Royal Dornoch Golf Club
by Rich Goodale
My home course is Royal Dornoch. An American, I first played the course in 1978, lived in the town for 3 months in the summer of 1981 (when I became a member), spent at least a month a year thereafter in Dornoch–including getting married there in 1991 (beating Madonna to the punch by nearly 10 years). I’ve probably played 500 rounds on the course, including about a hundred from the medal tees under tournament conditions.
As the history of the links is pretty well documented from various sources, I will not try to talk about the development of the course. Rather, let me offer a thumbnail sketch on each hole based on my personal recollections, focusing on architectural features and real-life playability.
The Championship Course
This is what most people know of as Dornoch. In my humble yet biased opinion this is the finest links course in the world–with all due respect to Turnberry, Portmarnock, Birkdale, Rye and Carnoustie, the only other possible contenders for the crown. First, a brief hole by hole description.
1. (330 Yards) This is a short, straightforward, very much like the 1st at Prestwick (without the OB railroad looming on the right!). By far the easiest birdie hole on the course, which makes it extremely difficult, because a 5 (or even higher) is far too possible. A drive and a sand wedge, with a premium for going down the left side in that it opens up the green. A very different hole from the back tees–particularly into the wind. Then the left bunkers come into play, and the chance of overcompensating and driving into the right rough, with a difficult pitch over a bunker to a very hard green looms. There are two great pin positions on the hole, one long right and the other middle left which will test even the best wedge player. The opening drive is complicated by the fact that the clubhouse overlooks the tee and you can be assured that your efforts are being watched by friends and other more dispassionate critics of the golf swing. The green can be very fast, and it is rare to get a completely straight putt, even 2-3 feet from the hole. If you haven’t brought your A-game putting stroke, the hole can get into your head, big time. A fascinating and very under-rated opening hole.
2. (180 yards) This is a fantastic par-3. Normally a 6-iron, I have hit the green with full 1-irons and pitching wedges, depending on the wind. The green slopes sharply from left to right toward the sea, and from back to front. Hit the green and you’re laughing (except after the very possible 3-putt). Miss the green right or left and you’re facing (as Eric Brown may or may not have said) the hardest shot in golf. If you can’t hit a hard helicopter lob wedge off a bare lie, don’t even think of trying to aim for the pin. Find a safe haven–in the fringe, to the front of the green or wherever. On the green there are three great pin positions–short left, mid-left and long right. Count your self lucky that these days there is a fringe. In the early 80’s the banks were shaved as close as Telly Savalas’s head, and going back and forth across the green was very possible. There are multiple stories of great or very good players taking double figures at this hole without ever losing their ball. In competitions a 5-4 start at Dornoch is very acceptable–once you have experienced some of the alternatives.
3. (410 yards) The first 2 holes at Dornoch are actually on an upland plateau overlooking the ‘true’ links. As you leave #2 you walk through whinns, and as you turn a corner, suddenly the true splendor of the links bursts in front of you. From the tee you can see all the way to the 6th hole and the path to the 7th tee as well as most or all of holes 11-17. The 18th tee is adjacent. If you are lucky enough to be there in the spring when the whins are in bloom, the scene is like no other I know, with the possible exception of some views at Newcastle. The third is an obvious hole off the tee. Hit a draw off the right hand bunkers into the L-R slope of the fairway, and leave yourself a short to mid iron to the green, depending on the wind. You can see the bunker guarding the left side of the green from the tee which tells you that staying as close to the fairway bunkers as possible is desirable. The rough and whins and OB to the left can turn your intended draw at the top of your swing into a push to the rough right of the right hand bunkers, where you can often share ball-searching with players who have come off their second shots to the 14th on the inward 9. The second shot to the third depends on from whence you are coming, as all good par-4’s should be. If you’ve made it to position A, just to the left of the last fairway bunker on the right, hit a bold iron shot straight at the flag. If you’re somewhere where you don’t have absolute control of the ball or the direction, aim your second shot at and short of the left hand bunker. It will roll sharply right when it gets towards the green. Again there are at least 3 great pin positions–mid left, long-center and mid-right.
4. (430 Yards) My favorite hole on the course. A completely straight hole with a fairway that slopes sharply from left to right. The ideal line is mid-fairway with a slight draw. A bit too much draw and you are in a set of roughy hollows. A bit more than too much draw and you are in the whins. A bail out and you are in a a set of roughy hollows to the right of the fairway (or even in front of the 12th green). If you miss the fairway you can get near the green, or even reach it, but you must hit a very hard long-iron or fairway wood run-up shot and thread it through the bunkers which guard the green right and left. If you are in the fairway, you are hitting something from a 4-8 iron at a very large elevated putting surface. There is a steep dip starting 40-50 yards in front of the green. The green itself has a sharp slope from left to right (towards the sea, again). It is cut in two by a horizontal ridge which is not always clear from the fairway. You can just about see the bottom of the flag most of the time, but you can’t always be exactly sure on which 1/2 of the green the pin actually is. The doubt this creates very often creates a bad shot. My rule on this hole when I am in doubt is to assume that the pin is on the ridge and try to hit to the ‘middle’ of the green. Locals (with more skill and/or different genes than I) often try to roll the ball up with a low punchy running shot through the dip and between the bunkers. .Once on the green, the putts look harder than they are, unless the greenskeeper is in a vile enough mood to put it on the top of a slope at the left-middle of the green. If it is there and the greens are fast, take a two-putt with thanks to your god. The other two very good pin positions are long right and mid right.
5. (360 Yards) Five is one of those short par-4’s that makes you say ‘I wish I had one or two of those on my course!’ From an elevated tee you hit over a set of humps towards a not too narrow fairway framed by a hill of rough and whins on the left and a string of bunkers on the right. The green is clearly seen and is set at a 45 degree angle from left to right. It is clear that the ideal tee shot is down the left–but do you dare to fool with the whins? Assuming you do manage the fairway, the second shot is usually no more than a wedge, although which wedge you hit and how hard you need to hit it can vary tremendously. If you’re lucky enough to find position A you will see that the green is narrow and long, nearly 60 yards. It is guarded by a sand and grass bunker on the left and by a 6-8 foot drop-off on the right. If you miss the green right your chance of getting up and down with a 4 is minimal. It is possible to bail out way right onto the 12th fairway off the tee. From there you actually have an easy shot–if your distance control is good on the day, as the green you face from there is 60 yards wide, 10 yards long and canted towards you! Once on the green, you should be looking for a birdie, if your distance is right. However, if the pin is mid-right, and you are short of it, watch out! I was once there, in a tournament, with a former club champion as a caddie , who told me ‘You can’t hit this putt too far to the left.’ I didn’t, watched my ball roll off the green, and lost the hole and later the match.
6. (165 yards) Arguably one of the best short holes on the planet. The first of the sequence of 6 holes designed in 1946 by George Duncan to make up for holes lost during WWII, when the lower links land at Dornoch (including the original 13-18 of the Championship Course) was used for a reserve airfield. The hole tells you what you have to do from the tee–HIT THE GREEN, STUPID! It’s just a 6-7 iron on most days. There are a bunkers and whins to the left and a sharp slope to the right. A huge bunker sits at the right front of the green. It should never come into play for the good players but it frames the hole for them and causes higher handicappers fits. If you go left into the whins you are largely dead. If you are in the left bunkers, you are OK if you can hit a softly, softly shot from soft sand onto a green sloping away from you towards an abyss. If you are in the abyss, see the discussion of the problem under hole #2 above. The green seems about as flat as you get at Dornoch, but has a not at all obvious seaside bias. Most importantly, the hole is visually stunning. It is framed by whins to the left and the rear and the sweep of the magnificent 11th hole and the sea to the right. From the tee you can watch the following group hitting into the 5th green. On the green you can watch other groups trying to deal with the problems of the approach to the 11th. You are a part of golf and a part of nature, and if you have been so lucky as to have hit the green, you are particularly blessed.
7. (470 yards) There is a long steep climb up a hill to get from the 6th to the 7th. Once there you are both breathless and back on the upland plateau of the first and second holes. 7 is the #1 handicap hole at RDGC, but far from being the most appealing. It is basically dead straight and long. Into a 2-3 club wind the green is effectively unreachable by mortals. The main architectural feature are the whins, which line both sides of the fairway. To improve playability for the average visitor and to help with a severe rabbit problem, these were cut back substantially (15-20 yards on each side) 10 years ago. Before then, the drive on the 7th was extremely foreboding, and it was very easy to run up double figures on the hole. Today it is just two long whacks. Into the wind, the second shot can still result in a lost ball, but downwind the challenge is just trying to hit a long iron to a green with a fairly narrow opening. If the pin is put behind the bunker at the left front of the green, it is almost impossible to get close. If it is middle or left, however, birdies are now possible.
8. (440 yards) Most of the time the 8th is played from forward tees of a little over 400 yards. The fairway extends along the upland plateau before plunging over a 40 foot cliff to the proper linksland below. The lower fairway doglegs to the left towards a punchbowl green. The best line is over the marker post with a draw. From the front tees the drive requires just a straight shot of 200 yards or so to get over the cliff. In most instances hitting the ball much farther, or cutting the dogleg doesn’t give you much extra benefit for the extra risk, so the 1-iron in the club of choice here. On the other hand, from the back tee, the driver must be used. If it is hit well, you will get the same results as the 1-iron from the front tee, but you face much more chance of hitting the ball either OB onto the old railway line or into the old quarry over the hill on the right. Assuming you get over the hill you are left with between a 5-iron and a PW, depending on how far left you go and the wind. From the lower fairway the shot to the green is blind and there is quite a bit of unseen ground between the fairway bunker which hides the green and the pin. When the course was running faster, you could hit this area and expect to bounce forward to the green. Today, your ball will stick short of the green and you have a very difficult up and down. Some players consciously play their drive to the left hand side of the fairway short of the ridge, from where you have a perfect view of the hole and a 170 yard downhill shot . The green gathers most shots, and if you hit the ball fairly straight, with the right club, you are likely to have a birdie putt. Beware, however, for the green is one of the fastest and most contoured on the course, and hitting that 6-footer another 6-feet past is very possible. The back tee was built 20 years or so ago, and is not liked by many locals because it makes the hole too hard. I personally think it is a big improvement, because it increases the challenge without fundamentally changing the character of the hole.
9. (500 yards) 9 is the first of the two par 5’s at Dornoch. You are now back by the sea, which runs beside the hole all the way to the green (although it shouldn’t be in play). Until last year it played as a 4 from the front tees (that used by most visitors), but expansion of the old medal tee has allowed the club enough space to have all players now play it at its full length. It is a 4 1/2 for top players, except into a heavy wind. If you manage to drive it down the 15 yard wide ‘fast lane’ on the far left of the fairway (next to the LWH, aka the North Sea), and the wind is not in your face, the second shot is a mid to long iron to a fairly hard plateau green. If, however, you drive safely to the right, getting on in two is problematic as the two deep bunkers on the right of the green come very much into play. The fairway narrows at the ridge about 100 yards from the green. On the right hand side of the ridge is a bunker, and to the left an outlet from a burn running under the fairway cuts into the hole. There are plans afoot to bring this burn to the surface, which will trouble the high handicappers, or anyone who drives into the heavier bits of rough. The 9th green is well bunkered, with the front right one being particularly nasty. The green is relatively flat, and is hard to 3-putt, even from long range. All in all one of the best birdie chances on the course, but also a hole that can reach up and grab you, if you make a mistake or two.
10. (150 yards) A simple looking short hole. Slightly downhill to a two-tier green slightly raised off of a dip in the land. Bunkers frame the front and left of the hole. To the left there is a 3-4 foot dip that gathers the pushed shot. (note: until a few years ago, the whins came right up to the dip, making the tees shot much more intimidating). The chip from the right is very delicate as there is a distinct (though hardly visible) right to left cant to the green. If the pin is on the lower tier and you manage to get the distance right, you will have a very makeable birdie putt. If the pin is on the upper tier, getting the distance right is problematic, and if the pin is in the Sunday position to the right, just onto the plateau, getting it close requires either lots of cojones or a ‘lucky miss.’ The wind can make a big difference on this hole. Normally a 9-iron, it can be as much as a 4-iorn into a strong breeze. When it is playing in a strong downwind situation, keeping the ball on the green can be nearly impossible. Hitting into the front bunkers may be the best option. There is a tiger tee for this hole on a little dune to the left of the 9th green which lengthens the hole to 180 yards. It is rarely used except as a relief winter tee, and adds nothing to the hole but distance.
11. (440 yards) One of the strongest holes on the course. The drive is framed by a hill of whins on the right and the sea on the left. The fairway is wide, but a push or a pull into trouble is still very possible unless you are one with your game. The fairway slopes from right to left and getting a flat lie off the drive is best assured by going right. This, however is the ‘slow lane’ and increases the difficulty of the angle of the second shot, particularly if the pin is on the right. Hitting the drive down the middle with a draw is the best tactic as it opens up the green and gives extra distance due to increased roll. Be prepared, however, for a tricky lie. The green complex is highlighted by a tongue of land at the approach area which casts off shots landing short and slightly off line. Those hit left will gather into a bunker and those right into a wee hollow. Because of this feature, ALWAYS take at least one more club than you think you need on your approach to this hole. This approach will usually be a mid-to-long iron. Into a brisk wind, driver-driver will be required. The green is long and reverse-pear shaped, with lots of room at the back. Underclubbing will leave a 50 foot+ putt to a back pin position. A mostly hidden bunker guards the middle right. There are a number of very good pin positions on the green, which is relatively flat making 3-putts probable only if you mis-club. A par on this hole is always a bonus.
12. (500 yards) The second and last 3-shotter on the course (if you exclude 14 and 18 into a strong wind!). Like the 9th a par-4 Ã‚½ for the good player who manages to find the right line and length off the tee. This is one of the few holes on the course that you can ‘open up your shoulders’ and take a good whack at the ball as the curve of the fairway is right to left but there is miles of room to the right in case you come off the ball. The cardinal sin on this hole is to go left off the tee, as you will find yourself in heavy rough in the dunes with no chance of reaching the green in two and perhaps even problems in getting it out far enough to reach in three. Even if you happen to find the left hand side of the fairway, your second shot to the green will be a blind 200+yards carry over the heavy rough from an uneven lie. A good drive to the right center of the fairway will leave you with a 220 yard or so shot to a green guarded on the right by a gathering bunker and on the left by a 10-foot high dune than narrows the entrance considerably. A player on form will carry that hump with a 2-3 iron. One slightly less confident or less long will try to run up a fairway wood with a bit of draw. The green is another long one, so 3-putts are likely if distance is not judged accurately. The green slopes right to left and shots into it which go left will end up at the bottom of a 4-5 foot drop off. If the green isn’t reached in two, the third shot will offer the full range of short-game possibilities, from putting, to chipping or pitching. These options will be magnified if the pin is at the front, behind a small false front. This is a birdie hole, but one where a 6 is very, very possible if you err on any one of your first three shots.
13. (170 yards) The last of the short holes, and the easiest of the 4 by far. An elevated tee in the dunes to a well bunkered punchbowl green. If you hit the tee shot reasonably straight, with the right club, your ball will not end up far from the pin. In addition to the bunkers there is a deep hollow to the right at the mid-green area which can leave a very difficult pitch. The green has subtle contours that make even short putts difficult, particularly if the pin has been cut near the slopes at the sides of the green. You should get a 3 (and maybe a 2) at this hole.
14. (440 yards) The most famous hole on the course, ‘Foxy.’ A bunker â€œfree double-dog leg (right, left, right) if played as a 4 Ã‚½ (as wise higher handicappers will do). A long drive and a conundrum for the lower handicapper. The main feature visible from the tee is the first of a ridge of dunes which cut across the right Ã‚¾ of the fairway at about 290 yards. A good drive to the middle-right will leave you with a level lie but with a blind mid-iron second shot. Any bail out right will force you to lay up, right or left (each has problems). The left of the fairway is a very narrow ‘fast lane’ which, if hit can propel your ball to a garden spot parallel with the first dune, giving you a clear 150 yard shot at the green. It is then that the fun begins. The green is raised about 5-7 feet off the fairway and all of the approaches and run offs are shaved to near green speeds. There is a large knob at the front of the middle of the green which throws off slightly inaccurate run-up shots with disdain. Run up shots hit to the left will roll off towards the 15th tee if not hit perfectly. The right side of the green is protected by the last of the row of dunes. You can, of course, try to fly the ball onto the green, but if you do so either bail out right (where there is more green to work with), or bring your A+ iron game, as any less than perfectly hit aerial shot will bound over the green into the rough at the back. I saw Watson, at the height of his powers, stick an 8-iron to a far left pin there in 1982, but that’s the only time I’ve ever seen anything like that done in the 20+ years I’ve played the course. Most of the time you stand in the fairway and just wonder what sort of shot you should hit on the day. It could be a low runner, or a controlled slice around the bend, or an aerial shot to the fat right of the green. I once hit driver-putter onto the front edge (and then took 4 more putts for a 6). The green is highly contoured so a par is not at all assured even if you managed to get on in regulation. One of the better local golfers for many years once went 1, 3 on 13 and 14. When he got back to the clubhouse, someone said to him ‘I can understand the hole-in-one on the 13th, but how in hell did you get a 3 on Foxy?’
15. (320 yards) An underrated hole. The main feature off the tee is the 10-15 foot high dune in middle of the fairway at about 220 yards from the back tee. Eminently carryable in normal conditions for the good player, but a severe impediment to the higher handicapper or to anybody if a strong wind is in your face. The hole is driveable, certainly from the front tees with a favoring wind. If this is not possible, there is lots of room to the right, but this is the worst angle to approach the green, which slopes sharply from right to left. The best angle is from the other side, but there is just a narrow channel of fairway to the left of the dune, and a pulled tee shot can find a difficult lie in the marram grass. The 15th green is one of the best of a great collection, and it makes the approach shot, even if from 60-80 yards, as is normal, a great test of ability and nerve. These days, the lob wedge is probably the weapon of choice, but if you hit it fat, the ball will roll back to you from the elevated approach. If you hit it thin you are in rough at the rear with a difficult chip back to the pin. There is a great pin position short right and two good ones at mid-left and long right. Locals will chip, or even putt the ball from 60 yards in at the 15th. This used to be a birdie hole for me, but now I’m happy to get my par.
16. (400 yards) Peter Allis has called this hole the epitome of links golf, but most people feel it is the weakest on the course. I like it, however. It is an uphill climb with the green only partly visible, even if your tee shot finds the upper level of the fairway (this requires a very straight carry of 220 yards). The green is large and flat and bunkerless. That being said, the drive on the hole is one of the most testing on the course. If you hit driver and stray even a little bit to the left your ball can boomerang off a slope in the fairway all the way to the bottom of an old quarry, particularly when the course is running fast. If you bail out right there are two fairway bunkers at the bottom of the slope dividing the fairway which will gather your ball and guarantee a 5. Most of the time I hit 1-iron or 5-wood to the left hand side (towards but short of the quarry). This leaves a blind but safe second shot to the green. Because the second shot is uphill and blind, distance control is difficult. This problem is exacerbated by the 10-foot high dune to the right of and 30 yards short of the green which gives a false sense of distance. 4 is always a good score on this hole. When Watson played his second round of the day here in ’82 with a roaring gale at his back he nearly drove the green â€after hitting his first two tee shots into the quarry. If you are playing a friendly game and the match is over, the 16th has the added attraction of being only 350 yards or so from the 19th hole.
17. (410 yards) Similar in design to the 8th hole and equally charming. A tee shot over a cliff 200 yards out to a valley fairway angling sharply to the left. A punch bowl green set above the valley fairway. Like the 8th, this hole can be played by hitting a long iron to the left hand corner of the upper level of the fairway, leaving a 7-iron or so with a clear view of the green below. This line is guarded by a row of bunkers at the end of the fairway against the whins. If you are down on the lower level and have managed to hit a controlled draw off the tee, you have a semi-blind shot of 150 yards or so. Getting the distance right is critical as the green is the longest on the course at 55 â€œ60 yards. In the good old days before hollow-tining and sprinkler systems, you could approach this green with whatever club carried you just over the left-hand bunker 20 yards or so short of the green. In those days, the ball would bound off the down-slope and gather in from the left to the pin. These days, that strategy will leave you at the left front of the green with a very difficult approach putt. If you manage to reach the green, this is a hole you can birdie, as most putts on the green are honest and readable. If you are within 20 feet and your stroke is sure you can hole a few putts on this green.
18. (460 yards) A brute of a finishing hole whose charm is in that it is a great test of golf, particularly at the end of a round. A slightly uphill slight dogleg to the right with bunkers guarding the direct angle to the green. Right of the bunkers is bandit country, although you can get lucky and find a lie that will let you advance the ball towards the green. To the left are whins and an increasingly encroaching rough which has narrowed the fairway considerably in recent years. The fast lane is a slight draw off the left hand side of the fairway bunkers. No matter where you hit the tee shot, the second will be at least partially blind, as a small ridge 100 yards or so from the green obscures it. The green itself is set in a wee hollow, but partially raised, leaving a 2-3 foot dip in the front and at the sides. This means that an approach shot which doesn’t quite carry to the green can stop dead. Always take one more club on this hole. The green itself slopes from right to left, particularly on the right side. If you miss the green, do so to the left. The front right pin position is the Sunday one and one which can be reached only with two world-class shots. If you get a 4 on this hole at the end of a good round, you are paying very very well. At the end of poor rounds, 4’s will pop up on this hole with disturbing frequency.
19. (200 yards) As you walk through the whins to the clubhouse, make sure to look left or you risk being mutilated by drives off the first tee. Once reaching your objective, make sure you first take off your hat, as wearing a headgear in a golf clubhouse is the British equivalent of waving a red flag at a bull. The RDGC clubhouse is small but well-equipped, thanks to the generosity of the visitors whose green fees allow for annual renovations and restorations of the building and its fabric. There are 3 main areas to the bar. 1. The bar itself, near the serving area, with no view, and where the locals tend to congregate. 2. The ‘Sun Lounge’ next to the bar, and overlooking the links. This is where many non-resident members and visitors tend to sit. 3. The lounge proper, where meals can be eaten and where there are comfy sofas and chairs to sit in. Depending on the season and the day, the 19th hole at Dornoch can be deserted or hoaching (i.e. full of people). During open tournaments, there may be a 3-4 person deep wait at the bar and a noise level similar to a heavy metal concert. On quiet days you may be the only one there save one or two local connoisseurs of the malt and the barley. If your mood is contemplative, try to get a seat in the sun lounge and just look over the links with your favorite beverage in your hand. If you mood is participative, sit in the bar and try to get a conversation going with the locals. You might be surprised what you might learn.
The Struie Course
The second course at Dornoch lies on the lower links to the south of the town. Until 1946, 1/3 of the championship course was located on this ground and four of those six holes can still be played on the Struie (numbers 1, 4, 17 and 18). The course has gone under several revisions and improvements over the past 10-15 years, starting with some new holes put in by Donald Steel in the late 80’s when the course was expanded form 9 to 18 holes.. Presently, 4 new dunesland holes are being built out towards the Dornoch Firth. The long term plan is to continue to upgrade the course until it is equivalent to the standards set by other local courses such as Tain and Golspie.
I am a big fan of the Struie, and play it almost as often as I do the ‘Big’ course when I am in Dornoch. The conditioning is superb–particularly the greens–the course is fun to play, it is easy to walk, it has great views of the town and the Dornoch Firth, and it can be played in under 3 hours on most days. Few visitors do so, but I would recommend at shot at it unless you absolutely must play the championship course as much as possible (I know the feeling!).
Dornoch is, of course Royal Dornoch Golf Club. Despite the lofty title, it is still very much a village club, particularly in the months when the visitors are few and far between (October-April). It is perhaps the most important economic engine for the Burgh of Dornoch, so the relationship between the club and the town is very closely intertwined. In fact all the holes on the championship course, save the new ones (6-11) are ‘common good’ land, owned by the town council and leased by the club.
As a village club, every local can and generally does belong, from the street sweeper to the local gentry. It is also a club with a very large and wide-ranging non-resident membership, many of whom come to the town for 2-3 weeks every summer for golfing holidays, often focused around one or more of the major open tournaments held by the club. An increasing number of the ‘local’ members are in fact recent retirees to the place from other places, mostly England. They and their descendants are referred to as ‘white settlers.’ It takes several generations to become a ‘local’ in the Highlands.
While there is a small contingent in the club for which the operative word in the club’s title is ‘Royal,’ for most the operative word is ‘Dornoch.’ If you take people as they are in RDGC, you will not find a friendlier club.
I consider this to be a work in progress, and not at all complete or necessarily accurate. All comments will be gratefully accepted.