The Royal Dornoch Golf Club – Where It All Began

The first three golf links in Scotland of which there is written record are: 1552, St. Andrews; 1593, Leith; and 1616, Dornoch, which lies on the 58th parallel. In Canada at this latitude you’d be in the middle of Hudson’s Bay. The golf club was founded in 1877 as the successor to the Sutherland Golfing Society, whose members played at Dornoch and Golspie. At one time it was the fifth longest course in Britain. In 1906 the club was granted a Royal Charter by King Edward VII, and Royal Dornoch Golf Club was born. The superb Carnegie Shield was given to the club by Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Carnegie in 1901 to present for annual competition each August. It is one of the world’s most beautiful trophies, with pictures of Dornoch Cathedral, Skibo Castle and the then Bishop’s Palace, now the Castle Hotel featured.  Donald Ross grew up here, saw the game played as a child, and in due time was employed by the course as club maker, professional and green keeper. He and his brother Alec perfected their games here. It has been written that their swings were noted for ease, grace and rhythm. After his great success in America, first as a player, then as course architect, Donald would return more than once to his beloved home town where many of his relatives remained. He claimed he owed all he achieved in life to his upbringing and professional start in Dornoch. In a 1935 interview he said, “When I was a young man over here I used to think of Scottish village life as very narrow and hard. Life was limited to work and the church. The older I got I could feel myself turning back to their way of thinking. At least they never compromised with honesty.” With its North Sea location, Dornoch has never been the most widely known course, but it has hosted the Northern Open, the Scottish Ladies and Scottish Professional Championships. And in 2014, the Senior Ladies British Open Amateur Championship. In 1981 Tom Watson had played here before winning the third of five British Open Championships at Muirfield. Ben Crenshaw, Jack Nicholson, Greg Norman and HRH Prince Andrew have been known to favor the links.    Golf Magazine’s International Panel of Selectors has ranked it the 13th Best Course in the World. In 2016 Golf Digest ranked the course the 5th in the World. How about that! The Royal Golf Hotel is located just ten yards from the first tee. Donald James Ross, the product of this unique golfing environment, was enthroned into the Golf Hall of Fame on August 21, 1977. He had given up golf competition in 1911, but in the previous eleven years in the United States he had earned trophies for victories in the 1903 and 1906 North and South Opens, and victories in the prestigious 1905 and 1911 Massachusetts Opens.  Your authors have visited Ross’ humble home here and walked the course, glad to breathe in its exhilarating air and gorgeous vistas. We suggest all Ross course lovers do the same!


“Royal Dornoch has several people to thank for its position in world golf: John Sutherland, Secretary, for 58 years; Andrew Carnegie, for presenting the club with a priceless trophy; Tom Watson, awakening the world to Dornoch; and also Donald Ross. While he didn’t do anything in Dornoch, save be the professional and green keeper for two years, he taught the world that golf should be played the Dornoch way. Everything he learned and applied professionally was inspired from his memories of Dornoch. His golf course design philosophy and that legacy bring visitors to Royal Dornoch to see what inspired him. They all leave in awe of the original and the best – thank you Donald!” Neil Hampton, General Manager, September 30, 2013.


Photo Captions: on CD Whinny Brae. The 9 handicap par three 6th hole (161 yards).  It is named after the bank of whins (gorse) on the left side, which will catch anything left of the green. From the slightly elevated tee judging the swirling wind is difficult. There are steep drops on three sides, so the only safe place is on the green. Anything right or long leaves a treacherous flop shot to a narrow green. Wise players take one less club, as being short leaves a straightforward pitch and putt. 


Craigliath. The 17 handicap par five 9th hole (529 yards). A bit of respite on the front nine, with a generous hole, offering a birdie chance. Normally played into a prevailing wind, the large green should accept your pitch shot and give you a chance to hole the putt. Beware the lateral hazard along the left side as the beach and water can be closer than you think. Surprisingly deep bunkers are on both sides of the green. Slightly long is the recommended play to take trouble out of play and allow for a stress free putt.


Fuaran. The 14 handicap par three 10th hole (174 yards). A classic Royal Dornoch par 3, with a raised green and deep bunkers. The well-sculpted green and intelligent placement of the hazards set the stage here. Depending upon the wind, it can be a short iron or a wood to reach the green. There is no bailout area with all the problems surrounding the green, so take a deep breath and give it your best swing! Photos taken by club member Paul York 


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