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Royal Dornoch Golf Club: A foxy beguiler in the Scottish Highlands

Mark NessmithBy Mark Nessmith,
Special Contributor
No. 5 at Royal Dornoch
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Don't be fooled by the green's position on no. 5 at Royal Dornoch. (Courtesy of Royal Dornoch G.C.)

DORNOCH, Scotland - When you read about Royal Dornoch Golf Club, so often you'll hear about no. 14, the bunkerless hole known as Foxy. It's often called the golf course's signature hole (not an official title, by the way) and has even been deemed "the most natural hole in golf."

It is an epic trek from tee to green, no doubt. But it's a little vanilla compared to some of the beguiling fun to be had at Royal Dornoch at the hands of Old Tom Morris and and the others who had a hand in its classic design.

Take no. 5, for instance, the Hilton hole. This 354-yard part 4 begins atop an elevated tee looking down on bunkers to the right and the sea beyond. While the view is spectacular, the hole at first seems rather simple, straightforward.

"It's a hole with subtlety because while you think 'well, it's a nice wide field, I can boom it away,' you tend to let it drift because of the winds, off to the right-hand side of the fairway," said John Duncan, the club's secretary/manager.

"But then you realize only when you get close to the green that the green is not straight to the fairway, it's obliquely across it. Coming in from the right, it's actually a very narrow width," he continued.

"So if you should have the courage to hit it on the left-hand side of the fairway, you're looking straight down the green, which is 64 yards long and it makes for a much more gentle shot."

While Royal Dornoch's course has a well-deserved reputation as an old guard bastion of pure links golf, it's not a stoic walk amongst the fescue and gorse. The subtle trickery you find in the approach to the fifth green is pretty much the norm here, Duncan admits with a sly grin.

"I would say that Royal Dornoch very rarely puts a gun to your head but it does put its arm 'round your shoulder, gives you a cuddle and picks your pocket when you're not looking," he said.

The second hole, the 184-yard, par 3 Ord, cues golfers early on to one of the keys to having success at Dornoch: Playing well on the par 3s. Your tee shot here will do one of three things: land on or near the plateau green, land in one of the two bunkers protecting the front, or land in a thicket so thick it might as well be the ocean.

Pam Bradish of Redlands, Calif., and her husband have been making yearly golf treks to Dornoch since 1998. She's well acquainted with the second hole and calls it one of the course's more difficult ones.

"You know if you don't get on the green, if you land on either side of it, unless you're a really good golfer, you just keep going back and forth," Bradish said.

In being leery of Dornoch's second hole, Bradish is in good company, it would seem.

"That's the one that Tom Watson is quoted as saying is the most difficult shot in golf," Duncan said. "And you can understand that with the elevated green, protected by bunkers.

So this isn't putting a gun to your head!?

"Well, no," Duncan said, laughing. "Because if you play it short, then it's just a long putt or a bump and run to the pin."

Royal Dornoch Golf Club: The verdict

Bradish remarked that, in addition to the great golf, she and her husband are annual visitors due to the "ambience and the friendliness of the people and the fact that this is kind of off the beaten track."

Indeed, were a course this good in a more accessible area that could handle the multitudes, Royal Dornoch Golf Club would undoubtedly be in the British Open rotation and be mentioned (even) more frequently among the likes of Turnberry's Ailsa course, Prestwick and Carnoustie.

Stay and play

The four-star Royal Golf Hotel lies very near the first tee. The Eagle Hotel, meanwhile, is a mainstay Dornoch B&B.

Many golfers opt to stay farther south, in Nairn and make the hour-and-15-minute drive north for their tee time.

Fast Fact

Donald Ross was born in Dornoch and learned to golf here. He worked here as pro/groundskeeper before emigrating to the U.S.

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Royal Dornoch Golf Club

From March of 2005 until January of 2017, Mark Nessmith directed the TravelGolf Network's team from the company's European office in the Czech capital of Prague. Prior to taking the reins as editor, he was a communications program manager with The PGA of America in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He also has served as managing editor for The Prague Post, the leading English-language newspaper of the Czech Republic. Follow Mark on Twitter at @marknessmith.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Royal Dornoch

    Don Carrico wrote on: Aug 12, 2011

    I had the privilege of playing this previously unknown golf course back in 1986. I was on a 8 day self-guided tour of Scottish Golf. We started at Royal Troon then Prestwich, Turnberry(both courses)St.Andrews, Gleneagles(two courses) and Royal Dornock. What a fantastic trip. The thing I remember most about Dornoch is how far we drove to get there and back in one day. We stayed near Edinburgh and drove all the way to the Scottish Highlands to play 36 holes at Dornock and drove back. We left at 6AM and returned at 1AM. Youn and Crazy! There was one hole at Dornoch where you walk up a hill to get to the tee and there are bushes and god know's what else lining both sides of the fairway. We look out the fairway and what do we see but at least 50 to 100 rabbits the size of small dogs. Never seen that before. A great place and I highly recommend it.


  • Royal Dornach

    Andy Sariochek wrote on: Jul 1, 2009

    The course was very nice. However, our round was tortured by a driving rain with heavy winds. It was one of the few times when I actually wished a round would be over. I agree with other reviewers that the people were extremely hospitable as in most of Scotland.


  • Royal Dornoch

    David Soutar wrote on: Apr 28, 2009

    One of the finest links courses in the world. The clubhouse and members are also very friendly and hospitable. A golfing experience well worth the trip north of Inverness


  • Royal Dornoch

    Michael Fisher wrote on: Feb 26, 2008

    I, too, have been terminally bitten by the Royal Dornoch bug. After reading Lorne Rubenstein's, "A Season in Dornoch" in 2002, I vowed to visit there. I did not get the opportunity until a "special" birthday in July 2003. I played Royal Dornoch on a spectacular day, the temp was over 70F, in the company of the owner of the B&B at which I was staying. He, also a member of the club, was my guide to one of, if not my best golfing experiences. I have since returned to Dornoch three of the past four years. Each time has been unique. I have never played St. Andrews, and each year I saw I will, but never do. The attraction of Dornoch and the Highlands is mystical, spiritual, and addictive (sorta like the game itself). I highly recommend the trip north--it will be unforgetable.