The current version of the layout was designed by Tom Mackenzie under the watchful eye and guidance of PGA Professional and Director of Golf at Skibo, David Thomson, around a decade ago.
With no expense spared they have taken the previous re-design of the early 1990’s by Donald Steel and have turned it into a golf course that can now be talked alongside the upper echelons of links golf in the UK.
In summary the changes saw myriads of gorse, trees and other shrubbery cleared to expose a links course that now contains a bountiful amount of strategy and beauty. When I say no expense spared consider the movement of 300,000 tonnes of sand to re-build the second hole!
The all-encompassing property has a celestial feel and a truly diverse fabric which blends together flawlessly to create unparalleled golfing terrain.
For most of us a visit will provide a glimpse into another world, certainly away from the course. The term ‘millionaire’s golf’ will never be more prevalent than at Skibo.
I didn’t quite make a millionaire’s entrance myself… erroneously arriving at the ‘Goods Entrance’ thanks to my Sat Nav (arguably user error!) and then ending up in the staff car park!
The upside of arriving at the Castle – the former residence of Andrew Carnegie - instead of the clubhouse was that I got an escorted journey through the scenic Carnegie Estate by one of the stylish black Range Rovers that are stationed in line outside the impressive 19th Century building.
If you are reading this review you may be contemplating if it is worth spending £1,200 on a 4-ball to snap up one of the two daily tee-times offered to non-members at this exclusive venue. If you are indeed seriously considering doing this then the short answer is most likely yes.
Certainly, if you are looking to treat yourself or have already played extensively and Skibo is a missing jigsaw piece then I think you will get value from the golfing experience alone. However, also included within your green-fee is lunch, a welcome gift valued at £75 and a couple of visits (after the 5th and 12th holes) to the help-yourself halfway house.
The golf course itself can be easily split into two sections because the feel and style of each one is so different. Holes 1 to 10 and 11 to 18 offer two contrasting types of links golf.
The first two holes provide a real championship feel and lead us nicely into the front nine. The exceptional build-quality, appearance and positioning of the bunkers are immediately noticeable and any fears about how good the golf will be are quickly laid to rest at this pair of excellent two-shotters.
The 3rd and 4th weren’t my favourite holes on the course (the latter will soon be altered to provide more visibility) but they keep things moving nicely before we hit a stretch of golf that is arguably unrivalled.
Holes five through ten simply do not miss a beat. They are infinitely beautiful and strategically supreme. They sum up perfectly the type of golf I personally love.
The long fifth asks you to slide it off the tee before you play to a wide but shallow green which tilts away from you. The impish 6th is a stunning short hole played from the top of one dune to another 150-yards away. The glorious 7th is perhaps the highlight of this purple patch with a split fairway, fantastic bunkering and a perched green. The 8th is played alongside the Dornoch Firth and from the right-most of the staggered tees is a true joy. The 9th is an elegant par-three where one must shape the tee-shot to access the left side of the green. And finally the 10th – a 504-yard par-four bruiser – plays up and over the narrowest fairway on the course to a rumpled landing area, lined with heather, and a menacing bunker to avoid on the right at driving distance.
I’ve condensed this magnificent run of holes into one paragraph but I could easily write one for each. They are so very good individually and even better collectively.
For the final eight holes you play right alongside, or at least very close to, Loch Evelix. The setting is equally as beautiful as the front-nine but in a different kind of way. The holes have a more manicured, tranquil feel in nature but still play linksy and the quality of turf, which is tight and pristine throughout, is still there. The bunkering is a little cleaner and the changes in elevation slightly less. I personally preferred the front nine but I suspect others will enjoy this section more so.
On this homeward stretch the par-three 13th was my favourite hole. The setting is as pretty as any hole I’ve played and the bunkering and slope of the green just about perfect. The 16th is also a very fine hole, played slightly inland, with a terrific green complex, and begins a closing triangle of holes at the far end of the course which includes the potentially driveable 17th and the slinging 18th; both chances to improve your scorecard or finish in a blaze of glory.
I will admit to being sceptical when speaking to David before my round when he said it is likely you will often have to shape the ball one way from the tee and then the opposite way into the green (I've heard it a thousand times before). But this is so true at Skibo. There are many examples of this but the best perhaps comes at the par-five 14th; the drive must be a draw to gain maximum distance, and to squeeze it around the fairway bunkers on the inner elbow, before a sliding approach is favoured into the green.
There are certainly more eye-catching and memorable holes on the property than the 14th but for me this emphasises the very important fact that we have both style and substance at Skibo.
For the most part the links is wide (with the notable exception of the 10th) but like all top links the angle of approach is paramount to being able to score well. It’s a highly strategic course where being in the correct position from the tee is important; an early lesson of this is handed out at the 2nd hole where you must prefer the left side for a better line and view into the rising green.
The yardage on the scorecard is 6,833 from the blue tees, playing to a par of 71, but I noticed a handful of additional tees dotted around which I imagine could stretch the course further if so desired.
Are there any negatives? I hear you ask, especially since you may be forking out the most expensive green-fee in the United Kingdom. I tried to think hard for things I didn’t like (it wasn’t easy) because I’m sure anyone considering playing here would surely want to know.
Well, the course certainly isn’t without fault but in the grand scheme of things these are very minor.
My main personal niggle is that the routing wasn’t quite as seamless as one might hope for. Long walks from tee-to-green are the norm nowadays at most modern 7,000-yard layouts but here you must awkwardly cross the 3rd tee to get from the 5th green to the 6th tee, you must also walk back almost the entire length of the 150-yard 13th to get to the 14th tee and you need also to cross the front of the clubhouse to reach the 16th tee. It’s not a game spoiler by any means but in an ideal world the flow would be better.
There is also a long walk to play the isolated 7th and 8th but this is countered by the fact that it is through a mysterious looking lichen heath which actually adds to the charm of these two handsome holes so is easily forgiven.
The inward stretch alongside the loch is surreal and contains some fine holes but the 11th and 12th both have a similarity about them visually and strategically; notably heroic drives over the water. Both are lovely holes, it’s just a shame you must play them consecutively.
Finally, the second shot on the par-five 3rd could maybe do with a bunker or two 50-yards short of the green to makes things more interesting (for either the lay-up or if trying to to go for the green in two) and the 18th tee shot is just not for me; in my eyes it looked a bit too manufactured but I can imagine others will love the heroic nature of this shot which plays over a tidal inlet.
However, none of these things, all considered from an uber-critical perspective, should not deter from you visiting Skibo. Ultimately there are many, many more things to praise Skibo for than to be damning. Their attention to detail both on and off the course is second to none.
As well as offering 18 wonderful holes the course staff should also be applauded for their rough management. I have mentioned this in several other reviews but the way they have got it here – long wispy grass where it’s easy to find your ball but it hampers your shot – is just right.
Skibo is not your average golf course, it's a special place, a special course and it's worth a special visit.
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