As I explained last time, fears that the Top 50 ratings might be flawed led me to cross the Atlantic for three weeks of club-in-hand research on some of our most highly-rated links courses. To get started, I met my longtime friend and America’s Worst Golf Courses researcher Dave Henson at the Glasgow airport, loaded his sleepy carcass and his golf clubs into the rental car, and then drove north along the shores of Lochs Lomond and Inverness to the banks of the Moray Firth, where the staff at Castle Stuart Golf Links rolled out the red carpet for us.
What they should have done was roll the red carpet over us — to keep us from blowing away. “We’re clocking steady winds of 45 to 50 miles per hour with gusts of 70,” said the young man behind the counter in the golf shop. “If your schedule allows, we’d recommend you come back in a couple of days, when you can better appreciate the course.”
Dave, who was nursing a case of bronchitis, thought that was a great idea, and since I was already familiar with Castle Stuart, having played it last July, when it opened, I concurred. “But let’s play just a few holes,” I suggested, “to loosen up after the drive and your flight.” To that end, the club’s general manager, Stuart McColm, offered to drive us out to the fourth tee in his SUV, so we wouldn’t have to play the first three holes along the water into the gale.
So we were on the tee of the par-3 fourth when the next squall swept down behind us, blowing over our golf bags, puffing out our rain suits and pelting our necks with stinging sleet. “This should wake you up!” I shouted over the wind, drawing a withering glance from my old friend, who woud prefer to puff on his pipe by a cozy fire whenever the barometer needle dips a fraction. Anyway, we played holes four through nine in varying inclemencies and then drove back into Inverness to check into the Craigside Lodge B&B and change into dry clothes for dinner.
Day Two. A cold, windy, dreary morning followed by a cool, breezy, but clearing afternoon. Dave kept looking at the clouds as if he expected anvils to fall out of them. However, the promise of a round at Royal Dornoch improved his mood. It took us less than an hour to cross the big bridge and motor up past lochs, farms and forest to Dornoch, which is pretty much the northern outpost of the old British Empire, golf division. The great Donald Ross, I didn’t have to remind Dave, was head professional and greenkeeper at Dornoch before emigrating to the United States and establishing himself as the preeminent course designer of his time.
“You didn’t have to remind me,” Dave said.
It was blowing 25 or 30 knots when we teed off at Dornoch, making the national and club flags snap and crackle atop their poles. But it was a helping wind, not the in-your-face variety we had encountered at Castle Stuart.
Not that Royal Dornoch needed any help. Checking my notebook after the round, I found that it was filled with pithy praise: “A classic links …. lovely gorse-covered banks … delightful changes of elevation … unpretentious, a small-town feel … beautiful green complexes … sod-faced bunkers to be avoided at all costs … great sea views! … a perfect distillation of traditional course design with contemporary shot values …” Those are not scientific judgements, to be sure, but the point of our visit was to see if Dornoch’s Top 50 rating stood up to soft-spikes-on-the-ground scrutiny.
It did. In fact, I drove out of town at dusk convinced that Royal Dornoch deserves to be ranked in the top twenty of any reputable course-rating system. And that’s without factoring in the wonderful dinners we enjoyed in the club’s upstairs lounge, which looks down on the first tee and beyond to that long stretch of sand and sea.
I was reassured by Dornoch, but it was just one of many links courses in the Top 50. “Tomorrow,” I told Dave back at the Craigside Lodge, “we’ll check out Nairn.”
So, tomorrow, we’ll check out Nairn.