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Dornoch & Brora

By Jim Stewart

When it comes to some downtime for the Connoisseur Golf team, we still like to mix business with pleasure. There’s something magical about the Highlands in the off-season.

You’ll often hear from those ‘born and bred’ that “the real Scotland doesn’t start until you pass Perth". It some ways that rings true. Driving up the A9 is one of those liberating journeys that expels all your stresses and strains while you pass through some of the most scenic geography in the world.

Often, we’ll travel with those in our close golfing circle or industry associates. In this case it’s both as we organised the trip north with our good friends (and competitors) Graeme Dawson and Marc Gentles from St Andrews Golf Travel. One of the new breed of forward thinking companies who really understand the business that we work in. Like us, they proactively stay ahead of the curve - embracing the latest technology and sustainability practices. They are proud to maintain strong relationships with the key stakeholders in luxury golf travel, and only work with a select high-end clientele. But more than anything, great people to share a few rounds with.

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Joining me from the Connoisseur Golf office was Cameron Black, a fresh faced 22-year-old recruit from The University of St Andrews. Cameron possesses all the necessary tools to work in our field: a book-smart and street-smart intelligence, a love of golf history, attention to detail and a +1 handicap. Let it be said however, that the forementioned +1 handicap hadn’t yet been validated in the eyes of his hard to please employer. One decent round at Muirfield had been flanked by a couple of cricket scores around Royal Portrush and Royal County Down. I was hoping for a new and improved Cameron Black to show up against Messrs Dawson (a former amateur course record holder at Shinnecock) and Gentles (a recent winner of the St Andrews Club Championship).

A combination of fatigue from our designated driver Marc and an unusual amount of rust from Graeme resulted in the opening rubber going the way of Connoisseur. However, as anyone who has played the course will understand, your score or match result is very much secondary to the epic experience of playing one of the world’s best links courses. Donald Ross, the famed golf course architect, was born in Dornoch. He distilled his minimalist approach by immersing himself in the course here and by working under Old Tom Morris in St Andrews. In the US, his designs include Pinehurst No.2, Seminole and Oakland Hills among dozens of others and he is generally regarded as one of the best of all time. While some of his masterpieces have been painted over through the years by various artists, the intrinsic quality of his design largely remains and a trip to Dornoch is a spiritual must for admirers of his work.

Upon completing our round, we were welcomed to the clubhouse by General Manager, Neil Hampton. I had intended to touch upon sustainability while writing this post, and the first few minutes of our visit allowed me to experience a facet of this that I had previously overlooked. Sustainability in golf isn’t just about adopting recyclables in place of plastic or reducing the use of pesticides. It can also mean supporting a local economy by nurturing homegrown talent. Allowing a community to grow organically and support itself via the wonderful asset that it’s been blessed with. We often hear about restaurants showcasing locally sourced ingredients, but surely the human element is equally as important. Unbeknown to us, Neil had just completed a morning feedback session with over 50 employees. As we walked into the lounge, a waitress approached us and thanked Neil wholeheartedly for creating such a wonderful working environment and for taking time to hear staff opinions and suggestions. She said everyone on the team felt valued and enjoyed working there. For me, this was an eye-opening moment. We often take golf club staffing and a high service level for granted, but an operation like this is derived from a strong and caring management team. Even more so when you consider the geographic location of Dornoch, 45 miles away from any urban settlement of more than 4000 people. It was the first time I had thought of the work that goes in to running a remote club like Dornoch, and it's something that deserves huge admiration.

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One of the great things about playing Dornoch in the off-season is the pace of play. A 3-hour round is the norm. Which means that 2 hrs 50 minutes had passed since I walked onto the 1st green and glanced left to the newly reimagined Dornoch Station hotel. Anticipation levels were high. My last time through the doors here was in 2004, when I remember feeling that the £45 room rate was somewhat overpriced. The hotel was extremely tired and lived off budget-orientated coach parties. I was very excited to see the transformation by Marine & Lawn, who also own hotels on primetime real estate in St Andrews, North Berwick, Troon and Northern Ireland. The reception area at Dornoch Station is on point with its sister properties. Dark mahogany, green leather and polished brass furnishings. Comfortable, classy, stylish and timeless. We were treated to Dornoch Sea View King Rooms, and they provided the perfect base from which to play a couple of rounds in the Highlands. The morning view is priceless. A deep pink sunrise casts some magic across the links every clear morning. Probably the most beautiful start to a day that I’ve witnessed in Scotland and most definitely worth the room upgrade. Marine & Lawn haven’t built their reputation on accommodation alone. They have a vision of raising the bar of high-end golfing fare across the board. I felt the food here was on a par with their flagship restaurant – Eighteen in St Andrews. Setting the No.5 ranked golf course in the world to one side, Dornoch is fast becoming a destination for foodies. Mara, Luigi’s, Greens, Crenshaws Brasserie… things are starting to heat up here.

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Day 2 was one that I had been looking forward to immensely for weeks. We had a 10am tee-time at Brora, and looking out the window at breakfast, the weather was perfect - a little fresh, 45 Fahrenheit, with a light south-westerly. Nothing that a bobble hat and a pair of thermal underwear doesn’t overcome. The first tee at Brora is one of those places that makes you realise why you love golf. Panoramic views of the North Sea with waves crashing in against a rocky beach, just yards from where you stand. Brora is a classic nine out, nine in classic links layout. Generous fairways and plenty of risk reward. But it’s golfing USP is perhaps not the golf course itself, but the electrified fencing that protects the putting surfaces from the grazing sheep. It’s a sight to behold, and it transports you 100 years back in time to when James Braid was modifying the original 9 hole layout to the 18 we enjoy today.

The above-mentioned Cameron Black was ‘enjoying’ his second outing with the boss in as many days. The pressure to deliver must have now been immense. Impressively, he stood up to the challenge. After an unremarkable opening hole, when he had to hole from 10 feet for par, the young Aberdonian went on a birdie blitz. Aided by a hot putter, he stood on the 17th tee 8-under par. A little misfortune on the closing holes resulted in a round of 65, but it was a pleasure to watch. Brora is a fun course. It requires you to use imagination and induces bravery when it’s probably not advised. For those that haven’t yet experienced this majestic links, it’s not just somewhere you go after you play Dornoch, it’s a highlight entry on your Highlands itinerary. Cameron had a new favourite golf course, but more importantly he also earned a year’s supply of brownie points with his employer.  A second consecutive victory over our industry peers. Not that we’re competitive or anything…

The 4-hour drive back to St Andrews was fuelled on Starbucks and Zac Brown. It allowed us to experience that special buzz that our clients feel when they finish a Highlands golf trip, an overload of the golfing senses. The scenery, the welcome, the iconic holes, the air that seems cleaner and fresher than anywhere else in Scotland. It’s a trip that not many of our groups make once. There is always a sequel.