What we say
Skibo Castle is easily one of the best British golf courses to have opened in recent times. Here’s why…
Sifting through the candidates for the title of finest British course to have opened this Millennium reveals a highly-competitive field: Kingsbarns, Dumbarnie and St Andrews (Castle) in Fife; The Grove and Centurion Club in Hertfordshire; Renaissance and Archerfield’s pair in East Lothian; Machrihanish Dunes in Argyll; Trump International in Aberdeen; and Castle Stuart in Invernesshire.
It is by any measure a powerful collection and Scotland’s dominance can be increased with the addition of a further Caledonian course which in time may prove the best of the lot.
Before you begin racking your brain for the name of this new superstar, it must be noted that it’s not technically a course built since the year 2000.
Skibo Castle officially opened for play in 1995, laid out in quick time by Donald Steel’s firm of architects, with Tom Mackenzie doing much of the work.
It impressed enough to enter our GB&I Top 100 list but those fortunate enough to visit this exclusive club often left feeling there was more potential in the scenic land on the shores of the Dornoch Firth. That potential has now been fully realised, with a redevelopment so comprehensive – in the routing, the appearance and the design of individual holes – that it could feasibly be classified as a new course.
Those who played the original will simply not recognise the links today and the results are demonstrably outstanding.
Four men stand out: owner Ellis Short, who provided the finance; Director of Golf David Thomson, who drove the project with passion and nous; Course Manager Gary Gruber; and Mackenzie, the original architect invited to reassess his 1995 work. Golf World was privileged to be given a guided tour of the new 6,833-yard course by Thomson and Mackenzie. It was a fascinating insight into a project of this scale, illustrating the foresight and energy required to make it such a success.
“I was lucky that Ellis trusted me,” says Thomson as we stroll to the 1st tee. “He was one of the first members I got to know when I arrived here in 1999 and we used to talk about things we’d like to see happen over a beer. So when he bought it, we began work straight away – the following week we changed the routing! The original layout meant you didn’t hit a wood for a few holes so it was a bit fiddly.”
As at Muirfield, another exclusive (but accessible) golf institution, Skibo’s Carnegie Club – which takes its name from former owner, the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie – does not try too hard to impress. So the clubhouse, an old cow shed which is exactly a mile from the castle, is beautifully appointed but not ostentatious. And there is no grand entrance or conspicuous course furniture around the 1st tee. No tee times either. You simply wait for your enormous breakfast or lunch to settle and wander over to the square of turf, encased by a neat low wall, that is the tee.
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You might then glance at the scorecard and, on noting it is 449 yards, lament the croissant or dessert you have just been tempted into. The wind is, at least, usually at your back – although, as Thomson notes, Britain as a whole is now getting fewer westerlies. Bunkers have been added on both sides of the fairway, giving us something to hit at it, and the longer you drive it the narrower the fairway gets. It is for the most part generous though and with gorse bushes removed on either side (a key part of the refurbishment throughout), you will find your ball if you are a bit wayward.
“I got quite a lot of abuse from the members when we took the gorse out because they loved the yellow in the spring,” reveals Thomson. “But it only lasts a few weeks and I think if you are five yards off line and it’s a lost ball it is a bit unfair. It has dramatically affected ball sales though!”
Gorse gone, the fescues are now thriving and immediately you know you are on a proper links, a feeling enhanced when your under-clubbed approach gathers inexorably into the front left bunker a la Lytham, Sandwich or North Berwick.
A fine start is reinforced by the magnificent 2nd, which was one of the original design’s weaker holes but is now one of the highlights. Mackenzie suggested dropping the fairway – going against the trend for raising ground – by about four metres. It meant 300,000 tonnes of earth were removed and shaped into dunes lining the hole. These were later helpfully moulded naturally by a storm which buffeted the course.
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Already there is a feeling of great space owing to the removal of acres of gorse, yet while the holes are cleverly hidden from each other, none of the stunning surrounding views are obscured.
The first par 5 is next and is one of Skibo’s highlights. Again, it has been opened up by moving earth and extracting gorse, with a little gap in the dune ridge offering a glimpse of the 5th. On lots of holes at Skibo, if you’ve got a fade tee shot you will have a draw approach, and vice versa. It’s the former on the 3rd, which has some evil pin positions when the course runs fast as it did last summer. The view back down the fairway is simply sensational – and is one that wasn’t on offer before the removal of the bushes.
Arguably Skibo’s weakest hole follows, a par 3 played across the site that Thomson would like to tweak further, but we are immediately back on top form at the par-5 5th, where the brave line to the left of the right-hand bunker gets you on the ‘fast lane’ of the fairway and up to 40 extra yards. No matter where your tee shot ends, you will savour the awesome view of the mountains; a lot of money can be spent improving a golf course, but views such as this cannot be bought.
The par-3 6th tee has been changed little but for the removal of broom, gorse and 200 birch trees which obscured the panorama. It’s only 152 yards, but can require a wood into the wind. It’s no pushover downwind either; played to raised green you can’t run it in so have to fly it all the way and hope you can stop it.
Then follow two classic short par 4s across the access road. After the cute 7th to an elevated green you follow a little path down to the shore, where there are five teeing options on the 359-yard 8th along the Firth. The back one is not only the longest but also asks you to hit the straightest shot.
However, play from the tiny new tee box down to the right – the back edge of which is lapped by the water at high tide – and the hole morphs into a dog-leg, enabling you to hit away from the water hazard, into the upslope and let your ball tumble down. Gary Player thought this bunkerless hole was one of Skibo’s finest.
Walking back over the road to the tee of the strong 215-yard par-3 9th, you pass rare lichens now flourishing under the care of the club. They are remnants of the Ice Age and outside of Iceland only a little area at Lossiemouth has anything like it.
The 10th is now a beast of a par 4, 504 yards off the tips and even with the prevailing wind it requires two solid blows from even strong players to find the new green – which has been moved back 90 yards – in regulation. Unless, that is, you are Tour player Chris Doak. “I played it with Chris on the day we opened,” recalls Thomson, “and he hit driver-driver to about three feet and turns to me and says ‘thought this was a tough hole, big man?’”
Turning round, we now play alongside Loch Evelix for five holes. The links turf remains, even if the surroundings become more parkland in nature. Some will prefer the pure links feel of the front nine but others will consider this the best stretch on the course, as holes of great drama and aesthetic appeal follow in succession.
The 11th offers a nice contrast to the humps and bumps of the previous fairways, its flat, runway-like strip of short grass beckoning you down an acute dog-leg to a long, narrow green. More of the same follows at 12, which looks more scary from the tee than it is; the fairway is probably 35 yards wide allowing you to thump your drive away from the loch.
Then comes a change in pace in the shape of the brand-new 151-yard 13th. It used to be a 226-yard par 3 with the green much further left – “a shocker,” laughs its creator, Mackenzie. It is now Skibo’s prettiest short hole with the loch on the right, the trees behind and the mountains to the left. Next comes a sporty par 5. After a succession of holes asking for a fade, you now need a draw to come to rest between the bunkers at 267 on the left and 300 on the right. From there, many can ‘get up’ but not so many will hold the upturned saucer green.
The final water-side challenge sees you climb aboard a spectacular new tee which edges spectacularly out into the loch itself. Played into the prevailing wind it is easy to see why members cut their ball into the water. It is almost impossible to take too much club here and so Short, who plays off 12, has described the hollow to the front right of the hole ‘the valley of gin’.
Moving past the clubhouse, any temptation to end after 15 and retire for gin is staved off by the prospect of the 16th, a stellar par 4 which returns us to the pure links feel of the first 10. And as you round the corner of its dog-leg, the castle appears for the first time.
The course’s signature awaits at 17, a hole of tremendous scenic and strategic value, before the climax begins with a drive over the water’s edge, a la Machrihanish, where good players will be able to cut off enough to offer the chance of an eagle.
The rest of us can try to find dry land, prod a second down the fairway then take our chances with a wedged approach. However you play it, you will relish the nip of whisky you’ll be handed as you exit the last green of a links of which Scotland can now be immensely proud.
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- TG Rating
- Players Rating
- Address Skibo Castle, Clashmore, DORNOCH
- Tel 01862 894600
- Website http://www.carnegieclub.co.uk/
|Course Length||6,883 yards (6,294 metres)|
- Course does not have: Bar
- Course has: Buggy Hire
- Course does not have: Driving Range
- Course does not have: Practice Green
- Course has: Pro Shop
- Course does not have: Restaurant
- Course has: Trolley Hire
- Course does not have: Dress Code
- Course has: Club Hire
- Course does not have: Handicap
Taken to Skibo by a friend on 7th May 2015. The club house has a modern yet elegant feel to it, set on a spit of land in the Dornoch Firth. The attention to detail, from the moment we arrived, makes you feel very special and the staff customer service was second to none. The course is pristine due to severe under use. ( I only saw two other two balls the whole day) and we had a leisurely round. Exclusivity comes at a price but the Carneige Club is well worth it.