Tag Archives: Royal Dornoch

Minnesota Doctor Questions Our Picks

Thoughtful readers of this blog sometimes submit their own, personal golf course rankings, which — while not scientific — provide some perspective on my more authoritative list. Here’s a recent submission from Minnesota’s Dr. Mark Mammel:

John: Just perusing your top 50 list after reading your commentary on the recent Askernish Open.  Lists are always fun, and, of course, debatable.  Just for bona fides, I’ve played 21 of the 50; I’ve been a member at Royal Dornoch for 20 years; I grew up in Hutchinson, KS, and took my first golf lessons from Ross Wilson, long-time pro at my first “home” course, Prairie Dunes; and I love- LOVE- Askernish. So I hope you’ll just give my comments a thought before clicking “delete”.

First, Castle Stuart above Royal Dornoch? Seriously, that’s just not on.  I played at CS the year it opened and a couple of times since. Lovely clubhouse, nice folks, overpriced, so-so turf, and if a part of the rating is the story the walk tells — well, heading out from the first tee at Dornoch is Dickens. Castle Stuart is Barbara Taylor Bradford. Please rethink this one!

As a Minnesota boy, I’ve payed New Richmond a number of times.  While perfectly OK, it’s not great, and I don’t see how it made the cut.  Interlachen rests on its laurels — or should I say lily pads? When the Donald Ross Society paid a visit to the area, they played at Minikahda, Woodhill, White Bear Yacht Club and Northland. I was the local tour guide, and when I suggested adding Interlachen, the Society’s leaders felt it to be a poor representation of Ross that, due to trees and change, deserved a pass.

Which leads me to a serious question: how is it possible that the White Bear Yacht Club isn’t on this list?  A Willie Watson/Donald Ross design, it’s quirky, the greens are wild and wonderful, and it is a great walk (perhaps Jules Verne). Tom Doak rates it the best in Minnesota and Jim Urbina thinks it’s one of the best anywhere. If your raters haven’t seen it, I am the local historian and current golf chair. Love to welcome you anytime! Similarly, Northland in Duluth is also a real treat and might make the cut. Finally, you rank Monterey Peninsula CC at 46 — which course, Dunes or Shore?

I salute you as a fellow obsessive. Enjoy your travels and play away please.


Lavatory view from men's loo.

Castle Stuart’s 9th green, as seen from the clubhouse lav. (John Garrity)

Dr. Mammel is an astute observer, and he certainly knows his golf grounds. It’s possible, though, that he doesn’t have hundreds of course raters at his disposal. It’s even more likely that he hasn’t played his favorite courses in ALL conditions, which we strive to do. Castle Stuart, for instance, may not at first glance be better than wonderful Royal Dornoch, which has stood the test of time. However, his dismissive “lovely clubhouse” ignores the fact that Castle Stuart has the best lavatory/shower views in golf (see photo). Furthermore, I have found Castle Stuart to be playable — even fun! — in 60-mph winds, while Dornoch ceases to be amusing at 35-plus.

As for the great-walk factor, I have to point out that while Charles Dickens may be the best-selling novelist of all time, we don’t use 19th-century sales figures at Catch Basin. Barbara Taylor Bradford beats Dickens like a drum in this century; she’s sold close to 100 million books worldwide, and her first novel, A Woman of Substance, is one of the top-ten best sellers of all time. Furthermore, she’s the 31st wealthiest woman in Britain, while Dickens is … dead. Have I read any of Bradford’s books? No, but why would I? I’m busy rating golf courses.*

*Jules Verne, by the way, didn’t put much store in walks, great or otherwise. He was more into submarines and moon rockets.

New Richmond golf

New Richmond not worthy? Augusta National would kill for tulips like these. (John Garrity)

The high ratings for New Richmond and Interlachen make sense to anyone who has read my near-best-seller, Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations. Coincidentally, my maternal grandfather, although a cad, was an Interlachen member, and my dad witnessed Bobby Jones’s famous lily-pad shot. Also, my dad helped construct the original New Richmond nine, a sand-greens layout.

As for 51st-ranked White Bear Yacht Club, I can only say that it won’t take much to boost it into the Top 50. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that White Bear will make the grade if I accept the good doctor’s offer of a free round. (That is the offer, isn’t it?)

Finally, Dr. Mammel asks which of Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s layouts is ranked 46th — the Dunes or the Shore? To which I reply: Does it matter? Beautiful views, either way.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, as the FedEx Cup Playoffs take a week off to blunt fan interest. However, the battle for “higher status” on the post-Q-School PGA Tour will certainly make the Web.com Tour’s Chiquita Classic must-see TV.

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Askernish: Who Needs Winter Rules?

The key to a January golf trip in Scotland is flexibility. My original itinerary had me right off the plane at Glasgow and down the road to ancient Prestwick for a quick 18, followed on successive days by rounds at Askernish, Castle Stuart, Royal Dornoch, Nairn, Carnoustie, the Old Course at St. Andrews, Kingsbarns, Kinghorn, Crail, Musselburgh Links and Muirfield (same day), Turnberry, Western Gailes and Girvan — with 9 squeezed in at Maybole, if time allowed, on the way back to Glasgow. However, heavy snows across the country convinced me that I should alter my plans and spend the entire two weeks playing top-ranked Askernish Old.

Golfer on Askernish Old course

Postman Paddy Forbes leans into the wind at Askernish Old. (John Garrity)

“Is Askernish even playable?” an American friend asked in an e-mail. “I’ve heard that the Western Isles are brutalized by Atlantic gales this time of year. Plus, you’ve got what, four hours of daylight? And don’t they have cattle and sheep on the fairways?”

Re-reading his words after a fortnight of challenging but delectable golf, I have to laugh. First of all, I don’t think the wind ever got above 60 or 65 miles per hour while I played, and those were gusts, not sustained winds. Twenty or 25 mph was more the norm, and with the average midday temperature topping 40-degrees fahrenheit, four layers of clothing provided a nice balance between comfort and mobility. Squalls sweep in from the Atlantic with some frequency, but the local golfers have taught me how to squat with my back to the gale until the horizontal rain exhausts itself. That generally takes a few minutes, and it is common to see the sun pop out while you are collecting tee markers that have been uprooted and sent tumbling down a dune.

Askernish Old

Askernish Old is a dog-friendly course. (John Garrity)

Neither is the Hebridean day as short as my friend suggests. The sun appears over the hills a little after 9 a.m. and takes a languorous turn across the southern sky, never rising more than thirty-degrees above the horizon, before plunging into the Atlantic a little before four p.m. A four-ball venturing out at noon finishes at twilight, making for an enjoyable 500-yard stroll in the moonlight to the two-room clubhouse.

Askernish does accommodate more livestock than you’ll find on a typical American course, but I’ve never heard a visiting golfer complain because he was able to find his ball in the well-grazed rough. The greens are protected with single-strand fences that give the cattle a tiny shock when the batteries are connected. “They’re not hooked up at the moment, but it doesn’t matter,” one of Askernish’s 18 resident members told me last week. “The cows think they are!”

Fivesome at Askernish

Five members of the regular Friday nine-ball at Askernish. (John Garrity)

Another friend asked me if winter rules were in effect. No, they are not. The fairways at Askernish, an authentic links course, are as sound in January as they are in July, so there is no need to improve one’s lie. The roughs are easier to play from, thinned out as they are by dormancy and grazing. The one local rule of any consequence, involving naturally-applied fertilizers, had an R&A committeeman scouring his decisions book last week, looking for references to “manure” or “cow poop.”

“The rule at Askernish is simple,” club captain Donald MacInnes told him with a smile. “Pick up your ball, lick it, and drop it.”

Golfers at Twilight

Club captain Donald MacInnes drives the 18th by moonlight. (John Garrity)

Tee times are not a problem this time of year. On a given winter’s day, you might see a lone golfer striding up the par-5 sixth, parallel to the beach, with a wool cap pulled over his ears and no shadow in tow. On a god-given winter’s day, such as Friday afternoon was, you’ll encounter a four-ball sunning in the bowl of the multi-tiered 16th green (“Old Tom’s Pulpit”) while a sixsome, accompanied by frolicking dogs and darting lapwings, takes turns firing at the flag from cliff’s edge on the dogleg ninth (“Brochan”).

Askernish is not for everyone, I suppose. Maybe just for golfers.

Anyway, I’m heading home. If you’d like some help planning your own low-season Scottish golf tour, send me your e-mails. I’ll forward them to the proper tourist agencies. And if you don’t get an immediate response, be understanding. Their staff is probably wintering on the Costa del Sol.


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Scottish Golf: ‘Tis the Season?

Having opened all my presents and sung all my carols, I’m packing for my next golf trip: a January excursion to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It will be a solo trip, I’m sorry to say, because both staff and family have been frightened off by press reports of blustery weather in Europe. One correspondent went so far as to send me a photograph of second-ranked Carne Golf Links blanketed with snow.

“Carne,” I reminded my dubious wife, “is in Ireland.”

On the bright side, she’s helping me pack.

Carne Golf Links in Snow
Second-ranked Carne is a winter bargain. (Ask for the holiday discount.)

Winter, I have argued to no avail, is the perfect time for a Scottish golf trip. Low-season hotel rates apply, green fees have been slashed, and you can practically name your tee time. (“Dawn” is a good choice, since the Scots can only squeeze about four hours of daylight into a January day.) These are not second-rate layouts, either. My Highlands-and-Islands itinerary includes Askernish (1), Castle Stuart (9), Royal Dornoch (43) and Nairn (51).

“You might want to e-mail them to see if they’re open,” said Dave Henson, the Hilton Head-based bureaucrat who runs my course-rating division.

“A waste of bandwidth,” I said dismissively. Dave has apparently forgotten our rainswept round at Nairn last July, which preceded our romp around Castle Stuart in 65-mph winds, which led to our being stranded on the island of Skye because an Atlantic gale had shut down ferry service to the Western Isles, where we were subsequently assaulted by sleet and drive-by bagpipers. “The Scots,” I reminded him, “don’t stop playing golf whenever the Heathrow baggage handlers put on mittens.”

Besides, the computer room at our Catch Basin headquarters is closed until the Basement Magic folks finish their work on the southern wall. The Bomar Brain is covered with a big blue tarp, the ping pong table is pushed against the vault door, and the Top 50 leader board is frosted with a layer of white sanding dust.

“Rankings cant change twixt now & e of year,” a Cal Tech liaison just informed me in a text from sunny California. “Go off & play!”

So I’m off to Scotland. But don’t worry, I’ll continue to file Top 50 posts on a close-to-weekly basis.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but Golf Channel is showing endless re-runs of “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf,” including a hard-to-forget (no matter how hard you try) match between Jack Nicklaus and a wheels-coming-off Johnny Miller at San Francisco’s Olympic Club (52). Other Shell episodes seem to have been staged on courses built just for the show in exotic corners of Asia and Africa. When the Top 50 is up to speed again, I’ll ask my technicians to prepare a list of “Top 10 Most Eloquent Jack Whitaker Descriptions of Sparsely-Grassed Resort Courses.”


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First Stop on Links Tour: Royal Dornoch

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.”

Bunker Shot at Royal Dornoch

Top 50 Staffer Dave Henson tests the sand at Royal Dornoch. (John Garrity)

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.

Golfer teeing off at Royal Dornoch

Royal Dornoch: Well worth the drive. (John Garrity)

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.

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Castle Stuart: Still Lookin’ Good

A reader from Lake Lotawana, Mo., has a question about tenth-ranked Castle Stuart, the brilliant, one-year-old links course on Scotland’s Moray Firth. “A few months back,” he writes, “you wrote that the Castle Stuart clubhouse has the best men’s room view in all of golf. But you didn’t back up your claim photographically, and you left the impression that Castle Stuart’s high ranking was based solely on clubhouse amenities.”

I’ll address the reader’s points in order. First, the claim that Castle Stuart’s lavatory view is unsurpassed. The Top 50 staff photographs the clubhouse and halfway house interiors of all our ranked courses, and if the facility has windows we document the view from every window. We can’t publish all these photos, obviously, so we go by the old adage, “A thousand words is as good as a picture.” I described the view from the Castle Stuart men’s loo. That seemed, to me, to be sufficient. But if my correspondent needs to have it spelled out for him in pixels, here is a selection of photos taken from the second-floor men’s lavatory of the Castle Stuart Golf Links.

Lavatory view

Castle Stuart's 9th green, as seen from the clubhouse lav. (John Garrity)

View of driving range

The Castle Stuart driving range from the men's shower room. (John Garrity)

9th Green Castle Stuart

Close up of 9th green from loo. (John Garrity)

Panoramic photo

Panoramic loo view, Castle Stuart Golf Links. (John Garrity)

The second point of the e-mail, implying that we ignored the Gil Hanse/Mark Parsinen golf course in our evaluation of Castle Stuart, is totally off the mark. No course in the Top 50, with the obvious exceptions of Sand Hills and Cypress Point,* achieved its elite ranking until it had been played by yours truly, either anonymously or (in the case of courses with outrageous green fees) not. Just last week, in fact, I played Castle Stuart in conditions that some would call extreme — wind gusts of 75 miles per hour — and left convinced that Inverness is home to the greatest new links course in the British Isles and one of the top ten golf courses in the world. It would not surprise me to see Castle Stuart, given a year or two to mature, to wind up in my top three with Askernish and Carne.

*And a couple of others.

I’m not the only one to be enchanted by Castle Stuart. Golf Digest managing editor Roger Schiffman, who played it last week as a member of the U.S. Writers Cup team, used words like “unforgettable … magnificent … stunning … beguiling … arresting …,” stopping only when he forgot whether he was describing the course or the barmaid in the third-floor lounge. George Peper, the author and former GOLF Magazine editor, calls Castle Stuart “the most significant British Isles debut since Loch Lomond in 1993 …. Think Pebble Beach, Pacific Dunes, Royal County Down …. restrained, insightful design combined with a breathtakingly beautiful site ….” Since I arrived in St. Andrews for this week’s Open Championship, I have been approached by total strangers asking if  I have played the new Highlands course that rivals or even surpasses Royal Dornoch Golf Club. “You’ll be blown away,” one of them told me, unaware of the irony.

So, here’s what I’ve got to say to that reader in Lake Lotawana and anybody else who thinks he or she can trip up the Top 50 staff: Forget it. When it comes to golf courses, we cover all the basins.

Top 50 on TV: The one, the only, Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. The 139th Open Championship begins tomorrow morning on the Fife muny, which is the only God-designed course in the Top 50. The Bottom 50, however, features the unforgettable Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Course Golf Course of Ft. Meade, Fla., which is reputed to have been built by God, Jr., with help from his brother Rees.

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