A Canadian’s International Membership Adventure at Royal Dornoch
24 MARCH 2022 – GARY CHISTE
My Introduction to Dornoch and Links Golf
Never in my wildest dreams as a young farm boy from southern Alberta would I have thought that I would be a member of a golf course, never mind two: at one in Canada and at one of the best courses in the world in Royal Dornoch. I got the golf bug at the age of 30 and immediately fell in love with the game. My start in golf consisted of playing golf courses in Canada and the United States. As I improved as a golfer and convinced my wife Diane that it was the game for us, we expanded our travel to golf courses in Europe. A two-year stint in Wales had me fall in love with links golf. I set the goal of playing all the British Open rota courses (just missed doing that) and all the best links in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Scotland. Royal Dornoch was high on my list but when we went there, we could not play as a special little tournament was being held – the famous Carnegie Shield. I returned with three friends in the summer of 2006 and played the course twice. I knew this was the course for me, and it did not hurt that I had a pitch in eagle on the shorter par 4 first hole.
Becoming an International Member
In the few years after that memorable visit, I learned that the club offered international memberships and my application was set in motion. Royal Dornoch has two golf courses: the Championship Course and the Struie Course. Full application to the club is a two-step process. Initial application is as a member to the Struie course. Members must be proposed by present members in good standing of the club. I became a Struie member in 2009 and immediately began the annual trip to Dornoch. As a Struie member I was able to play the Championship Course a few times at the guest rate and I had unlimited play on the Struie Course. Once memberships come available (through resignations, retirements, etc.) and you make your way up the waitlist, you are invited to apply for full membership at the club and full access to the Championship Course. I was lucky as my wait to get on the full membership roster was only two years and I became a full member in 2011 (I understand the wait is much longer now). Again, this application process requires applicants to be proposed by present members. In my case my main proposer was Lorne Rubenstein, a famous and accomplished golf writer from Canada. His book, “A Season in Dornoch” is a great read and highlights the area and the golf experience at Dornoch.
Playing the Championship Course
The Championship Course is always rated as one of the top ten in the world and truly is one of the best links courses on our planet. The course is a par 70, from the regular and championship tees, with only two par 5’s. The two sets of forward tees set up for a challenging par 76 with many of the par 4’s converting to par 5’s. The course offers a great variety of holes, and the course layout challenges all aspects of the game. There are some shorter holes like the par four 1st hole (FIRST), 5th hole (HILTON) and 15th (STULAG). Each of these holes place a high premium on your short irons as even an average drive is going to put a wedge in your hands. In contrast there are some longer par fours like the 11th hole (A’CHLACH), the 14th hole (FOXY) and the finishing hole (GLENMORANGIE). Foxy is my favourite hole and may be one of the toughest pars on any of the courses I play. The hole demands a solid and accurate tee shot. This will leave the golfer with a medium to long shot into an elevated and contoured green that is shallow in depth. Another highlight for me is the fabulous par 3’s on the course. None of the par threes are very long but they are extremely well protected by the deep sod wall bunkers and the bowled greens which are a normal feature on each hole on the championship course.
The second course - The Struie
The Struie course is quite different from the championship course but by no means is it a let down or an easy playing links course. The course has very small greens that have very subtle breaks. The course plays especially tough in the wind that can come whistling off the Dornoch Firth. This is especially true when playing the holes furthest from the clubhouse. The par five 9th hole plays along the Dornoch Firth and is a particularly challenging hole. Another very interesting hole is the finishing 18th hole an incredibly challenging par three. The tee shot must be accurate as a shot not on the heart of the green can come sliding off leaving a challenging pitch or chip. It is not an easy 3!
Other Golf to Play When in the Highlands
For many years, the north of Scotland was not a main golf destination for those who travelled to Scotland. In my opinion, the Highlands now has some of the best golf courses and best links to play in the world. The beauty of the area is that there is a good mix of courses to accommodate each skill level of golfer and price point. The Dornoch membership includes reciprocal offers at Brora, Tain, Golspie, Alness, Orkney and Fortrose & Rosemarkie. Members also receive a preferential rate at the exquisite Castle Stuart. Other links courses well worth the drive from Dornoch include Nairn, Nairn Dunbar, and Old Morray Lossiemouth. For those who want to be treated at a very high-level, a round at the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle will do the trick. As you can see there is no shortage of great golf options in the area and most of these golf courses offer Overseas or International membership.
Dornoch is an exquisite, quaint little town, and it is great to stroll around when you are not on the links. The people of Dornoch are wonderful and some of the friendliest people we have met on our golf travels. Dornoch has many great places to stay, eat and drink. The options for accommodations include house/flat rentals and hotels. The three hotels that I would recommend include the Royal Golf Hotel (which is just off the first tee), the Dornoch Castle Hotel and the Links House. Each of these hotels offer their guests a true highlands experience. I have spent many times enjoying a meal or sampling a few whiskeys in the hotel restaurants and bars. The Royal Dornoch Clubhouse is a wonderful place for a bite to eat or a drink after the round for lunch or dinner. The town has a few excellent places to eat besides the hotels mentioned earlier. The Sutherland House (traditional Highland) and Luigi’s (Italian) are two of our favorite places for a tasty Highland meal.
What to do besides golf?
The Highlands has much to offer besides the golf. The city of Inverness and Loch Ness are roughly an hour drive from Dornoch. On the shores of Loch Ness is Urquhart Castle. Time on the Loch and at the castle is a wonderful way to spend a morning or an afternoon. Culloden Battlefield is just outside of Inverness and would be of special interest to all the fans of the TV Series “Outlander.” Also, a trip to the Highlands would not be complete without time for a distillery tour and tasting. The Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain is a great local option or for those whiskey aficionados a trip to the Speyside area is well worth the effort. One of my favourite experiences was the five decades tour at Glenfarclas.
There are many benefits to being an international member of one the great Scottish links courses. No matter which course you select you will have many a day where you can enjoy the varied experiences of links golf. My wife (who is also a full member at Dornoch) have immensely enjoyed the two golf courses of Dornoch and the other courses in the area. The annual trips we make are truly relaxing with golf, touring and much rest and relaxation. Another key benefit of the membership at Royal Dornoch is the wonderful people we have met. Both local and international members have been so interesting to meet, and the staff at the course are very friendly and helpful. We would consider them all friends. A few years back we had the joy of attending the gala to celebrate 400 years of golf in Dornoch. We felt very welcome and truly a part of something special!
For you avid golfers, I highly recommend that you research the possibility of becoming an international member at one of the great Scottish links courses.