The phrase “the best deal in golf” is overused.
But when it comes to the Scotland’s Highland Golf Links Stay & Play package, I can’t think of any other way to describe it.
So let’s go on the record: The Highland Golf Links Stay & Play is the best deal in golf. And it’s not particularly close.
How could you top this: for as little as $480 a person, you play three rounds, at least two of which are on world top 50 golf courses. One of the rounds will be on a world top 10. If you set up the Stay & Play in one configuration, your three rounds will work out to be about $110 a round.
Now, I’ll be the first to say ratings are arbitrary – don’t chase them. Play where you enjoy, and play where inspires you.
But it’s hard to imagine two more inspiring, two more fun courses anywhere than these two.
Plus, you still have a third round and you get two nights in some of the nicest accommodations around.
If there was a better deal, I’m not sure what it is. Unless there is an Old Course / Augusta / Cypress Point package deal that I’ve somehow missed, but that seems…unlikely.
Let’s take a look at the courses, lodging options, and booking details.
You have two options (okay, technically three but one of them omits Royal Dornoch and I just can’t think of a reason why you’d want to do that): you can play Royal Dornoch once and Castle Stuart twice, or you can play one round apiece at Royal Dornoch, Castle Stuart and The Nairn.
When I did this Stay & Play in the spring of 2019, we went with the one round apiece route. Here’s what to expect from each course.
Dornoch is the best course I’ve ever played. And for most other people, it’ll be the best course you’ll ever play too.
Unless you belong some seriously-exclusive club — in which case, call me — it’s hard to play a better course anywhere in the world. The only other competition is Pebble Beach, which last time I checked requires a second mortgage to get on, or the Old Course, which isn’t vastly more expensive but does require months/years advance planning if you’re playing as anything less than a single.
In contrast, with the Highland Links package, you’re paying like $110 to play one of the top 10 courses in the world, and it’s not hard to set up.
What do you need to know about Dornoch?
It’s off-the-beaten path for my most, but it has also undoubtedly been “discovered” by tourists. Yet, unlike with the Old Course or say a place like Augusta – which even non-golfers are familiar with – Dornoch looms large mostly in the mind of golf and architectural nuts.
The course itself has the right mix of quirk and challenge. But overall, what really stuns you and what sets the course apart, is the wide-ranging majesty of it all. Put this course anywhere, and it would be great. But lay it atop a two-tiered sweep of coast in the Scottish Highlands and just…there are multiple moments where your heart leaps into your throat at the sight of it all.
And that’s to say nothing of the holes themselves. The bunkerless fourteen — nicknamed “Perfection” — rightly receives acclaim as one of the world’s great golf holes. But it’s far from the only great hole; 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17 all stand out vividly in my mind. And all the other holes aren’t lesser in quality; they’re just hold a position slightly less prominent in my memory.
Like many great courses, there is an almost symphonic flow to the course and how it all unfolds throughout the round. When you play Dornoch, you know you’re playing a great golf course. You don’t even need to know much about golf course architecture to vividly sense that.
Castle Stuart is absolutely fantastic and a must play in Scotland. The width of the fairways and size of the greens make the course enjoyable to play no matter what the weather conditions are. There isn’t a weak hole on the course with each one boasting an engaging design full of strategy without relying on tricked up features.Golf Course Gurus
In another century, when it’s had time to accumulate the patina and history of Dornoch, Castle Stuart might be seen as every bit its equal. Now, it’s an 11 year old course that already feels like a classic and an all-timer.
Like Dornoch, it exists on two tiers — atop a bluff and down by the sea.
I played in the worst weather imaginable: temperatures in the 30s, driving rain, and wind so strong it actually blew me over a few times. We were the only people foolish enough to be in the course.
And even in those conditions, it was readily apparent how good this course is. You start with a bang, hugging the coast beneath a steep gorse-covered bluff for the first three holes. The third is a short, driveable par 4 with a green that basically extended out into the Moray Firth on a peninsula. Don’t miss.
Unfortunately for us, the conditions were so bad that we gave up after nine holes, utterly soaked and numb from cold; it took me the better part of the day to regain full feeling in my extremities. Fortunately, Castle Stuart’s modern clubhouse is a wonderful place to recover from a storm. The views of the course and sea are just unbeatable, as is the hospitality.
To be honest, I didn’t enjoy The Nairn a ton. The course wasn’t bad, although it’s not in the same league as Dornoch and Castle Stuart (to be fair, very few courses in the world are). I’ll admit that part of my feelings about the course come from having completely lost my swing for the front nine. It was bad — I couldn’t even get my ball airborne for a few holes; I still have nightmares about it.
It also didn’t help that they were doing a lot of work on the course, with a number of holes playing to temporary greens and tees were replaced by mats, so I didn’t feel like I was able to really see the course at its best.
Course work and my own suckitude aside, The Nairn IS a very good links. It’s more straightforward and subtle — you play out along the sea and then you come back (with a 3 hole jog inland at one point). It’s tighter than most links, and there is plenty of gorse, so straight driving is required.
To take a metaphor a bit far: The Nairn felt stately, dignified and a bit reserved — like a vintage carousel. Castle Stuart is a modern carnival ride that flips you upside down, and around, and the back and then upside down again; it’s a showy adrenaline ride. And Dornoch is a beloved old roller coaster, like Coney Island’s Cyclone or The Giant Dipper in Santa Cruz. It has stood the test of time and is acknowledged as a beloved inspiration and a wonderful example of the form. But don’t like the well-worn contours fool you; it can still give you a real thrill.
We stayed at Kingsmills Hotel, in Inverness. Kingsmills is pretty conveniently located – you’re about a 15 minute walk from the center of Inverness, yet you’re also 3 or 4 minute drive from the A9 and A96.
The hotel itself is certainly one of the nicer options in the area, with plenty of amenities (including a pool and hot tub). There is also a sizable lobby, an on-site restaurant, and bar with an excellent selection of scotch (which I made full use of).
The hotel is “historic,” aka old but with character. I think our room was about as far from the front desk as you could possibly be; it took several minutes of walking down winding corridors, up and down stairs, to get there. But it was comfortable and met our needs. I’d stay there again without hesitation.
The Culloden House Hotel is about 15 minutes outside of Inverness. Whereas Kingsmills is located within Inverness, Culloden is definitely outside of the city, in a more suburban-bordering-on-rural area.
The hotel itself is a grand old estate, and works to present itself as luxury lodging. Without having stayed there, I can’t comment on the hotel, but the grounds look beautiful and the rooms look comparable — maybe a tad larger — to what we had at Kingsmills.
If you like user reviews, both Culloden and Kingsmills have a guest rating of 4.5 on TripAdvisor. One thing Kingsmills has that Culloden doesn’t is an indoor heated pool and hot tub. If you’re playing a lot of rounds on your trip, this is a welcome amenity!
Your final option is the most intriguing, for some. Castle Stuart has on-site lodging – ever want to stay at a top golf course? This is your chance.
Each of the three modern lodging options — the Castle Cottage, Farmhouse and Golf Lodge — have four bedrooms and can accommodate up to 8 people. All have a utility room where you can leave your wet clothes and clubs, a great feature considering Scotland’s weather (like I said before, it was raining sideways when I played there). The Castle Cottage and Farmhouse both have a large combination living room and kitchen, and all three have fancy bathrooms with nice showers and under-floor heating.
The downsides of staying at Castle Stuart is that you’re going to be a bit removed from everything — the course is 15 minutes from Inverness, and there is nothing else in the immediate vicinity. And you need a minimum of four people to book lodging at Castle Stuart, making this only an option for groups.
So, the proverbial fine print: this offer is only valid April, October and November. I would hardly argue that’s a bad thing.
The weather in Scotland can be terrible – or pleasant – nearly any time of the year. When we played in early April, we had 6 days of sun and mid-50s temperatures (…and one day of upper 30s with 50mph gusts and sideways rain). You’ll find October to be similar April, maybe a tad warmer and wetter.
Another benefit of the shoulder season availability? Less tourists. The Scottish Highlands aren’t exactly on the beaten path, but during the summer months (and especially at Dornoch), you’ll definitely run into them. The April/October/November dates mean you’ll be spending more time in the company of locals.
You have several options when it comes to courses. You can play one round each at Royal Dornoch, Castle Stuart and The Nairn, which is what we did. For 2020, this runs £450 (about $585) a person.
You can also play two rounds at Castle Stuart and one round at The Nairn. This would be cheaper but, I don’t know why you’d skip Dornoch. This would be £370 (about $482).
Or you can play Castle Stuart twice and Royal Dornoch once, which would also be £370 (about $482). The Nairn was good but, considering it’s about a $100 cheaper to play Castle Stuart a second time, this is probably what I’d do if I was doing it over again.
This Stay & Play deal is administered by Castle Stuart. Like the course, it’s well-run, responsive and professional. You’ll need to put a 50% deposit down to book the deal.
We booked the Stay & Play deal three and a half months before we traveled and had no trouble with dates. You do need to conform to the courses’s availability. Especially with Dornoch, that means you may have to be a little bit flexible.
One slightly annoying thing: there is no online portal for submitting your credit card info. You have to call in and provide it (they also say you can email them your card info but…please don’t do that. That’s not the least bit secure or advisable). Since I was calling from the Pacific time zone, I needed to call at the crack of dawn to find a time where I could connect with the team at Castle Stuart.