INVERNESS, Scotland -- Three years from now, the town of Dornoch is planning a big birthday -- 400 years of golf.
The first written record of golf being played in Dornoch was in 1616. The golf club itself was established in 1877. It received its "Royal" designation in 1906 by King Edward, and the links' current form is partially post-World War II as much of the course was plowed and used for landing strips, much like Turnberry's Ailsa Course was utilized on the southwest coast.
Today, RAF fighter jets from a nearby base often fly overhead during a round here. But rest assured, the links are all yours.
Golfing roots in the Highlands, which are a quick voyage straight across the North Sea to Denmark, are just about as deep as anywhere. Sparsely populated (Inverness is the capital city and only has about 50,000 residents), the golf is quite dense. Towns, no matter how small, seem to have a local place to play, especially those along the sea.
In recent years, it's enjoyed an international golf audience, first in 1999 with the Walker Cup, held at Nairn Golf Club, and the past three years at Castle Stuart Golf Links in Inverness for the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open (which will return sometime in the next three years).
The allure of the Highlands is much different than the more urban golf pockets of Scotland like East Lothian or St. Andrews. Pleasant, rural drives between storybook villages, a national forest, scenic beaches and a most relaxing vibe lure groups here. Off-course activities like cycling, tours of the Culloden Battlefield, a cruise along the famous Loch Ness and many spots for a whisky tour and tasting can make your stay in these parts as busy or as relaxing as you wish.
Whether you choose to make the Highlands a three- or four-day stop on a longer golf tour of Scotland or make your trip exclusive to the Highlands will be a matter for your group to decide.
Must-play links in the Highlands
Royal Dornoch Golf Club , where golf began in the Highlands, remains the first stop for golfers for its enchanting links full of history, scenery and plenty of gorse.
With a collection of some of Scotland's greatest greens complexes (which inspired local boy Donald Ross when he went on to the U.S. and designed approximately 400 golf courses), it's still a stiff challenge to the modern golfer.
Back toward Inverness and host of the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open (won by Phil Mickelson in 2013), there is no links course with a setting quite like Castle Stuart Golf Links . Six holes sit on a low-lying shelf along the Moray Firth, while the remaining holes play on slopes above it, which means there are about a dozen holes that feel like they're sea front. The Gil Hanse design features wide landing zones off the tee, but the greens are where golfers separate themselves here. The three-story, art deco-style clubhouse is also one of Scotland's most unique. Future plans call for on-site vacation rentals, a lodge and a second 18-hole golf course.
Rounding out the trio of must-play links in the Highlands is Nairn Golf Club , home to some of Scotland's best greens. Originally plotted out by Old Tom Morris but later altered by James Braid and Ben Sayers, the first seven holes play along the beach of Nairn on the Moray Firth. Nairn's clubhouse is as good as any in the Highlands, with floor-to-ceiling windows in the bar overlooking the links.
Stay awhile: More golf courses in the Highlands
Neighboring Dornoch is Tain Golf Club , located in the famous Highlands whisky village, where Glenmorangie Distillery and its "16 men of Tain" have been distilling for more than a century. The links course, also designed in part by Morris, is more subtle compared to Dornoch but features a handful of holes known to be among Scotland's best.
Minutes from Nairn Golf Club is Nairn Dunbar Golf Club . While the course plays on sandy soil along the sea, a wall of gorse and dunes guards it, so the sea views in the fairways aren't as prevalent as Nairn next door.
Remote, seaside links golf can be found north of Dornoch at Golspie Golf Club and Brora Golf Club . Also, if you're looking for an exclusive links experience, visit Skibo Castle's Carnegie Club , a gorgeous links three miles from Dornoch that is presently offering two non-member tee times per day during the week.
Lastly, there are a couple picturesque and historic heathland courses in Cairngorms National Park along the River Spey. Boat of Garten Golf Club is a gorgeous James Braid design that gets a lot of comparisons as the "Gleneagles of the North." In truth, it fits somewhere between the Kings and Queens Courses in terms of scenery and challenge, yet the price tag is a bargain, particularly compared to Gleneagles.
Another heathland option is the low-key Grantown-on-Spey Golf Club , which has some beautiful, forested holes while others are set on high, rolling ground with long mountain views.
Stay-and-play in the Highlands
There are a variety of ways to stay-and-play in the Highlands. All incoming roads tend to lead into Inverness, so it's a good location to see courses both to the north in Dornoch or other directions like Nairn or the National Park. The town has grown over the years, and great new restaurants and hotels have come along with it like Rocpool, a trendy restaurant (co-ed bathrooms? In the Highlands?) by the River Ness that is a big attraction for European Tour players and their families when they're in town for the event.
In Nairn, The Golf View Hotel has the best spot, overlooking the beach and located next door to Nairn Golf Club. Those who are particularly sporty will enjoy the beachfront hike and bike path, access to trails and the hotel's own leisure center with a fitness center and pool. The view from the restaurant overlooking the beach is as good as it gets on a late sunny evening.
Another option of similar standard is the Newton House Hotel, also steps from the beach, or stay at one of many smaller B&Bs like Sandown House.
If the allure of the Highlands is centered on the small village of Dornoch, options have gotten a lot better in recent years. Steps from the first tee of the Championship course, The Royal Golf Hotel assumed new ownership a couple years ago and have revamped the 22-room property with upgraded furnishings, refurbished bathrooms and an enhanced food & beverage operation now featuring more than 30 whiskies.
Brand new is the luxurious Links House Hotel, just opened adjacent to the clubhouse at Royal Dornoch. An eight-room guesthouse with gorgeous new rooms and public areas to go with fine dining in the restaurant, it's ideal for groups who want to rent an entire house out.