Why Royal Dornoch is One of the Best Golf Courses in the World
As we were finishing up our lunch with our host at North Berwick, he told us to be careful on the drive up to Dornoch – we’d be traveling on the most dangerous road in Scotland.
Great. Just what I wanted to hear. In a country full of dangerous roads, we would having to drive the most dangerous.
After golf. At night. Being totally clueless Americans.
I swear leading up to this trip, every time I looked for a little reassurance as it relates to driving on the other side of the road, all I was met with were confirmations that, yes, I should be terrified.
We knew going into the trip that the drive to Royal Dornoch would be the longest of the week, but given our later start from North Berwick we hit bad traffic, and the whole thing took close to 6 hours.
The last hour of which was through windy rural roads and a layer of fog that would make even the most seasoned Scotsman think twice about hitting the road.
Luckily we pulled up to the Royal Golf hotel right as the front desk was calling Dan asking where we were.
Of all the courses on the trip this was one of the ones I was most looking forward to. It’s currently ranked 10th in the world by Golf mag, and it’s also the third oldest in the world behind The Old Course and Leith.
You could write a whole book on the history of Royal Dornoch (in fact some have), but one of the most notable parts of the course is that Dornoch was the home of Donald Ross – and he was the greenskeeper here from 1895 to 1899.
I was excited to play the course and see where some of his influences came from.
Some of the quotes I’d read about Dornoch beforehand were enough to get me really excited:
“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a golf course.” – Tom Watson
“No golfer has completed his education until he has played and studied Royal Dornoch.” – Golf writer, Herbert Warren Wind
Our tee time wasn’t until 4:20 the next day, so we had an opportunity to sleep in and have a scotch in the bar after our arrival.
This was the night I was introduced to the Scapa 16 year – which I’d highly recommend if you can find it.
I used the free morning and early afternoon to get caught up on work and emails, and as I sat in the hotel restaurant (which is right off the first tee), I slowly watched the fog roll in and suddenly became concerned that we’d have a repeat of our morning at North Berwick.
I was able to luckily get our tee time moved up a bit to 3:30 (which was a blessing in disguise, as there’s no way we would have gotten our entire round in otherwise), and walked out into the fog 20 minutes before our time.
The fog wasn’t lifting, but luckily it wasn’t so thick that they were closing the course.
With that, I stepped up to the first tee and nailed a 3 wood right down the middle of the fairway. I’ll take it.
Just the Facts on Royal Dornoch
- Built in: Golf can be traced back to 1616. It was more fully laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1886.
- Rank: #4 Greatest 100 Courses in the World (Golf Digest), #10 Top 100 Courses in the World (Golf)
- Location: Dornoch, Scotland
- Fees: £125-210 depending on time of year and time of day.
- Website: http://www.royaldornoch.com
- Slope: 138, Rating: 72.8
Royal Dornoch Golf: The Front 9
We played from the yellow tees, which is pretty standard for most tourists. They measured in at 6265. All distances from there.
Also, we obviously didn’t have the best weather, so judge the photos accordingly 🙂
Hole 1 (Par 4, 302 yards)
Slicing through the fog my three wood landed in the middle of the fairway. Which is great, because I couldn’t fully see exactly what the hole was doing.
From the very beginning, and something I’ll talk about frequently in this post, is just how good the design of the holes were. Both individually and how they work together to create an unbelievable golfing experience.
There are fairway bunkers, and over the right-hand side the fairway opens up quite a bit. At 331 from the tips – it’s not a long hole, and eases you into the course nicely. A gentle handshake, as Mr. Ross would say. But if you’re looking to layup, the bunkers keep it from being a super easy shot.
Hole 2 (Par 3, 167 yards)
A great par 3 that’s brutal if you miss the green. The rough is cut way down around the green so everything slopes off – hopefully not into one of the two deep pot bunkers guarding the left and right front of the green.
The lies are extremely tight, so what seems like a simple chip and putt isn’t quite so straight forward – and putting from 5 feet below the hole or more, is often the smart play. This is links golf at it’s finest, and a lesson I’ve learned from many trips to Bandon Dunes: if you can putt it? You probably should.
Hole 3 (Par 4, 398 yards)
This is when I really started getting into the course. A long dogleg left, if you drive it straight you’re going straight into the bunkers on the right of the fairway – which conveniently also flows down into them. If you layup, however, you’re leaving yourself a long approach.
There are mounds of rough in the fairway about 85 yards from the green. This messes with your perception and also adds defense to approach shots that are mishit.
There’s a lot of room around the relatively large green, but the green has some significant undulation, so try and stick it close if you can – and avoid the bunkers flanking each side of it.
Hole 4 (Par 4, 402 yards)
A perfect example of how to design a hole that has defense other than it’s bunkering. Another long par 4 with a plateaued fairway. If you find yourself right, you’ll likely be at the base of a mound – giving yourself a very tough second shot and little chance of hitting the green.
There are two greenside bunkers guarding any approach from the right hand side, which make that second shot even more difficult.
This was one of my favorite green complexes of the whole trip. Significant undulations make for some fun putts, but it never felt unfair and everything rolled perfectly true.
Hole 5 (Par 4, 312 yards)
A mid length par 4 with bunkers guarding anything right, and mounding in the fairway to ensure that even if your approach is only 100 yards a flat lie is anything but guaranteed.
I can imagine the view from the tee box here on a clear day is nothing short of spectacular.
I’ve talked in the past about how I really like elevated greens with bunkers guarding it. A few notable holes I can think of with this feature are #12 on the Nicklaus Course at Pronghorn, #13 at The Bull at Pinehurst Farms, and #17 at The Golf Club at Black Rock – it’s pretty clear where some of that inspiration came from. #17 at Dornoch also has a similar feature.
What you don’t necessarily see on the approach are the two pot bunkers guarding the green on the left on top of the plateau.
While we experienced the course in September, this is one of those bucket list type golf moments that you really want to see in the Spring when the gorse is in full bloom and lights the course up in yellow.
Hole 6 (Par 3, 156 yards)
I got to the tee box on hole 6 and turned to Dan and said – “now this is a cool hole.”
It’s basically built into the side of a giant gorse covered dune, and is protected on the left by the gorse and 3 bunkers, while if you go too far right you’re falling down a steep slope, where up and down is going to be extremely tricky.
I hit what I thought was a perfect 6 iron, that caught the back left bunker. I made a rare sand save for par that left me with a giant grin on my face. This is what golf is supposed to be like.
Hole 7 (Par 4, 464 yards)
I wasn’t prepared for just how much elevation change there’d be at Royal Dornoch. While it’s not quite as intense as say Cruden Bay, or the monstrous walk that Trump International was, there’s definitely a bit of up and down.
After you walk off the 6th green you head up to a massive 479 yard par 4 that’s just as difficult as it sounds.
The fairway is huge, but there are three bunkers waiting to swallow up any drives that are slightly off on the left.
None of us had a good score on this one, as we all struggled with the length.
Hole 8 (Par 4, 389 yards)
Another really fun hole that was totally unexpected. There’s essentially a giant ridge drop off about 200 yards out from the yellow tees that will give you a ton of roll down to the lower fairway if you get there – or leave you with a long approach to the green if you’re stuck up top.
Be careful on your way down the slope, it’s definitely one the steeper walks you’ll ever have on a golf course!
Like most of the holes at Royal Dornoch it has an excellent green complex with bunkers in just the right spots, and a green with just the right amount of undulation.
Hole 9 (Par 5, 491 yards)
Immediately upon getting to the 9th tee, I couldn’t help but think “wow this looks a lot like #13 at Pacific Dunes. Right along the ocean, big sand dune along the right hand side, the similarities were uncanny.
After your tee shot you’ll have a choice to make. With a decent drive you’ll probably be able to reach the green in two. There are 4 bunkers guarding the green, but also a bunker on the right and excessive fairway mounding at your layup spot about 100 yards out. So either way you could run into trouble – and it’s decisions like this that make Dornoch so much fun to play.
The two bunkers to the right are also particularly scary/dangerous, so err to the left if going for it in two, as the left bunker isn’t quite as tucked up to the green.
Hole 10 (Par 3, 142 yards)
This was one of my favorite holes on the course. It’s short, but not easy, as bunkers guard the front and left of the green – and heavy rough guards anything even the slightest bit off the green right.
This typically plays downwind, which can make it a really difficult green to hold in windy conditions – so choose your club wisely.
Hole 11 (Par 4, 434 yards)
Another great, long par 4. Heavy rough on both sides of the fairway, and a steep drop off on the left hand side of the green are the primary defenses of #11.
You also get a good view of #6 as you’re walking up to the green.
Hole 12 (Par 5, 490 yards)
A long, sweeping dogleg left par 5 that plays a bit uphill. If you’re going for it in two you’ll want to be aware of the steep drop off to the left, and the bunker short right that will catch any balls that didn’t have enough on them.
I went for it in two, and although my second shot felt good, it barely missed the bunker short and left me with an extremely tricky pitch shot from a tight lie.
Fog started to kick back in at this point in our round, as we were losing track of what time it was!
Hole 13 (Par 3, 148 yards)
I loved this par 3.
It has bunkers surrounding it on almost all sides with a large center forebunker that completely throws of your sense of depth, and makes you think the green is closer than it really is.
I really wish I could have seen this one on a clear day, but it’s without a doubt one of the best par 3s I’ve played. It also gives me flashbacks to the 9th at Erin Hills for some reason.
Hole 14 (Par 4, 439 yards)
The famous “Foxy” hole. It’s been called the most natural par 4 in the world – and one of the best as well. Golf Magazine ranked it as one of it’s Top 500 golf holes in the world a few years back.
Published in 2000, this list would undoubtedly morph these days. Nevertheless, it remains VERY fun to read about the holes, and is a must have for any collector. Doesn't hurt that my home club has two holes on the list 🙂
It also must be one of the best holes to not use any bunkering.
It’s a long par 4 with a green that sits on a natural plateau. If you have a long approach it’s almost better to layup and give yourself a good shot at the pin, because anything at the base of the ridge is going to give you a really tough up and down.
Hole 15 (Par 4, 300 yards)
One trend I noticed in Scotland is how all the best courses had more long par 4s than I was used to, but they also had many more short par 4s as well – which I loved.
The 15th at Dornoch is the latter, and forces you to make some decisions of the tee.
There’s a huge mound in the center of the green, that a well-struck drive can carry – but if you don’t clear it and end up in the rough on it you’ll have a terrible approach. If you choose to layup from the beginning you’ll have a blind shot at the green – so choose wisely.
If you try and drive the green, and are too far right, you’ll also land in a massive bunker – that you can’t necessarily see from the tee, so be careful.
The tees were up when we played so I launched a drive that ended up just 20 yards short of the green on the edge of the fairway – resulting in an easy par.
Hole 16 (Par 4, 395 yards)
We were really starting to fight fog and daylight at this point, but I was so enthralled in the course and what each hole was showing us that I hardly noticed.
16 is a long-ish par 4 that plays uphill. Numerous plateaus on the fairway make this one a challenge and there’s a gully on the left and two fairway bunkers that are all in play off the tee.
The green falls away from you, and there is mounding on the right that, while scary, isn’t half as scary as the severe drop-off should you miss to the left.
Hole 17 (Par 4, 390 yards)
17 was another surprise, as didn’t expect to see a hole like this at Royal Dornoch.
This par 4 gives you lots of options from the elevated tee box. You’re hitting down to a lower fairway that’s running up at a 45 degree angle. Too far right and you can run right through the fairway into the tall stuff.
If you’re shorter and don’t get your shot to the edge of the ridge, you’ll have bunkers on the left to contend with and a tough second shot to an elevated green, that’s even more pronounced with bunkers than the one on 5.
Hole 18 (Par 4, 446 yards)
On the 18th we finish with yet another long par 4. I had a pretty solid round going until I sliced the heck out of my tee shot, and never found the ball.
There’s almost like a little gully that moves around the entire edge of the large green, that will give you a tough pitch similar to the one you’d find on 14 if you don’t get home in two.
Final Thoughts on Royal Dornoch
While Royal Dornoch was the most remote course we played on this Scotland trip, in the grand scheme of things it’s not that hard to get to. If you’re from the States and used to road trips, this will be a breeze as it’s only about 4 hours from Edinburgh if traffic isn’t bad.
There’s also plenty of other golf and distilleries to keep you entertained while you’re there.
The point of me reminding you of this, is that you’re doing yourself a huuuuge disservice to skip Royal Dornoch on your next Scotland trip.
I wrote after my round on Instagram that “While I’m not quite ready to call it the best course I’ve played, it’s up there.”
Years after this first visit, it still sits in the top 5 of my list of the best golf courses in the world
The more I’ve had time to sit and reflect, the more I truly feel that it’s easily one of my top 3 courses. I’d say it and Cruden Bay are in a tie for my two favorite Scotland courses, with North Berwick a very close third.
The holes are unique and fun, it’s got more history than just about any other course you’ll play, and the scenery makes it all that much better.
There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll return to Dornoch multiple times in my golfing career – and I only hope that you do the same.
Note: My most often told golf story has to do with this Dornoch trip and my first visit to Pebble Beach. Check out that post to hear the story.