Royal Dornoch: Still a world beater at 400

Courses and Travel

Michael Atkinson explores what makes this historic Highland links, the 'best course in Britain never to host an Open', so special

Royal Dornoch

Golf has been connected to the Dornoch area since 1616. Even hundreds of years ago, the Dornoch land was acclaimed for its superiority for golf.

In 1630, Sir Robert Gordon wrote of Dornoch “about this toun ther are the fairest and largest links of any pairt of Scotland, fitt for archery, goffing, ryding and all other exercise; they doe surpasse the fields of Montrose or St Andrews”.

In late July 2016, representatives from over 60 clubs around the world gathered at Royal Dornoch Golf Club. These clubs are all part of an elite group – they are all ‘royal’ golf clubs, which have had the ‘royal’ title been bestowed on them by a member of the British monarchy.

They number just 66 in total – 37 in the United Kingdom and the rest throughout the world. A betting man might put money on the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews as the first club to receive a royal title.

That betting man would find his pocket lighter. The first club to receive the ‘Royal’ moniker was the Royal Perth Golf club, founded in 1824 and which received its royal patronage in 1833, granted by King William IV.

Royal Dornoch

The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews was awarded a royal title in 1834, although it is much older as a club, established in 1745.

Royal Dornoch, founded in 1877, was granted Royal status in 1906 by King Edward VII. While the golf club is less than 150 years old, the meeting at Royal Dornoch in July was part of an extensive calendar of events staged by the club in 2016 to celebrate and honour 400 years of golf in the area.

Dornoch is a traditional links course, bordered by the magnificent Dornoch Firth, and one of the oldest golf courses in the world.

It was in 1886 that Old Tom Morris was commissioned by the club to come up from St Andrews and to lay out nine holes (nine already existed).

Another nine were added at the turn of the century and they were transformed into a championship links by John Sutherland, who for over 50 years was club secretary.

Royal Dornoch

These days, Neil Hampton is Royal Dornoch’s charismatic general manager. I asked him how important the 400-year celebrations have been to the Dornoch area.

“Everyone is very proud of our place in history,” he said.

“We are ensuring that everyone gets the chance to share in it, celebrating in style with friends from all over the world as well as locally.

“We also realise that the publicity will do a lot of good to the tourist trade and this is something almost all of the businesses in the area rely on.”

Many legends of the game have played Dornoch including Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo. Watson called it “the most fun I have had playing golf in my life”. These greats have all been captured by its beauty.

Royal Dornoch

When Ben Crenshaw was asked back home how he had enjoyed his round at Dornoch in 1980, he replied: “Let me put it this way, I nearly didn’t come back.”

What makes Royal Dornoch such a special course and receive such outstanding plaudits from the game’s finest players?

Neil replies: “The layout, the topography, the views, the flow of the holes, the turf, the sand, the fresh air, the gorse in bloom all come together to provide a magical golf experience that people want to repeat and repeat.”

Neil is proud of the course he manages and rightly so.

“Being the best course in Great Britain never to host an Open Championship and with world rankings above all those that have sends out a message of how all the others feel about the place.”

Royal Dornoch

Neil would argue that every hole is a great one, but when pushed to single out a few of his favourites he can’t help but mention the 14th, known as Foxy.

“World renowned, it can give you moments of joy but more often than not a bogey or worse with you scratching your head as to why a hole with no bunkers, a very generous fairway and one of the biggest greens in the country can be so difficult!”

Harry Vardon was a fan of the 14th too, describing it as “the finest natural golf hole I have ever played”. Is it frustrating that Dornoch is considered too far north to stage any major championships? “No”, replies Neil, “I like to use this as a positive selling point.

Only real golfers make the journey as they recognise how good and important the course is. And being on the Open rota is no indication of greatness!”

The Dornoch area has produced some of the most influential characters within golf. Donald Ross was born in Dornoch, moved to St Andrews as assistant to Old Tom Morris and in 1895 returned to become the club’s professional and head greenkeeper.

Royal Dornoch

He left four years later for America, becoming one of the most prolific golf course architects, creating masterpieces including Pinehurst No. 2 and Seminole.

Donald’s brother, Alex Ross, moved from Dornoch to America in 1900 and, in 1907, won the US Open. Bob MacDonald was born in Dornoch and emigrated to the US in 1910, becoming a founding member of the PGA and later its president. He coached famous players, including the legendary Gene Sarazen.

Bob’s brothers Bill and Jack followed him to America and became club professionals. So what are Dornoch’s plans for the future?

“To continue to look after our gem, continue to have as many people play as want to and can fit on, and develop more facilities to grow Dornoch as a world beating golfing destination.”

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