DORNOCH, Scotland -- Hyperbole and hype in the way of world rankings weigh heavily on places such as Royal Dornoch Golf Club and Trump International Golf Links Scotland.
The world rankings tell me the ultimate round of my recent 12-day, 13-course golf trip across Scotland should have been the Championship Links at Royal Dornoch, one of the prettiest and most revered links of all.
My heart sings a different tune. I enjoyed the round before (the playable Struie Course at Royal Dornoch) and after (the hauntingly good Brora Golf Club the next day) so much more. Royal Dornoch's demanding links sometimes lacks in the fun-o-meter department-- at least the day we played it in a howling three-club crosswind. Don't let me talk you out of playing Royal Dornoch, because it must be seen to be believed.
Frankly, I got more satisfaction from discovering the links without much fanfare than I did checking off bucket-list destinations. Every country club member with a fat wallet and a can-do attitude about golf travel sees Dornoch and Trump. I like being different, seeing more and experiencing golf beyond the well worn path traversed by most Americans.
The game is so pure at Brora and Fraserburgh Golf Club and Tain Golf Club. It's not about how long the courses are or which tournament they're hosting next. It's about interesting and unique golf holes in the dunes, simple as that.
I won't bore you with a full summary of my trip. Instead, here are some highlights, the experiences that stood out. Also, I joined the Scottish Golf Podcast hosted by Ruairidh Macdonald to talk more about the trip. You can listen here.
Hidden links in the Highlands of Scotland
In the U.S., there's so little appreciation for the unknown links of the Scottish Highlands. That's unfortunate. I'd gladly schedule a links trip solely playing the Struie Course at Royal Dornoch, Fraserburgh, Brora, Tain and Newburgh-on-Ythan Golf Club with Cruden Bay Golf Club -- ranked 70th in the world by Golf Digest -- as the affordable, world-ranked cherry on top. Only Cruden Bay, at 6,645 yards, is longer than 6,450 yards. With the wind and weather of the north, length is hardly the determining factor in scoring.
Brora, an isolated gem some 20 miles north of Dornoch, might be the most charming of them all. Electric fences surrounding the greens keep the cows and sheep munching grass in the fairways. You might end up playing through as my foursome did. It's a magical walk designed by James Braid along Kintradwell Bay.
Fraserburgh -- the seventh-oldest club in the world, dating to 1777 -- climbs Corbie Hill for commanding views of Fraserburgh Bay. Shot for shot, this might be the most under-appreciated links in Scotland.
Newburgh-on-Ythan, located several miles south of Trump, delivers two contrasting nines. The new front nine was built on high ground in 1996 to complement the original back nine that runs along the beautiful Ythan River estuary. Blind shots over ridges on the closing nine lead to rumpled fairways and natural bowl greens, two classic links traits.
Did you know that a number of holes on Royal Dornoch's Struie Course were once part of the original championship links? Perhaps only the Kintyre Course at Turnberry is a better secondary relief course than the Struie. Ties to Old Tom Morris make Tain worth finding. The tee box of the 11th hole, called "Alps," reveals views of the Dornoch Firth without a green in sight. It's hidden by dunes.
Cruden Bay is also famous for its blind shots, notably the approach to the bathtub green sunken in the dunes at no. 14 and the tee shot of the par-3 15th hole. They're maddening until you get a second crack at them.
36 holes of bliss at Castle Stuart
One of the curses of my job is I usually only get one crack at a course. That's what made playing the scenic Castle Stuart Golf Links twice so special.
The morning round was a typical overcast links day with a bit of breeze. Gil Hanse's modern links plays infinitely wide off the tee. The intricate green complexes are a most treacherous defense. No wonder Phil Mickelson won the 2013 Scottish Open on such a links. Whenever he sprayed the driver, he likely got up and down where others couldn't. After golf, our group enjoyed the best lunch of the trip inside the unique modern clubhouse.
The day turned unforgettable from there. Most of us skipped dinner for an emergency replay round after 6 p.m. The golf gods rewarded us handsomely. The wind died down. The sky turned pink. We had the run of the place, finishing the risk-reward par-5 18th hole as darkness fell. With the kitchen closed at the Culloden House in Inverness, a cool 16th-century Jacobean castle coated in ivy, we got creative by ordering pizza and settling up to the bar.
With a second course by the Arnold Palmer group in the planning stages and lodging being built, Castle Stuart is a destination on the rise.
Castle living for a day
Fresh off a trans-Atlantic flight and a fun round at intoxicating Cruden Bay, I couldn't have felt more exhausted. When our driver -- Colin Harris of The Luxury Coach -- pulled up to Kincardine Castle, exhilaration took over.
The castle, a Victorian country house, holds exclusive corporate events and dinners for six or more people. Each of the 16 elaborately decorated rooms has its own bathroom. There are no locks on the doors. It's more like you're staying with old friends than a stranger in someone else's royal chambers. Our group dined with the owners, Andrew and Nicola Bradford, a delightful couple who love to tell and be told a good story.
The accommodations went downhill from there but only by incredibly lofty standards. We stayed multiple nights at the impressive Maryculter House Hotel, a four-star, 40-bedroom retreat on the banks of the River Dee, a site where the Knights Templar once trained in 1227. Be sure to savor a drink in the elaborate Knights Templar room and tour the centuries-old cemetery on the grounds. The four-star Marcliffe Hotel in Aberdeen remains a popular choice for golf groups. We dined there -- a meal on par with the food in the Kincardine Castle -- but didn't stay. I will next time if I have the chance.
Most of the other accommodations were perfectly comfortable -- The Golf View Hotel & Spa near the outstanding Nairn Golf Club and the luxurious Kingsmill Hotel in Inverness after 36 holes at Royal Dornoch. The Royal Golf Hotel, next to Dornoch's first tee, would have been more convenient, but we returned the next night after our round at Brora. I'd recommend staying there a couple nights to get the chance to walk into Dornoch, the birthplace of Donald Ross.
My two cents on Trump
Donald Trump is such a polarizing personality that it's hard to gauge the merits of his Trump International Golf Links Scotland strictly from a golf perspective. If you strip away all of the politics and battles that occurred to get the course built, I can say with a straight face that Dr. Martin Hawtree's links is truly one of a kind. Maybe not "The World's Greatest Golf Course" as touted on the club's Web site, but no other links delivers such commanding dunes in play.
A new clubhouse opened up a few days prior, making my visit a timely affair. It was nice and surprisingly understated. As for the course, the elevated 14th and 18th tees deliver the "Oh wow" moments. I found, however, the front nine to be more engaging and interesting to play, especially the par-3 third hole and drivable, par-4 seventh. I thought Hawtree might have dug too many bunkers on certain holes, although the ultimate litmus test will be when the pros tee it up in competition, should a future Scottish Open come, as has been reported.
First impression of St. Andrews
The trip ended with my first visit to St. Andrews, staying at the Best Western Scores Hotel near the first tee of the Old Course, followed by a round of golf on Kingsbarns. The Home of Golf couldn't have been more perfect. After pints at the Jigger Inn and Dunvegan Hotel the night before, I spent the morning touring the shops and photographing the Old Course, while workers were putting up the grandstands for the 2015 Open Championship.
Consider this the next time the Open comes to town: When the Old Course closes roughly a month prior to the tournament, tee sheets on the surrounding links are virtually empty. It's the perfect time to plan a visit, provided you can live without playing the Old Course. It's worth it, simply to experience the buzz about town and the fact that the other St. Andrews Links Trust courses, such as the New Course and the Jubilee Course, are still open.
Kingsbarns Golf Links, a Kyle Phillips design we played that afternoon, felt like a cousin of Castle Stuart, with similar wide fairways and gorgeous views. It's a modern links I'd play again and again. That's the highest compliment I can give.
The same theory applies to Scotland. I'd paddle across the Atlantic with a golf club as my oar for a chance to go back again.