Not for the first time, I sounded a little foolish during my most recent appearance on the Cookie Jar Podcast. Click here to listen. Williams had asked me for some of my 'under the radar' favourites from the trip so far, and I listed Skibo alongside some true hidden gems such as Durness and Shiskine.
With a £450 green fee, and just one time per day set aside for visitors, it is little wonder the ultra exclusive Carnegie Club drew some mirth when cited as a 'gem'. However, I stand by it. With the reputation it holds, I was expecting a first rate experience at Skibo, played over a slightly underwhelming golf course. With all the trimmings that go with a place like that - beautiful surrounds, exquisite service, wining and dining etc. - it's normally the 'package' that justifies the high fee, and the golf is secondary.
The Locker Room 👆
Not so here. The golf at Skibo is brilliant in its own right. Judging the golf course alone, it could stand alongside any links in Scotland.
Skibo Castle was bought by Andrew Carnegie (at the time, the richest man in the world) in 1898 - splitting the remainder of his life between the Castle and his Manhattan mansion. Along with salmon fishing, sailing on his yacht, the Seabreeze, and entertaining guests from Woodrow Wilson to Herbert Asquith - one of his favourite pass-times was indulging in 'Dr Golf', as he called it. To this end, he commissioned John Sutherland (the Dornoch secretary) to build a 9 hole course on the estate.
Skibo Castle remained in the Carnegie family until 1982 - when it was bought by property developer Peter de Savary and turned to a private members club. Ellis Short in turn purchased the 20,000 acre estate in 2003 - and has since invested significantly.
Golf on the Estate
In the mid 1990s, Donald Steel and then associate Tom Mackenzie resurrected golf on the estate - building an 18 hole course this time. It was not until more recently that Director of Golf, former European Tour player David Thomson, persuaded the new ownership that better use could be made of the site - and a more enjoyable golfing experience be had.
David told me how the playing corridors were narrow - thick gorse and rank rough lining the fairways. The members were satisfied with their 'difficult' course, whilst any talk of restoring the thinner fescues risked making the course 'too easy' and not a championship test.
Fortunately, Mr Short agreed with David, and an extensive redesign was carried out. With the exception of the 18th, each hole was altered. The biggest change was in the playability. Open sand was introduced in the areas where the rough was at its most unplayable. Across the course as a whole, they utilised a cut and bailing technique - cutting the rough in mid November and mid May - just before it dropped it seeds. After each cut, the cuttings were bailed and removed from the property - denitrifying the soil over time, and creating the ideal environment for fine fescues to flourish.
The first year yielded a little under 200 bails. Now, 8 years later, it is well under 100. The success is felt on the course too. An errant shot can be seen some 10-20 yards away - but the tall fescue grabbing the shaft of your club and threatening to turn it over presents a real challenge. Granted, there are less than 1000 rounds a year played over their links, but it was so impressive to see a tough but fair links on the fairway and off.
The course at Skibo is laid out over a relatively narrow strip of rolling links land between two bodies of water. To the South is the Dornoch Firth - with the impressive Dornoch Firth Bridge visible from the course. To the North is Loch Evelix - created by Carnegie when he built a dam across the River Evelix to provide ideal salmon fishing.
The course opens with a long par four from a tee adjacent to the practice ground. Almost 450 yards and SI 2, it's not the gentle start you may have expected.
The second is a great dogleg, well bunkered off the drive and with an elevated green complex. Again, its not a short hole - so a well placed drive is required to prevent you hitting over the well guarded front right section of the green.
When the original Carnegie Club links was laid out by Donald Steel in 1991, the holes that received the brunt of the criticism were 9-11. During the redesign, the routing was changed to bring these more staid holes earlier into the round. The thinking being that if you are going to have some forgettable holes, they are better played earlier than at a more 'important' point. Now, these are holes three to five. They aren't bad holes, two par 5s sandwiching a mid length par 3 - but they are soon forgotten when you stand on the sixth tee.
Probably the pick of the par 3s on the property, you play from a tee on one dune to a green atop another. It's only 155 yards, but a cavernous bunker short of the putting surface certainly focusses the mind. The green affords a spectacular view across the Dornoch Firth, to the bridge opened in the early 1990s.
It was at this point in our round the refreshment cart hunted us down. As we were the only group on the course, we were no doubt easy to spot. Our man handed round coffees laced with Glenmorangie, and one of our group suggested it was distilled locally. "Yes sir. You can see the distillery just by the bridge...".
Refuelled, we tackled the splendid par 4 seventh. Perhaps my favourite hole on the course, a test of strategy rather than power. Only 340 yards, there are two distinct routes you can take. The more challenging high road, set obliquely to the tee and heavily bunkered? Or the shorter and more straightforward low road - leaving a blind uphill pitch to a green not well suited for approach from this angle?
In 1996, Greg Norman racked up a 7 here during an edition of Shell's Wonderful World of Golf. Of course, the hole looks slightly different now - but the strategy that rumbled Norman remains.
Eight plays as a Cape style hole around the Dornoch Firth. From a tee set right on the water's edge, you sweep round to the right - trying to hold your nerve and avoid bailing into the thick heather left.
The front 9 closes with a longer par 3. The green sits so naturally in beautifully undulating terrain, and again emphasises the beauty of the course beyond the manicured fairways and greens. Tall swaying fescue, gorgeous red heather and even an ethereal lichen heath - it all adds to the experience.
A long par 4, ten, plays you into the far corner of the property, before an about turn back towards the clubhouse. Eleven is an attractive dogleg around the aforementioned loch - created by Carnegie to aid his success with his fishing rod. Trees had grown along the waters edge previously - preventing the corner being cut. Fortunately, these were all removed during the refurbishment - and the hole is the better for it.
Thirteen is another picturesque par 3, set on the water's edge. The topography naturally falls down towards the loch, and the right side is heavily bunkered to boot. I would imagine the back left swail a common place to play a second shot from.
Fourteen is a long, straight par 5 again along the water - before the bunkerless par 3 fifteen. At 215 yards, and often played into a westerly wind, bunkers may have been viewed as overkill. The green is angled almost 45 degrees from the tee, favouring a fade for the right hander. A daunting shot to play when overcooking it could very easily end in the water.
From here we leave the River Evelix for the time being, walk past the clubhouse and continue to the sixteenth tee. A straight par 4 played immediately adjacent to the practice ground - a five foot stone wall the only thing to mark this internal out of bounds.
Seventeen is an exquisite par 4. The only hole on the course playing in this direction, it is a par 4 across the headland - the Dornoch Firth this time featuring to the left. Driveable, it is only 304 from the championship tee. Four large bunkers stare you down from almost the middle of the fairway - challenging you to hit over them. There is a route in from the left hand side, if you choose to lay back, but it involves threading the needle between these traps and the Firth.
Harry Green, going for the green 👆
Eighteen plays as another cape hole, this time a mid length par 5 - sweeping to the left along the Evelix's estuary and the tidal salt marsh. The least 'linksy' of the holes - it is the only one that remains unchanged from Steel's original design. If you bit off an appropriate amount from the drive, finding the ribbon of short grass, there is a good chance of hitting the green in two. However, the fairway is tilted - and the right hander will address the ball with it comfortably above their feet. One final test of nerve to ensure it doesn't sling back into the marsh.
The experience at the Carnegie Club doesn't end once the golf has finished. Our party arrived at 8.30am - but didn't leave until almost 6pm. The hospitality was as good as you'd expect for a club of this ilk. It caters for business leaders and millionaires - a retreat from the stresses of the corporate world. Just as it did for Andrew Carnegie all those years ago.
"Heaven itself", Carnegie declared,"is not so beautiful as Skibo".
Click on the course below to read some of my other reviews:
While you're here...! If you're looking for a Christmas gift for a golfer, may I humbly suggest a 2021 Links Calendar? 12 of my favourite courses to visit when the world is back open for business, and more importantly, golf. Thanks for following, Sam.
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