Life in 17th-century Britain was once described as “nasty, brutish and short.” It was never dull: In England, there were the Gunpowder Plot, the Black Death and the Great Fire of London; the Pilgrim fathers set sail on the Mayflower and King Charles lost his head because he ignored Parliament and because he had temerity to be a Catholic. As for Scotland, history books tell us that, among other things, men were already playing golf and women were practicing witchcraft. Both pursuits apparently were prevalent in the small northern town of Dornoch. In 1630, Sir Robert Gordon wrote: “About this toun ther are the fairest and larges linkes of any pairt of Scotland, fitt for archery, goffing, ryding and all other exercise; they doe surpasse the fields of Montrose or St. Andrews.” And it was at Dornoch—indeed on the links itself—that Janet Horne, the “last witch of Scotland,” was summarily executed.
So the royal and ancient game has long been played on the links of Dornoch. Perhaps because it vied with “archery, ryding and other exercise, “ no formal golf cub was established until 1877. A nine-hole course certainly existed at that time, but the members could not have thought too highly of it because in 1886, Old Tom Morris was invited to lay out “nine proper holes.” Three years later he was asked to extend the course to a full 18.
The terrain that Old Tom had to work with was absolutely perfect for golf. Rippling rather than undulating, it featured numerous natural plateaus, and it was upon these that Morris positioned many of his greens. As at Prestwick, Royal County Down and Lahinch—three other great links that were originally molded and crafted by Morris—he produced a very minimalist design. Nature, not man, was always going to be the principal architect of Dornoch, and Old Tom was quick to recognize the fact. Of course, his layout has been subsequently revised, first by John Sutherland and J.H. Taylor, and later by George Duncan. But Dornoch, like St. Andrews, remains a supremely natural links.
Just as the golf course is understated, so the setting is dazzling and dramatic. The links is bordered for its entire length by a magnificent sweep of pristine white sand. All around, mountains and hills fill the horizon and create the illusion that one is somehow playing on a stage. In spring and early summer, much of the links turns from green to gold—the gorse is as much a backdrop as a hazard at Dornoch and when it is full bloom, it is a glorious sight.
On first impression, the course appears to have a typical “out-and-back” layout. In fact, the routing is more “S-shaped” and is unusual in that the course occupies two distinct levels. In broad terms, you head out along an upper level, (for a hole-and-a-half you are actually playing on top of a giant sand bank) and return along a lower level, adjacent to the shore.
The first two holes are the upper level. The first, a short par-4, is a fairly gentle opening hole. The second, however, is deceptively tricky. It is a par-3, again of no particular length, but if you miss the green, your next shot will be either an awkward chip or a tough bunker shot played on one of the cavernous traps guarding the entrance to the green. Then the real fun starts.
The run of holes from the third to the sixth is one of the finest sequences in golf. The third plunges downhill from the tee. It doglegs slightly to the left and is a strong, handsome two-shotter, but the fourth and fifth are even greater par-4s. The former has a hog’s back fairway with gorse all along its left side, and a plateau green surrounded by humps and hollows as well as a necklace of bunkers. The fifth measures little more than 350 yards. Starting from a very elevated tee situated amidst a sea of gorse, you drive spectacularly downhill to a fairway that tilts sharply from left to right. This is followed by a delicate pitch over three bunkers to another raised green, one of the largest at Dornoch. Often heavily contoured, as well as plateaued, the greens are Dornoch’s most distinctive and distinguishing feature.
While it is important to find the green with your tee shot at the second, it is imperative at the par-3 sixth. Played to a table green, the alternative punishments for failing to find the putting surface are sand and gorse on the left, sand at the front, and a very steep fallaway on the right. The sixth provides one of those rare occasions on a Scottish links when to be bunkered is a pleasant option.
The seventh is the hole that runs across the top of the vast sand bank. Gorse bushes frame both sides of the fairway. They begin to do the same at the eighth until the fairway suddenly tumbles over the top of the ridge and cascades down to the lower level. A good tee shot can sometimes propel you over the edge, although the green remains a considerable distance away and nestles in a dell close to the shore.
You are now beside Emboy Bay and that beautiful sweep of pristine white sand. For the next seven holes you rarely move away from the shore. Between the ninth and the 15th, you weave in and out of the dunes, with the wind as much as anything determining your strategy. Each of the holes is a seaside classic, although the best known are probably the par-3 10th, with its trio of bunkers barring entry to a two-tiered green, and “Foxy” the bunkerless, double dogleg 14th—a hole described by Harry Vardon as “the finest natural golf hole I have ever played.”
The 16th is possibly the only weak hole at Dornoch, running uphill all the way, although the panoramic views from the green provide adequate compensation. Then comes the cavalier, down-and-up 17th, with its cross bunker set into a heathery ridge some 50 yards short of the severely undulating green—one of the very best holes on the course. Finally, a big and demanding par-4 returns you to the clubhouse.
Celebrated figures have always been drawn to and inspired by the links. Dornoch was the birthplace of the legendary Donald Ross, and though he left Scotland still a young man, the intricacies and natural subtleties of the links were etched in his memory. The influence of Dornoch is apparent in many of Ross’ best designs, most notably, of course, at Pinehurst No. 2.
Early this century, each of the great triumvirate (Vardon, Taylor and James Braid) made their way to Dornoch, as regularly did the great British lady golfer, Joyce Wethered. In more recent times, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman have all embarked on what is a seemingly irresistible pilgrimage.
When Watson visited Dornoch, he arrived with the intention of playing only 18 holes, but instead played three rounds within a 24-hour period. He described the experience as “the most fun I have had playing golf in my whole life,” and described the links as “one of the great courses of the five continents.” Watson was clearly spellbound. So too, it would seem was Crenshaw. He played the links in 1980 during a break in his preparation for the Open Championship. When asked on his return by the secretary of the R&A how he had enjoyed the course, Crenshaw replied, “Let me put it this way: I nearly didn’t come back.”
Why were Watson and Crenshaw so captivated? Was it the sheer majesty of the links? Or the hidden splendor of the setting? No doubt it was a combination of both. And, just maybe, there was another influence—the 300-year-old ghost of Janet Horne, still casting her spells, still bewitching the good and the great. Truly, Dornoch is a magical place.