The Road to Diùranais

An unplanned—
and unforgettable—trek through the Scottish wilds

The first car we saw was hurtling directly toward us.

There were no shoulders. There was no time to Google “Who has the right of way on one-lane roads in rural Scotland?” Ben had only one choice: He gunned our rental car at the one oncoming, then dove us into a tiny pullout on the left side of the barely paved road. We crossed our collective fingers, hoping not to get hit.

The other driver flashed his lights, waved and smiled as he sped by. Lovely people, the Scots!

The main road from Dornoch to Durness Golf Club is labeled an A Road, which, by definition, means a multi-lane main route, one step below a highway. I am no civil engineer, but this road did not meet that criteria. It was a one-lane, semi-paved farm path, maybe 2 feet wider than our hatchback, with occasional turnout areas like the one we’d just fled into. It occurred to me that even fewer people would make the drive if it were marked more appropriately as a B Road, which would be a shame. This trip is not to be missed.

Durness was not in the original plan for our week in Dornoch. We had some side trips in mind; many itinerants have wandered south from this quaint little town to play Tain, Nairn and Castle Stuart, or north to tee it up at Golspie or Brora. But few wander farther, and that’s exactly what a local friend of mine told us to do. He didn’t ask; he demanded. He explained it was a trip to stir the golfing soul, a handmade nine-holer we had to see to believe. We couldn’t resist.

Ben, who is not fazed by the driving-on-the-left-side-of-the-road thing and has an almost religious zeal about his Garmin, volunteered to drive. Both ways. My wife, Melissa, the greatest golf wife on the planet, gave the green light. So, very early one morning, the three of us jumped into our our rented German-made wagon and headed north. We cruised toward Golspie and thought nothing of the 78 miles ahead of us.

About 20 miles in, Ben’s Garmin chirped for him to make a left turn onto the A Road that would take us the majority of the way. After our initial scare, we learned that the locals don’t find this road unusual, and they sprint through it at speeds much faster than one probably should on an overgrown alleyway. But Ben settled in and we got the hang of flashing our lights, waving and smiling at each car and lorry we passed. As our terror subsided, we enjoyed the breathtaking Scottish scenery for the next few hours.

The weather was perfect, which in Scotland meant it wasn’t raining. The sky was every shade of gray, blue and white, presented in a watercolor mosaic along the sweeping moorland. We were driving through the home of some of the country’s oldest rock formations and marveled at the towering mountains of Torridonian sandstone and Lewisian gneiss.

Safely navigating this little road wasn’t challenging only for us. A pretty famous rock star named John Lennon, with his then-pregnant wife, Yoko Ono, crashed on the road to Durness back in 1969. John wanted to show Yoko the Highlands; he had fond memories of visiting Durness annually from 1950 to 1955, as a young boy. Unfortunately, they ended up in the hospital in Golspie needing stitches from their accident.

Some years ago, the villagers in Durness built the John Lennon Memorial Garden to pay homage to his visits. We had the chance to wander by the garden—along with the
rest of the town—on our way to the course. Durness makes the Village of Dornoch look like a bustling metropolis; even finding a place for lunch there was no simple task.

In the States, a hamlet of this size with its own golf course would be remarkable. But this is Scotland, where annual dues for some of the world’s most outstanding links courses are roughly half an American’s monthly car payment. Golf is a religion of sorts here. That said, the game didn’t come naturally to this remote area in the far northwest of the country, nearby Cape Wrath. Locals had to make a real effort to build the course. Ian Morrison, Lachie Ross and Francis Keith grew tired of traveling to play, so, in 1988, they carved nine holes into some hilly turf overlooking Balnakeil Bay.

I couldn’t wait. I’ve been pursuing golf courses worldwide for a couple of decades and have learned that sometimes you have to stretch the boundaries of what’s sensible to find epic golf. I have completed the 2005 to 2013 Golf World Top 100 lists, as well as the 2010 Golfweek Top 100 Modern and Top 100 Classic lists, and have played at least one course in all 50 states and more than 1,000 worldwide. (To my knowledge, I am one of precisely two people who have done all of that.) I learned long ago that teeing it up at a top-100 course is fantastic, but when I come home, I often tell friends even more about discovering off-the-run courses. There is something special about the pure joy of playing the game and the trek required to get there.

How many times have you dreamed of playing a top-ranked course—the one you’ve watched on television dozens of times? It looks so flawless, with manicured fairways and perfectly raked bunkers, all in a radiant shade of green. You even may have “played” it thousands of times on your favorite gaming console.

Then the day comes when you get the invitation of a lifetime, and your tee time is secured. Upon arrival, the valet takes your clubs (and your car, which may come back cleaner than when you handed over the keys), welcomes you to the course and then parades you to the opulent locker room with magnificent wooden lockers. They may even polish your shoes before you head out to play.

Lunch will likely be fantastic. The range will have dozens of new Titleists stacked in a neat pyramid, with an attentive caddie who cleans your club after each practice swing. The next four to five hours will fly by, and you will convince yourself that the golf was really good. After the round, you’ll make sure to buy a logo shirt.

The following Saturday morning, you’ll proudly show that new polo off at your regular course. The “Logo Bingo” guy in your group will ask, “Where’d you get the shirt?”

You’ll reply, “I played there last Wednesday in a corporate outing!”

Your buddy will probe, “How was it?”

“It was really good,” you’ll answer.

Unfortunately, that reply comes all too often: Club X was “really good.” But is that good enough? Does “really good” get your blood flowing? I don’t think so. But really special, unique, different or, in this case, adventurous certainly does.

At Durness Golf Club, there are no bells or whistles. You pull into the car park and schlep your bag up the steep hill to the clubhouse. Greens fees are about 25 pounds, and you can tee it up virtually anytime. Before we made the drive, I called to find out if we needed to arrange a tee time, and it took several attempts before I even connected with a staff member. When I finally reached someone, a fine Scottish woman told me, surely with a grin on her face, “Em, no, you will not need a tee time.” 

If the shop is empty when you arrive, drop your cash in the honor box and be prepared to enjoy golf in a very traditional way. There’s no valet, lunch, member host or gleaming pellets on the range. Actually, there is no range. 

The club’s self-made architects took a super-hilly site and made it eminently walkable. It features nine greens, but 18 different tee boxes, so after you’ve smiled your way around this little gem the first time, you can head to the alternate tees and play it again. Perfect.

Durness took me back to my golfing roots; the fun, formative rounds at Shady Lawn Golf Course in Beecher, Illinois, are indelibly etched in my mind. Shady Lawn was a course inhabited by eclectic locals, some of whom have left us, sadly, but I’ll never forget who taught me the joy of the game. I’d guess that the members at Durness would describe their club in a comparable way.

The first hole there plays steeply uphill with a fairway that slopes relatively hard from left to right. After hitting our tee balls and climbing the hill, Ben and I still had no idea where the green was located—up the hill to the left or down the slope near the water to the right? We correctly headed left, as the next six holes play over the property’s interior.

One of those holes, the par-5 sixth, plays along Loch Lanlish. The cape design plays like it’s a sweeping corner of a NASCAR track, albeit with a right turn (we are in Scotland, after all) where a well-placed tee shot will trundle and bank toward the green with absolute abandon. A solid drive might end up a gap wedge from the hole with the ensuing yet fleeting thoughts of holing it for an albatross.

My travels also have taught me that perfect agronomy is not needed to achieve a memorable golf experience, and Durness is further proof. The tee boxes weren’t perfectly level. The grass on the fairway is a blend of whatever grows this far north in Scotland and a bit of that species some Americans might call weeds. 

The ninth, a lovely, challenging par 3, is the money shot of the day. It plays adjacent to and across Balnakeil Bay to the multi-tier, windswept cliffside green just down the hill from the clubhouse. Most courses don’t end with a par 3, but this one takes your breath away. Depending on the tee marker’s location, a mid-iron will likely be the club of choice due to either the hole’s length or the wind’s direction. 

It may not be to the level of the 3-wood over the Pacific Ocean at Cypress Point’s 16th, the drop-shot gap wedge at No. 7 on Pebble Beach or the 8-iron over Rae’s Creek at Augusta National, but the fact that they even came to mind is a testament to the hole and its designers. In my view, the ninth at Durness is better than 95% of par-3 swings you will ever take.

I have no idea what either Ben or I shot. Neither of us cared. We just had ambled around an exceptional place, wishing we had the time to tackle the alternate tees for a second tour around this treasure.

We jumped back in our rental and steeled ourselves for the trek back to Dornoch. We mused about how golf courses like Durness are the equivalent of the local mom-and-pop shops while many colossal-money modern courses, with their enormous clubhouses, are reminiscent of the big-box retailers in soulless malls. There was a good laugh on whether some of those oversize Scottish golf-trip vans could even fit on the road. 

Two things we knew for certain: We will always make time to find places like Durness. And, for the next two hours, Ben needed to be more careful than Lennon.