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Royal Dornoch: A True Classic in the Scottish Highlands

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Royal Dornoch is considered one of the finest and most beautiful links golf courses in the world. It is consistently ranked among the top 10 courses globally, with its current ranking being 5th in the latest Golf World/Today’s Golfer Top 100 Courses list for 2023. It is described as a “spellbinding” and unforgettable golf experience in a wild, isolated setting.

Royal Dornoch remains renowned for its dramatic seaside setting in the Scottish Highlands, featuring various holes woven through spectacular duneslands. It boasts the influence of legendary architects like Old Tom Morris, Donald Ross, and George Duncan.

Beyond its design, Royal Dornoch also draws consistent praise for its welcoming atmosphere, the charm of its town setting, and excellent hospitality, matching the high quality of the course.

In this post, we’ll learn the origins and history of Dornoch, how it became “Royal,” meet Donald Ross, run through the course, and learn what makes it great. Finally, we’ll review Lorne Rubenstein’s book “A Season in Dornoch” and recommend additional reading. As always, the images are simulated to set the scene.

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Origin and History of Dornoch

Royal Dornoch Golf Club is situated in the far northern Scottish Highlands, about 40 miles north of Inverness along the Dornoch Firth in Sutherland County. Its remote location places it around 4 hours by car from St Andrews to the south. However, the course lies much closer to other acclaimed Highlands courses like Brora Golf Club, 30 miles to the north, Golspie Golf Club, 20 miles south, and Nairn Golf Club, about 65 miles to the southeast near Inverness. While quite distant from Scotland’s more famous southern links, Royal Dornoch still resides within a Highlands region increasingly recognized for quality golf among dramatic and rugged scenery.

Golf has been played over the linksland in Dornoch since at least 1616. The current golf club itself was formally established in 1877. That same year, the original 9-hole course was laid out. Legendary golf architect Old Tom Morris expanded it to 18 holes in 1886. So, Morris’ design defined much of the early course.

In the early 1900s, the course was remodeled to keep up with changes in golf balls and equipment. Unfortunately, some original holes were lost when an airfield was constructed on part of the course during World War II, which spurred additional changes and redesigns over the years.

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“Royal” Dornoch

Dornoch earned its “Royal” title thanks to King Edward VII, who frequently visited the region and was friends with the Duke of Sutherland. In 1906, through the influence of the Duchess of Sutherland who was also friends with the king, Edward VII bestowed the club with the formal designation as “Royal.” This recognized Dornoch’s centuries of golf history as well as the high quality of its course. So, in essence, Dornoch became “Royal” due to its longstanding golf legacy, Morris’ design, and finally, the official royal designation by King Edward VII in the early 20th century.

In more recent decades, Royal Dornoch has significantly expanded from its early 18 holes. In the late 1940s, architect George Duncan oversaw the development of a 9-hole relief course known as the Struie. The Struie has since also been expanded into 18 holes. In the 2000s, plans were made for five new holes to augment the historic Championship Course, with the new 7th hole opening in 2020. Over nearly 150 years, Royal Dornoch has evolved from a 9-hole course to its present 36 holes, balancing the preservation of tradition with modernization. It retains the timeless spirit of golf over the ancient linksland along the Dornoch Firth.

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Donald Ross

Donald Ross had a close lifelong association with Royal Dornoch, learning the game there as a young man and later becoming the club’s first professional and greenkeeper. Ross was born and raised in Dornoch. As a teenager, he worked on the greens and course under Old Tom Morris, who did some redesign work at Royal Dornoch in the late 1800s. Ross became an apprentice at St Andrews before returning to Royal Dornoch as the club’s first golf professional in 1893.

In this role, Ross helped maintain and improve the course, stuffing featheries and making clubs for members. His time at Royal Dornoch no doubt influenced his ideas on course design, which he later implemented with great success at hundreds of courses in America, such as Pinehurst (NC), Bobby Jones’ home course East Lake (GA), and Jack Nicklaus’ home course of Scioto (OH).

Nicklaus’ comments on Ross in the foreword to Bradley S. Klein’s book “Discovering Donald Ross,” “I think being exposed early to a Donald Ross course provided me balance, as both a player and future golf course designer, because of the variety of shots found throughout each of his design. Ross was undoubtedly a great influence on my design career, and he remains a personal favorite.”

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Pinehurst

The Course

The Championship Course at Royal Dornoch is laid out along two ridges parallel to Dornoch Firth, with the front nine playing along the higher ridge and the back nine closer to sea level. Originally designed by Old Tom Morris and later reworked by George Duncan, it is considered one of the finest and most natural expressions of Scottish links golf.

Boasting domed greens and a wonderful variety of holes woven through dramatic duneslands, Royal Dornoch offers breathtaking scenery and an unforgettable experience for any golfer. The course is consistently ranked among the finest in the world thanks to its dramatic seaside setting, wonderful variety of holes, and spellbinding scenery, including vibrant yellow gorse blossoms in spring.

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Outward Nine

The front nine at Royal Dornoch winds through dramatic dunes along the sea, featuring a blend of elevation changes, domed greens influenced by Donald Ross, and intriguing hole designs. It starts gently with a short 331-yard par-4 opening hole but quickly introduces blind shots and testing bunkers like the two deep pits guarding the green on the long par-5 9th.

The scenic par-3 holes on Royal Dornoch’s outward nine provide a mix of beauty and challenge. The short 4th plays along the rugged coastline to a green perched precariously near the cliffs, with a sloping green and a steep falloff to the left. The 6th winds back inland across a gorse-filled valley to an elevated and heavily contoured green, requiring one of the most demanding iron shots on the course.

Another cliffside hole, the 7th, brings the sea into play again, with a plateau green protected by bunkers and falloffs on three sides. Also notable is the downhill 434-yard par-4 8th, which plays right along the coast and requires a blind tee shot over a hill.

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Inward Nine

The inward nine is widely regarded as one of the finest stretches of golf holes in the world. It begins with the short par-4 10th playing along the coastline to a plateaued green, followed by a string of unforgettable seaside holes like the par-3 13th requiring a carry over an inlet and the thrilling risk-reward par-5 14th. The closing stretch features one of golf’s most iconic par-4s in the 16th “Glas Maol” with its blind tee shot and sloping fairway, leading to the famous 17th “Little Saltee” along the beach.

The round culminates with the tough 18th playing back up to the clubhouse. Throughout the inward nine, Donald Ross’s influence is felt strongly in the domed greens and various holes carved through the dramatic duneslands. From the pretty 10th to the memorable closer at 18, Royal Dornoch’s back nine showcases all the elements that make Scottish links golf so special and explains why it is considered the finest nine holes in the game by many top players and experts.

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Events

Royal Dornoch is situated in the remote northern Scottish Highlands, making it difficult to access compared to most other Open venues near major transport links. The course is also considered too short by modern standards to adequately challenge today’s professionals in a time where Open courses typically exceed 7,000 yards.

The community and nearby towns would likely struggle to handle the large influx of visitors, and factors like insufficient parking, spectator facilities, and infrastructure also pose challenges. Significant investment and changes would probably be required for Royal Dornoch to be able to host golf’s oldest major championship.

That being said, Royal Dornoch Golf Club has hosted various prominent amateur and professional golf championships. Most recently, in 2022, it held the Scottish Senior Men’s Open and Scottish Senior Women’s Open. Royal Dornoch has also previously hosted the Northern Open, Scottish Ladies Championship, and Scottish Professional Championship at points. One of its most prestigious early events was the annual Carnegie Shield competition established in 1901, which drew top players of the era to compete.

Additionally, Royal Dornoch held the British Amateur Championship in 1985 and the Scottish Amateur Championship in 1993, 2000, and 2012. The club has also hosted the Women’s and Men’s Senior Amateur Championships. Beyond golf, the local community cooperated with the club in 2016 for a year-long celebration of Dornoch’s 400-year golf history dating back to 1616.

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A Season in Dornoch

“A Season in Dornoch” is a travelogue chronicling Canadian journalist (who also co-authored George Knudson’s great instructional Natural Golf) and avid golfer Lorne Rubenstein’s summer spent living in Dornoch, Scotland. Seeking respite from the complexities and pressures of modern golf, Rubenstein travels to the remote Scottish Highlands town, renowned as the birthplace of legendary golf course architect Donald Ross. Through befriending colorful local characters over rounds of golf and drams of whisky, Rubenstein intimately understands the hardship and resilience that has shaped the region.

Several main themes emerge from Rubenstein’s portrait of Dornoch. One finds perspective by escaping the commercialization overtaking the modern golf world. Another key theme is the intermingling of place and sport – how the unforgiving yet spectacular landscape of the Highlands shapes both the difficulty and beauty of playing golf there. There is also a strong theme of the past still echoing in the present, as the region’s history of forced diaspora continues impacting the culture and memory of Dornoch centuries later. Ultimately it is a story of discovering community and meaning in an unlikely place through the shared love of the game of golf.

“A Season in Dornoch” draws on Lorne Rubenstein’s dual expertise as an acclaimed golf journalist and a lifelong, skilled amateur player. Having written for prominent publications like The Globe and Mail and The New York Times for decades covering professional golf, Rubenstein brings a seasoned perspective in analyzing the sport. His personal passion for playing allows him to vividly depict the joys, frustrations, and meditative nature of striking a golf ball. With his tight prose and observant eye, Rubenstein deftly captures the history and spirit of Dornoch while reflecting on his own rediscovery of golf’s essence there.

Visit Royal Dornoch online at https://royaldornoch.com.

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Further Reading

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A Season in Dornoch
by Lorne Rubenstein

Summary: A Season in Dornoch is a memoir by Canadian golf writer Lorne Rubenstein chronicling the summer he spent immersed in golf and the local culture of Dornoch, Scotland in 1977.  Rubenstein went to Dornoch, home of the famed Royal Dornoch Golf Club, seeking to reconnect with golf and clear his mind, but found much more – an exploration of the region’s history, people, and way of life intertwined with the game.  Blending golf tales, local history, and profiles of Dornoch’s residents, A Season in Dornoch captures the author’s journey. It provides an ode to a remote Scottish village profoundly shaped by golf. Great weekend read for any lover of the links.

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Discovering Donald Ross: The Architect and His Golf Courses
by Bradley S. Klein

Summary: Bradley Klein’s acclaimed 2001 book offers a comprehensive look at the life and work of golf course architect Donald Ross, widely considered one of the games’ most influential figures.Expanded in a new 2011 edition, it chronicles Ross’s journey from apprentice in Scotland to designing over 400 courses across America, including iconic layouts like Pinehurst No. 2. The book reveals Ross’s subtle brilliance in routing, strategic design and variation amidst simplicity, cementing his place alongside history’s greatest course architects through unprecedented research and insights from Klein’s architectural expertise. A definitive portrait of Ross as both craftsman and artist, the work collects rare archival images and hand-drawn plans depicting his timeless, beloved creations.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell  & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

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