History

A Record of golf being played at Dornoch goes back to 1616, where in the Bishop's expenses there was mention of golf clubs and some balls. Records of golf precede Dornoch only in Leith in 1593 and St Andrews in 1552.

Long before a golf club was formed at Dornoch, the game of golf was played on the town's linksland (literally meaning the land that links the sea to the land). However playing of the game was initially frowned upon by authority because there was a need for their subjects to practise more warlike activities, and good marksmen were needed more than good golfers.

Dornoch Golf Club was founded in 1877 as the successor of the Sutherland Golfing Society whose members played at Dornoch and Golspie, situated 10 miles up the coast. Dornoch started out as a nine hole course, Old Tom Morris, 4 times British Open champion, came up from St Andrews and designed 9 classic golf holes. Three years later another 9 holes were designed and built, starting the legend that now is Royal Dornoch. Word of the Dornoch course started to spread, even across the Atlantic to America.

About the turn of the century the great Sandy Herd first played with the new rubber-cored ball and out of fashion went the old gutty. John Sutherland, the Club’s Secretary who guided the fortunes of the Club for over 50 years, and his committee, had to remodel the course as a result of the faster ball and Dornoch became for a time the 5th longest course in Britain.

In 1906 through the influence of Duchess Millicent of Sutherland the club was granted the Royal Charter by King Edward VII and Royal Dornoch Golf Club was born.

The Second World War saw an aerodrome being built on the ladies' 18 hole course on the lower links, and 4 holes of the championship course were also lost. In the late 1940s the decision was taken to construct further holes out towards the village of Embo and once again the House of Sutherland helped by leasing the land (later purchased) to the Club. This was largely the work of George Duncan for John Sutherland had died in 1941. A restricted 9 hole relief course was formed known as the Struie. This has now been developed to a full 18 holes.

Dornoch is far from the main centres of population and so has never been host to the most widely advertised national championships. Nevertheless it has hosted through the years the Northern Open, the Scottish Ladies and the Scottish Professional Championships. Improved transport systems have helped international golfers and a stream of personalities visit the Club and their praise is unstinting.

Tom Watson headed North in 1981, the year after winning the third of his five (so nearly six) Open Championships at Muirfield. He arrived to play 18 holes, but had three rounds and 'the most fun I’ve ever had on a golf course'. Tom Watson, now an Honorary Member of the Club, returned before the 1996 Open at Lytham and his view of the course has not changed. Other Honorary members are HRH Prince Andrew and Ben Crenshaw and more recent celebrities to visit the course include such notables as Michael Jordan, Jack Nicholson, Mark Brooks, Tony Jacklin and Michael Parkinson. The last three have had the pleasure of me caddying for them.

Donald Ross

Transplanted Scotsman Donald Ross transformed the American sports landscape in the first half of the 20th century. At his death in 1948, he left behind a legacy of 413 courses, including such gems as Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina, Seminole in Florida, and Oakland Hills outside Detroit. Over 100 U.S. national championships have been played on his designs. Small wonder his name still resonates among the game's aficionados.

Ross was born in 1872 in Dornoch. His childhood home is about a par 4 from my own workshop. There he grew up playing one of the world's purest links, Royal Dornoch. As a young man he took up "the keeping of the green." After a year of apprenticeship at St. Andrews under the tutelage of 4-time British Open champion "Old" Tom Morris, he returned to his native Dornoch. In those days, there was no rigid division of labour for golf professionals, so Ross became adept not only at maintaining the grounds but also as a player and club maker.

He was of common stock, making an adequate if unspectacular living. But all that changed when an American professor on golf pilgrimage to the sport's holy land invited him to come to the New World to help spread the game's gospel. Ross arrived in 1899 to build and run the Oakley Golf Club in the Boston area. The next year, he landed an assignment with the Tufts family on a property in North Carolina's sandhills called Pinehurst.

Eventually, he designed and (re)built four courses at the Pinehurst resort, none with more love and care than the No. 2 layout. Drawing upon his extensive background in turfgrass management, he revolutionised southern greenkeeping practices when he oversaw the transition of the putting surfaces at No. 2 from oiled sand to Bermuda grass. The work was done just in time for the 1935 PGA Championship. The result was devilishly quick domed greens and a sense of impending doom for any wayward shots.

During his summers, Ross started designing and building courses throughout New England. Eventually, his practice spread into the Midwest and down the Southeast coast. In association with design assistants J.B. McGovern and Walter Hatch, Ross maintained a summer office in Little Compton, Rhode Island and satellite offices in North Amherst, Massachusetts, and Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.

Of all the courses that bear Ross' name, either as original designs or as renovation projects, he probably never even saw a third of them, and another third he visited only once or twice. Given the constraints of train and car travel in those days, repeat visits were difficult to arrange. Though Ross was a voracious traveller, he did much of his design work from his home in a cottage behind the third green at Pinehurst. There he worked from topographic maps, drew up blueprints, and wrote simple but sharply-worded instructions that his construction crew knew how to implement.

Ross had a genius for sound routings, with very little walking required from one green to the next tee. He would commonly route his short par-4s on uphill ground. Other trademarks included greens that invited run-up shots, but with deep trouble over the green - usually in the form of fall-away slopes - to punish the overly bold golfer. Ross was also not averse to placing cross bunkers in play to punish the topped shot - off the tee, or some 50 yards short of the green. Sadly, a great number of these hazards have been taken out of play over the years in the misguided pursuit of "ease of maintenance" or "making the course more playable."

Regrettably, many of Ross' original works have deteriorated over time - or worse yet, been effaced by subsequent generations of less sophisticated "re-designers." Among the victims of such heavy-handed efforts have been Aronmink GC (1928) outside Philadelphia (where Robert Trent Jones-Roger Rulewich created all new bunkers), Inverness (1920) in Toledo, Ohio, and Oak Hill (1923) in Rochester, New York (at both of which, Tom Fazio created several new holes that didn't fit). Ross was a founding member and first president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, a group that formed at Pinehurst in December 1947.

Ross' brother Alex is also a famous son of Dornoch having won the US Open 1907.

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