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Issue 19 - Club class: a dream Highland golf intinerary

Scotland Magazine Issue 19
March 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Club class: a dream Highland golf intinerary

Feeling adventurous and fancy trying your hand on some lesser known but highly stimulating golf courses? Sports writer Andrew Ross takes a tour

Okay, St. Andrews is the home of golf. There’s no denying it. The majestic East coast course and its imposing clubhouse is a mecca for golf fans who revel in its formality and history. In fact, you’ve probably already been there, stood on the first tee, prayed that you don’t top your drive down golf’s most famous fairway.

So if you’ve ‘done’ St Andrews and all those great courses round about, it could be time to consider a completely different itinerary for your annual trip.

If St Andrews is golf’s spiritual home, perhaps the Scottish Highlands is where it comes to let its hair down. It is home to two of the great links courses.

Nairn and Royal Dornoch are two of the most authentic and revered links courses in the world. They are also two of the most accessible. Playable all year-round, and offering huge variety, these courses form the cornerstone of our dream Highland golf pilgrimage.

You would be forgiven for thinking that this pilgrimage would also take in the other great links courses in the region. However, though there are numerous legendary links tracks at Tain, Golspie and Brora, for a truly unforgettable trip you must seek out two of the hidden gems of Scottish golf.

The first, hidden by design, is the exclusive plaything of a group of millionaires. The second, hidden due to its unlikely location, has the reputation as being Scotland’s best inland course. More of these later.

Golf Road, Dornoch. IV25 3LW, Sutherland
Tel : +44 (0)1862 810219
6276 yards, par 72

No self-respecting golf writer would dare to pen an article about the great golf courses in the Highlands without including Royal Dornoch. An easy 50 minute drive north from Inverness, Royal Dornoch can trace its roots back as far as 1616, making it the third oldest links course in Scotland.

Dornoch’s arrival on the world golf scene was cemented in 1981 when defending Open Champion Tom Watson came to Dornoch to play one round of golf but left having played three declaring it to be “The most fun I’ve ever had on a golf course.”

Royal Dornoch has never looked back and is now considered a must-play course for any discerning golfer.

Hugging the picturesque bay on the Dornoch Firth, with stunning views to Caithness in the north and Easter Ross to the south, the layout is unforgiving. Eighteen challenging holes traverse a narrow tract of coastline. It is a classic nine out, nine back, without a bad hole to speak of, and the water is never out of sight.

If one were to choose an outstanding hole it would be the 14th. A 445 yard, par 4, it is the only hole on the course without a bunker.

Don’t let that mislead you though. Between tee and green there is a maze of grassy mounds and promontories demanding the golfer to be as cunning as the hole’s name ‘Foxy’ suggests. Anything better than par here is considered an exceptional result.

Aside from its breathtaking location, what makes Royal Dornoch so special is that it is true to the principles of links golf, making the best of the natural contours of the landscape, without concession to those who favour flat fairways and sculpted greens. It is always in spectacular condition and the undulating greens are some of the best and fastest you’ll find in the United Kingdom.

Once you’ve played here and are sitting in clubhouse, staring out over the Dornoch Firth, a glass of the local Glenmorangie malt whisky in hand, you should consider Tom Watson’s homage to Royal Dornoch. Was there ever a truer word spoken?

Green fees:
Single round (Weekday)
£69.00 (Apr-Oct)
£47.00 (Nov-Mar)

Skibo Castle, Sutherland. IV25 3RQ.
Tel: +44 (0)1862 894600

A few miles south from Royal Dornoch, along the shore of the Dornoch Firth, you’ll find The Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle. Skibo Castle is hidden away from the road, the preserve of the rich and famous. This former home of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie is the centrepiece for the exclusive Carnegie Club.

Unfortunately, the only way to gain access to the club’s fantastic championship course is to stay at the castle. Currently guests can stay at the club once to enjoy its many amenities, including two great golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pool and fishing lochs, but must join the club to return.

The Carnegie Club has a special aura about it. This is how a members club should feel. Guests surrender their car keys at the front gate for golf buggies or classic Morris Minor cars. Or they can be chauffeured around the idyllic estate. Andrew Carnegie knew what he was talking about when he called Skibo Castle ‘Heaven on Earth’.

This will probably be the quietest golf course you will ever play. With no fixed tee-times and many other distractions for guests around the club’s vast estate, you can find yourself being the only group on the course. In the height of summer it has also been known for guests to take advantage of the long days and play a full 18 holes after dinner.

Unusually, the course is not a classic links. Indeed, only a handful of its holes run along the shores of the Dornoch Firth. But what it lacks in classic links character it makes up for with its sheer diversity and some of the best views in golf. The course is laid out on a spit of land bordered on one side by the saltwater firth and by a freshwater loch on the other, making the course as wild and breath-takingly beautiful as it is challenging.

The clubhouse sits right on the shore with views over the 18th and 15th greens as well as leaping salmon, otters, ospreys and seals. The Carnegie Championship course is as difficult as Dornach. A selection of waterside dog-leg par fours and tricky par threes, especially the 152 yard, do-or-die 6th, are as good a test of golf as you’ll find anywhere in the world.

The jewel in the crown of this millionaire’s playground, however, is the stunning par 4, 17th. A stern test, especially on a windy day, the hole traverses the tip of the peninsula on which this course is set. With water on three sides of the elevated tee and, with 267 yards to the well-guarded green, players are often inspired to opt for Driver, where laying up would be more sensible.

Green fees: NA

Seabank Road. Nairn, IV12 4HB
Tel: +44 (0)1667 453 208
6271 yards, par 72

If you can ever drag yourself away from the tranquility and decadence of the Carnegie Club you will not be disappointed by the next course on our itinerary. One hour’s drive to the south lies Nairn.

Nairn is a picture-postcard seaside village famed for being a spa town in Victorian times. Sitting along the shores of the Moray Firth, with views over to the Black Isle and back up the coast toward Sutherland and Caithness, a golf course designer would be hard-pushed to choose a better spot for a links course.

Nairn is a true links, with the opening series of holes never straying far from the shore. On some tees the sea can be just 10 metres away and it is not uncommon to see dolphins or seals swimming close to shore. But concentrate: a sliced tee shot will see you getting your feet wet on six of the first seven holes.

But your round will not be any less challenging if you find the fairway with every drive. The fairways undulate more than at any other course in Scotland and it is not uncommon to find a lie in a fairway hollow that will pose a tougher shot than if you had landed in a sand-trap.

No hole typifies Nairn more than the 14th. The 221 yard, par 3. Usually played in a crosswind it can be anything from a Four Iron to a Driver from the tee. It is virtually impossible to hold the green and, once there, three or four putts are common.

Green fees:
May-Sept: £70, £100 (day ticket)
Oct-Apr: £50/75

Nethybridge Road, Boat of Garten
Inverness-shire, PH24 3BQ
Tel: 01479 831282
5967 yards, par 70

And so to the final course. A30 minute drive south from Nairn, Boat of Garten in the heart of the Spey Valley, is a real hidden gem.

It couldn’t be farther from a links course but it’s still highly enjoyable to play. Wherever you are on this course the imposing Cairngorm mountain range dominates the horizon and on many holes the River Spey is in clear view.

Playing Boat of Garten is like stepping back in time. And I don’t just mean the modest green fees. No, when your back swing is disturbed by a passing steam train you feel as if you’ve been transported back to 1898 when James Braid designed the course.

Braid clearly enjoyed himself while designing ‘The Boat’, as it’s known by locals. The average 1st hole aside, the course weaves in and out of the birch, broom and heather, with numerous blind tee shots and elevated tees and greens. It’s the golf equivalent of a rollercoaster and every bit as fun.

‘Plateau’, the 355 yard, par 4, 8th, is one such hole. Despite the elevated green being in view all the way from the tee, many a golfer will see their approach shots fall short of the front edge and take a ‘Boat bounce’, to use the vernacular, back down the hill toward them.

However, for every uphill hole the golfer is rewarded with a tee shot such as the 12th. The view from the elevated tee is awe-inspiring and ‘Craigellachie’ is one of the most memorable on this golfing pilgrimage. Mon-Fri £29, £34 day ticket

Green fees
Sat-Sun £34, £39

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