Golf Channel's Mike Ritz, the lead voice for European Tour coverage, recently took three friends on a trip of a lifetime: six of the top links courses in Scotland in six days.
DORNOCH, Scotland -- The great golf wordsmith Herbert Warren Wind wrote of his first trip to Royal Dornoch Golf Club in the June 6, 1964 edition of The New Yorker: "It is the most natural course in the world ... no golfer has completed his education until he has played and studied Royal Dornoch."
Dornoch is about a 40-minute drive north of Inverness, the capital of the Highlands of Scotland. It's a drive of nearly four hours from St. Andrews -- and well worth it.
The clubhouse and the first tee sit high on a ridge, the curving bay of the Dornoch Firth and the North Sea below. The first eight holes follow the ridge, around and down. Then you turn in the opposite direction and play along the sea through the 16th.
The views from every hole are, well, breathtaking. Royal Dornoch is even more spectacular than Pebble Beach. And, it's a better golf course -- more challenging, more demanding, more innovative. Historical records show that golf was played upon this land as long ago as 1616, making Dornoch the world's third-oldest golf course (behind the Old Course at St. Andrews and Leith).
The original nine-hole course that is part of today's current layout was opened in 1877. Nine years later the club invited Old Tom Morris to survey the links. He massaged the original nine, and then three years later, Old Tom built the second nine, completing the 18-hole course we all can play today.
He incorporated the doglegs he had invented at the Old Course and created green complexes that were unlike any others in the world. Of course, now the greens of Royal Dornoch are copied everywhere. They were the first "upside down saucers," with not only false fronts, but also false backs and sides. Old Tom built the greens atop natural plateaus.
Hitting these greens is quite the challenge, especially when the course is firm and fast and the wind is blowing. Oh, by the way, that's just about always. The greens at Donald Ross' Pinehurst No. 2 are molehills compared to those at Royal Dornoch.
It is no coincidence that we see much of Royal Dornoch in many of Ross's designs. He was born in Dornoch in 1872. He would grow up playing golf at Dornoch before becoming its head greenskeeper and then its professional. It's that background and influence that Ross brought with him to the United States. More than 100 U.S. national championships have been played on courses designed by Dornoch's Ross.
Above all else, Royal Dornoch has the best group of par 3s in the world -- holes 2, 6, 10 and 13. Not one of them is longer than 184 yards, even from the tips. More evidence a hole does not need to be long to be challenging.
The second serves as an example. It's 184 from the blue tees. The green is 41 yards long, sloping from front to back. And it's a plateau with steep fall-offs to both sides and the rear. Then there are two steep bunkers guarding both the front left and front right. I was lucky enough to just miss the right-hand bunker. But then I had to try to figure out how to get my ball on a green that was 10 feet above me. Options: pitch it into the bank, hit the lob shot of my life onto the surface, or putt it. I opted for putting with a hybrid and was lucky enough to make what was voted by my partners as "the up-and-down of the week." Yahoo!
I've played two-thirds of the top-100 ranked courses in the world. And after my experience at Dornoch, I make it my no. 1.
Having said that, be weather-ready when you play Dornoch. When we teed off it was a beautiful 70 degrees, with sunshine and a 15-mph wind. When we turned along the beaches of the North Sea at the 12th, we were overwhelmed by pouring rain and a wind of 35 mph -- about a three-and-a-half club wind. Well, we wanted a full Scottish golf experience, and we got it.
I want to thank my caddie for telling me at the first tee that I wouldn't need my umbrella or waterproofs. So he took them out of my bag and left them in the locker room.
That leads me to the downside of our Royal Dornoch experience. Only one of our four caddies was a true professional and the other three were of little help. Unless you can get a guarantee from the caddie master that yours are experienced professionals, I would advise you to rely on a push cart and a course guide. This was the only place in Scotland where we didn't have the very best carrying our bags.
Also, don't expect much from the restaurant and bar in the clubhouse. Poor service and mediocre food. Royal Dornoch is a place to go just for the golf. And as far as that is concerned, there is no place as good.
The rest of Mike Ritz's trip:
Day 1 of Ritz's Scotland golf trip at North Berwick's West Links in St. Andrews
Read about Day 2 of Ritz's Scotland golf trip at the Old Course in St. Andrews
Read about Day 3 of Ritz's Scotland golf trip at Kingsbarns Golf Links
Read about Day 5 of Ritz's Scotland golf trip at Castle Stuart
Read about Day 6 of Ritz's Scotland golf trip at Carnoustie