We are in an eatery in the historic town debating just how good tomorrow could be as we embark on playing unquestionably one of the World’s greatest golf courses.
We overhear a conversation at the table next to us. Clearly a member of Royal Dornoch a man tells the couple he is sat with, “It’s so green and soft at the moment…. So un-pure…. So uninspiring.”
It was like a 5-year-old boy being told that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist.
I was acutely aware prior to our visit that Sutherland had experienced one of its wettest summers on record and from the four golf courses we had already played on our trip to The Highlands that the revered links wasn’t going to be the browned-off, firm and fast test I had seen in many photographs. However, to hear these words was worrying. We finished our meal in silence and went to bed a little despondent that the 800-mile round trip may not prove to be as magical as we had hoped for when it was planned almost a year beforehand.
As it turned out there was absolutely nothing to fear. The round at this timeless links proved to be one of the most memorable and pleasing I have ever had and the quality of the course not only shone through but also met, and at times exceeded, my high expectations of it. Royal Dornoch is undoubtedly in the top echelon of golf courses and one that ticks all the right boxes for me personally.
There was indeed a certain deadness to the course at times, there was no fire in its belly and of course I would have preferred to have played it when even more imagination is required to negotiate the sublime green complexes. But the running game still had a pulse and creativity was called for in spades.
Having had some time to reflect, in my opinion, there are 15 holes that are either outstanding or world-class and a handful of these that are truly peerless. The three holes I single out that I didn’t much care for; 1, 7 and 16 would be welcomed on virtually any other top course and still have their merits. The first works well as a good getaway, the seventh is a strong demanding hole with sensational views and the 16th makes the entire routing work being the only hole played uphill.
As for the others they contain some of the finest green complexes you will find anywhere. The second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth comprise a start that is as strong, if not better, than that at Cruden Bay; my benchmark for fast starting golf courses. The approach shots you play to these green complexes are of the very highest quality. Played along the side of a huge gorse-laden ridge the land falls from left to right on these holes and they require sound driving to avoid the many fairway bunkers but nothing will prepare you for the quality of shots you must play into these five holes; they are bordering on other-worldly.
After descending at the eighth – a hole I could take or leave mainly because of the similarities to the superior 17th – the walk along the Dornoch Firth at the next, close to a beach that doesn’t really come into play except for the wildest of drivers, is spellbinding. At the end of the 529 yards you are greeted with yet another stellar green complex which starts a second long run of exceptional holes.
The 10th is a cunning short hole with a two-level green whilst the long approach to the 11th must be perfectly flighted to avoid kicking off to either side. Holes 12 and 13 are also out of the top drawer whilst the 14th takes things to an entirely different level. The huge raised green, wider than it is deep, is the culmination of a wonderful bunkerless two-shotter - Foxy - that twists and turns throughout its 445 yards.
If not already, by now, you are noticeably aware that missing the green at Dornoch calls for all kinds of ingenuity and resourcefulness on the part of your short game.
The raised green at the 15th, a par four of modest length, is as good as any of the others and is matched by that of the 17th where the lower tier of a split-level fairway can be reached with a good drive. The final hole, back on high ground, may not be the most exciting on the course but it is as strong a finishing hole as you could ask for on any championship links.
The location of the course is also worth mentioning. It's a wild, isolated yet hauntingly beautiful place. When the sun shone there was a blaze of colour from the pure white sandy beach and the translucent Dornoch Firth. I can only imagine how good it all looks when the gorse is in full bloom. The seventh tee is the best place to enjoy the vista but for at least a dozen holes it is omnipresent.
From the championship Blue tees par is 70 and the maximum yardage is 6,722 whilst the SSS is 74.
We also sampled the second course; The Struie. This 6,265-yard, par 71 layout has seen many changes over the years and caters for all levels of golfer. It has a good start and the newest holes – nine to 13 – are very appealing and along with the fine par-three seventh make it worth playing. However, the remainder of the course is played over relatively flat, uninteresting land albeit with some interesting green complexes at the end of each hole.
The championship links at Dornoch is a course that, like all the truly great ones, requires repeated playing in many different weather conditions and wind directions to even begin to unlock some of its many secrets and mysteries. I may not have seen it at its fiery best but that just makes me even more determined to re-visit what is a true world-class golfing links.
Following a 4:00am alarm call we’d already driven for more than six hours and covered over 350 road miles before boarding a ferry at Oban sailing to Lochboisdale.
The Halifax Golf Club, often better known as Ogden, is a course that divides opinion.