would have held more Open Championships than just about any course outside of St Andrews. It is an amazing course with spectacular views and both fun and challenging holes. It is one of the remotest courses in the UK however and so it seems destined to be a course which will be criminally underplayed but adored by those who do.
The course is far from a secret. Golf Digest recently ranked it at number 5 in the world - the highest ranked course in mainland UK. The development of Castle Stuart in recent years combined with the not too distant burgeoning Aberdonian golfing scene will probably mean that more people will find Royal Dornoch in years to come and they are in for a real treat.
The course itself is a pretty old one, founded in 1895 it has a pleasant but relatively humble clubhouse and, when we played it a few years ago, a pleasant if slightly rough starter. The course itself is an out and back design, similar to St Andrews. The first holes take you on an upper tier away from the clubhouse with the North Sea on your right before you turn from home with the sea on your left, back to the town.
There are many things that make Royal Dornoch such a delight. We played from the members' tees and there was a great variety in length across par 3s, 4s and 5s. The par 4s range from the 300 yard 15th to the 464 yard 7th and the par 3s are all more about brains than brawn. It's a par 70 and the yellow tees at 6,265 yards was plenty long enough for me.
The course runs fast, of course, being perfect links soil and when we played it the bunkering and greens were superb. The greens are probably the thing that stands Royal Dornoch apart from many other famous links courses. Many are elevated with devilish punishment if you miss them. Also, it is hard to run the ball along the ground on to many of the greens. Now, when I have seen that elsewhere it has annoyed me and I have called it out as such (see Sebonack for example). However, here I have no such complaint. Tough as they are they really blend into the course and there is nothing contrived about them.
Dornoch is not a course to obsess about your score on when you are playing it. The fairways can be tight at places but are generally pretty welcoming, green complexes are where the challenges really come. But the colours, the views, the setting are all just perfect. If there was ever one course meant for just taking it all in, reminding yourself how lucky we are to be able to play golf on some of the most spectacular places on earth then this is it. Make the trip and you won't regret it.
BOOKING THE COURSE
There are certainly no obstacles in booking Royal Dornoch. The course is accessible to visitors 7 days a week and it's easy to book online. The online widget allows you to book months in advance, it really couldn't be simpler. The only limitation is that play is limited to 2 ball before 9am every day in the summer and at the weekends at winter.
The green fee is also a little cheaper than it is at other courses approaching similar quality. In the summer it's £130 for a round, £210 for a day ticket and there are twilight tickets available for £150. Winter tee times are available from £65. However, you can do better than that if you are planning to stay a while in the area, and it would be crazy not to.
There are deals in place where it is possible to play, for example, Castle Stuart, Nairn and Royal Dornoch in April or October for £365 including accommodation. That's a really fantastic offer. If you were to book those separately, including accommodation at the Royal Dornoch Golf Hotel, it would come in at almost twice that. So if you plan your trip well you can get some really impressive discounts.
Another route to consider is entering one of the Open competitions they hold on the course which you can find here. You don't need to be one of the world's leading amateurs to take part - they take handicaps up to 24 and they represent tremendous value - entry is around £40 for non-members. If you can plan a trip around one of these it will not only save you money but also provide a great way of meeting some other golfers and giving you a unique experience.
It may seem remote but actually this area of the world isn't as hard to get to as you may think. Inverness is the nearest airport and main railway station. There is a lot to be said if you are coming from overseas to fly directly from London or Amsterdam into Inverness rather than drive up from Edinburgh or Glasgow. Inverness is about an hour south of Dornoch. There is a huge amount of golf in the area and you could happily base yourself here for an entire trip. If you do try to combine with somewhere further south it is about a three hour drive to Inverness from Edinburgh or St Andrews, a little further from Glasgow.
When we did the trip we stayed in Inverness. It's not a bad place to base yourself for a few days with good restaurants on offer. We had a great meal in Rocpool and there are plenty of accommodation options. It would be criminal to leave without a trip to Johnny Foxes which caters for an eclectic audience and there are plenty of clubs but beware the midnight curfew to be in a club..
Having said that next time I go I will try and stay in Dornoch for at least a night or two. There are plenty of accommodation options and tearing up and down for a day to such a special place feels wrong. The Royal Dornoch website is probably the best golf club site I have seen when it comes to resources for planning a trip so I won't try to better it.
On our trip we played at Royal Dornoch, Castle Stuart, Nairn and Fortrose and Rosemarkie. This was a fantastic quartet of courses which it would be hard to better anywhere. The weather is often surprising benign (there will be much local talk of microclimates on a pleasant day) and the nights in the summer are unfeasibly long - you can happily come off the golf course at 11pm. Next time though we will also head a little further north and get in Brora, Golspie and maybe if the budget allows Skibo Castle.
So, as you can see there are a huge number of options and the summer light means that you can play 36 holes a day here with ease. If you are a fan of links golf in its purest form a trip here needs to be on your list.