Playaway: Royal Dornoch Golf Club, Sutherland

Royal Dornoch 18th Green#F0

THERE ARE SOME courses that it is hard to be objective about because something just happens to make you fall in love with the place. It is often because the first time you play you have a fine round, or the sun shines, or because you are in excellent company.

All three of those have happened to your Blogger and it is without hesitation that I can say that if I had just one course to play before I expired then I would head to this far flung coastline of Sutherland and hoped that the larks were singing, the sun was shining out on the firth and that the wind was blowing gently down the opening eight holes.

A fine day in late Spring or early autumn finds this handsome old track in all its majesty. Golf has been played on this stretch of links land for 400 years and the club is hosting a celebratory dinner later this year when members, joined by the great and the good, may gaze out over these magnificent links and raise their glasses to its continuing health.

Dornoch is now firmly on the international radar largely due to the arrival of Tom Watson back in 1981 who described his round, whilst practising for The Open, as ‘The most fun I ever had on a golf course.’ After this Watson’s fellow countrymen began to arrive in their numbers.

Many check into the welcoming and extremely comfortable facilities offered by the Royal Golf Hotel, that looks down onto the first tee of the Royal Dornoch championship course, where all guests need to do is turn left out of the hotel and walk fewer than 50 steps down the path and tee off.

Usually the wind is at our backs to help us on our way but sometimes in early spring it switches round and the first eight holes can be played almost entirely into it. Despite a relatively modest length in today’s distance obsessed game of 6,685 yards from the back tees it is still possible to take a driver off every tee at Dornoch depending on the wind.

But let us say that there is only a gentle gust coming over our right shoulder as we ease into the round with a relaxed start on the par four, 331 yard first. The sea is to our right and it will be visible from every hole, by no means a characteristic of seaside links, and ahead of us lies a raised, undulating green with three strategically placed bunkers. There are many more of these to come.

This is a classic out and back S- shaped links that opened formally as a club in 1877 when nine holes were played. The club’s young secretary, John Sutherland, was alive to the prosperity the railways were bringing and hired Tom Morris to come up from St Andrews to lay out ‘nine proper holes’ and added nine more himself. In June 1902 the Duke of Sutherland opened Dornoch railway station and the town became a golfing destination visited by such greats of the day as James Braid, Harry Vardon and JH Taylor.

It was the Duke’s friend King Edward VII that granted the club its royal charter in 1906 and the course we play today has changed only a little since, when the sixth to 11th holes were extended after World War II.

We play along a ridge with the first eight holes occupying the high ground before we drop right, down towards the beach and the most northern point on the course on the ninth tee, a wonderful par five that sweeps back towards home along the coast with sand and seaweed perilously close to our left and golden outbursts of thick gorse on our right.

With not one weak hole on the course it is the springy turf, brilliant light and large rolling greens that sit like upturned saucers amidst the dune tops that make Dornoch such a joy. With two par threes and one par five on either nine the challenge is usually to make the score going out and protect it coming back. Unless the wind changes round that is, which can wreck a scorecard before even getting to the turn.

But whatever the score Dornoch’s links will live long in the memory. If we have time we should also play the shorter Struie course at Dornoch which can act like soothing balm after a bad day on the big links. But to borrow a line from a 1960’s hit record, ‘Even the bad times are good,’ when you play Dornoch.

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