Far north along the Scottish coast, playing between grazing sheep and the North Sea, is golf in its purest form.
Located 30 minutes north of Dornoch, way up in the Scottish Highlands, Brora Golf Club is an unassuming links that sinks its hooks into nearly every golfer who plays it. It’s what people mean when they say, “Golf as it was meant to be.”
The course is as charming as they come, largely due to its simplicity, but give some credit to the sheep. Low electric fences prevent the grazers from damaging the putting surfaces, while wisps of their wool blow across the fairways, confusing golfers searching for balls. “One of my favourite links is Brora on the Moray Firth, where the golfers share a precious piece of territory with a hundred or so woolly sheep,” wrote five-time Open Champion Peter Thomson. “What could epitomise nature better than such a communion?” Thomson fell in love with the course during a visit in the 1990s and today a room in the clubhouse is devoted to the Australian and his career.
Brora opened as a nine-hole course in 1891, with Scotsman James Braid invited to redesign a new 18 holes in 1924. For £25 plus travel expenses, he laid out the design almost exactly as it sits today, a traditional, out-and-back links with the outward nine closest to the water. At the par-three 9th—called Sea Hole and the furthest point from the clubhouse—two bunkers guard a two-tiered green adjacent to the beach: The course guide states that the green is often covered in seaweed after a storm.
At 6,211 yards, Brora is unlikely to host a professional tournament, but the elements and constant wind can add considerable length. The design dips and rolls through dunes, rumpled land, and across the occasional burn to create interest on every hole. The inward nine requires more local knowledge with a few blind shots and hidden hazards. The literal peak of the golf course comes on holes 15–17, which play up and over a short hill from which the entire landscape is visible. The round ends on a long par three with a steep false front; it sits below the clubhouse and the pressure is on with members watching, pints in hand.
The club exemplifies the welcoming spirit the Scots have toward golf. Its website opens with a letter from the captain stating, “At Brora Golf Club we are always ready to offer a highland welcome to our members and visitors alike.” Denim is allowed on the course and in the clubhouse, metal and soft spikes are both permitted, and dogs are allowed on the course, but only with a leash (not to protect the golfers, mind you, but lest they disturb the sheep). A round at the height of season costs barely more than $100 for visitors and an annual under-18 membership costs $13. The course is rarely crowded but never empty.
Royal Dornoch deservedly gets much of the spotlight in the Scottish Highlands, but those who have played Brora rarely leave it off their return itineraries. A round there is a simple, yet unforgettable, experience—golfers, sheep, and a links course unchanged for nearly a century.