The game of golf was played on the links along the seashore long before a club was formed. It was not encouraged by the authority because there was a need for their subjects to practice archery in particular and other warlike activities. In 1877 the citizens of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch met and formed the Dornoch Golf Club.
The main founders were Mr Alexander McHardy known as ‘the pioneer of golf in the North of Scotland’, and Doctor Hugh Gunn, a local man who was educated at St. Andrews and learned the game there. The course was initially 9 holes and In 1883 the annual subscription to the club was 2/6 and the annual income was £9.00.
In 1886, the Club invited Old Tom Morris to Dornoch in order to survey the links and lay out a more fully planned golf course. Initially, he updated the nine holes. Then in 1889, he extended the course to 18 holes. Later J. H. Taylor made some changes to the layout.
The club led by Secretary John Sutherland was seeking to have a golf course of first-class quality in keeping with the natural features of the famed Dornoch Links. About the turn of the century, the great Sandy Herd first played with the new rubber-cored ball and out of fashion went the old gutty.
The club committee had to remodel the course as a result of the improved ball. In 1901 Mr Andrew Carnegie presented a splendid silver Shield for open competition at Dornoch. Right from the start of the August meeting, with the Shield as the main trophy, attracted well-known golfers from far and wide to Dornoch Links.
Notable golfing names have been inscribed upon the trophy as well as local Dornoch names. Even today when many other great trophies are so numerous, the Royal Dornoch Carnegie Shield continues its appeal as widely as ever.
In 1906, supported by the influence of Her Grace the Duchess of Sutherland, Duchess Millicent, a good friend to the Club, Dornoch Golf Club secured the title and pride of ‘Royal’ from King Edward VII.
The Second World War saw an aerodrome in being on the Ladies ' hole course on the lower links and 4 holes of the championship course were lost. In late 1940 the decision was taken to construct further holes out towards Embo and once again the House of Sutherland helped by leasing the land which was later purchased by the Club.
This was largely the work of George Duncan for John Sutherland had died in 1941. A restricted 9-hole relief course was formed known as the Struie. This has now been developed to a full 18 holes. Dornoch is far from the main centres of population and so has never been host to the major national championships.
Improved transport systems have helped international golfers and a stream of personalities visit the Club and their praise is unstinting.
Donald Ross was born on November 23rd 1872 in St Gilbert Street, Dornoch. On unkempt dunes, he grew up playing the game of golf at Royal Dornoch. Ross was educated in Dornoch and as a young man was the “Keeper of the Greens”. He became the first golf professional at Dornoch and went on to become one of the finest golf architects to design courses in America, Scotland, Canada and Cuba.
Ross, the son of a mason, was an apprentice carpenter for five years before he went to learn the art of club making at Forgan’s in St Andrews where Old Tom Morris the four-time Open Champion was based. He would serve a further year at Carnoustie refining his skills and later returned to Dornoch in 1893.
Ross now had the skills to produce clubs, look after the greens and play golf to a high standard. He was the perfect candidate for the first golf professional at Dornoch. However the keeper of the greens was not his lifes passion, it was work that he disliked but he later recalled that it was the best training he could receive for his future life.
His personality and in-depth understanding of the game was ideal for delivering a service to the members of Dornoch. His younger brother Alec later became his golf apprentice and was also a talented golfer.
(6754 yards, Par 70)
Royal Dornoch is in an ageless setting and is wild, isolated and beautiful with a blaze of colour when the gorse is in flower. It is 45 miles to the North of Inverness. Although it is remote many visitors are attracted and it is celebrated by golfers from around the world.
The Championship links is high in the world rankings and along with Royal County Down, it is one of the best courses to have not hosted an Open Championship. It is a traditional out-and-back layout. The immaculate rolling greens of Royal Dornoch are legendary with many of the greens built upon naturally raised plateaux that add to the challenge for approach shots.
The raised domed greens are linked to Donald Ross, Dornoch’s favourite son. He was the club's greenkeeper and professional. He later emigrated to America and became a leading golf architect.
The course has been much admired throughout the years and respected just as much for its technical difficulty, as it is for its stunning coastal views across the Dornoch Firth and Sutherland hills. Golfers can make their way around the strategic links made up of raised and plateau greens, guarded by deep bunkers, whilst stopping every once in a while, to breathe in the fresh sea air and bright yellow scented gorse.
When you visit the old-world Highlands town of Dornoch and play its captivating links, it will surely encourage you to stay and play some more. There may be courses in these isles more demanding, visually outstanding or with greater championship pedigree. However, none match Royal Dornoch for its charm and enjoyment. There is history to be appreciated, views to be enjoyed, and skilful shots to be played.
With its remote location an hour north of Inverness and four hours’ drive from Glasgow, Dornoch’s appeal had remained relatively unexplained for most of four centuries. This changed when Tom Watson first visited and he enjoyed the course so much that he stayed to play three rounds watched by local crowds.
Watson said, “this is the most fun I’ve had playing golf”. Tom Watson, now an Honorary Member of the Club, returned before the 1996 Open at Lytham and his view of the course had not changed. All of a sudden Dornoch was firmly on the agenda for overseas visitors. There are now almost 500 overseas members.
Royal Dornoch is distinctive, its tumbling landscape lies in split levels alongside the Dornoch Firth’s sweeping bay. Although there is significant elevation change the linksland rises and falls softly, with no huge dune corridors. The course is often forgiving off the tee, without high rough.
The tighter holes are made more threatening by the gorse that lines them, but these 6754-yard links usually turn out to be a short game exam. Greenside skills are necessary for success. Its plateau greens, established by Old Tom Morris, remain the soul of the course.
Often large in size, these inverted saucers are without grassy fringes so even balls on the outer edge of green often run off down steep slopes. The greens are large but they are slick and sloping. It is quite easy to take three putts if you lose concentration. It is quite useful to consider using the putter from off the green.
184 yards, par 3, index 6
An incredible hole needing a mid-iron to a precipitous green with any miss requiring a severe uphill recovery. The margin of error is minute with the narrow green having steep slopes and greenside bunkers to the front.
353 yards, par 4, index 18
This par four is played from a high tee to a well-guarded green, it is said to be Tom Watson’s favourite. It requires a good carry from the elevated tee with bunkers threatening down the right. The approach is to a long green well protected by bunkers.
161 yards, par 3, index 8
The four par threes on the course have been described as world-class. The sixth is not long but you simply must hit the green. The carry is across a swathe of gorse that wraps itself around the plateau green.
485 yards, par 4, index 2
This hole has been completely re-oriented. It has been routed closer to the edge of the escarpment with gorse bushes removed opening up the views of the coastline throughout the length of the hole.
It is hardly changed in length and players will be able to tee off from the top of the hill which was the original intention of Tom Morris.
445 yards, par 4, index 1
This is a is a bunkerless, difficult par four that Harry Vardon once described as “one of the finest natural holes in the world”. It is protected by mounds and the raised green sits at right angles to the double-dogleg fairway. It is a difficult green to hold as it features a classic Donald Ross domed green.
417 yards, par 4, index 13
It is a blind tee shot into a valley with a steep drop in the middle of the fairway, followed by a dogleg with the approach over a hill to the tricky bowl green.
456 yards, par 4, index 9
A long par four with an amazing series of hollows and swales in front of a large green which is cleverly disguised from the fairway.
There is a history of Royal Dornoch and Glenmorangie, Scotland’s favourite Single Malt Whisky. The whisky is famed for the tallest stills in Scotland and pioneers within the whisky industry. Glenmorangie is enjoyed by whisky aficionados around the world.
Carefully crafted by the famous Men of Tain to a level described as ‘unnecessarily well made’ Glenmorangie takes great pride in the lengths to which it goes to create some of the world’s most sought-after single malt Scotch whiskies. Glenmorangie is proud to be the ‘Spirit of The Open Championship’, and it seems fitting that the nearby distillery in the Royal Burgh of Tain and the world-renowned Royal Dornoch Golf Club should have close ties.
The legendary course designer and pioneer of professional golf, Old Tom Morris, who created some of the great golf courses on which The Open is played, remodelled and extended the original 9-hole Royal Dornoch golf course in 1889. One of the new holes, the 13th, was named ‘Morangie’ because of the view of the Morangie Farm and distillery across the beautiful Dornoch Firth.
Sharing this great history, Glenmorangie is delighted to be the ‘Official Whisky of Royal Dornoch’. In 2013, it was agreed to rename the par-4 18th Hole on the Championship course ‘Glenmorangie’.