PINEHURST LIVING MAGAZINE write fantastic article about Dornoch
It was The New Yorker’s Herbert Warren Wind who, in the 1960s, took to reminding footloose Americans about the forgotten wonders of Royal Dornoch, a playground that comes blasphemously close to being the soul of a tiny Scottish town an hour’s journey up the A9 from Inverness. It’s a drive dotted with North Sea oil rigs on one side and flocks of sheep and celebrated distilleries on the other. Inverness is the gateway to the Highlands, the city where the rondello was invented — a stringed instrument designed as an improvement on the violin but which was, in tonal quality, roughly the equivalent of the bagpipes being an evolutionary advancement over the French horn. For golfers, especially American golfers, Dornoch has never lost that sense of romance, far enough in the distance to be an ideal, yet not so remote as to be unattainable. It’s the hometown of Donald Ross, the man who grew up on St. Gilbert Street but wound up scattering bits of his homeland across America like Johnny Appleseed. To hear some talk about it, you’d think Dornoch was as hard to reach as Ice Station Zebra, though the town is only about a five-hour drive from Glasgow. In the states, eight college kids in a car will drive three times that distance on Spring Break to reach a beach in Florida they’ll forever associate with Jell-O shots. It’s hard to imagine a town being remote when its main intersection has a pair of painted stalls reserved for tourist buses.
In 2016, Dornoch marked its 400th anniversary of golf. Well, four centuries since the game’s existence there appeared in a document. Only St. Andrews and Leith predate it. In 1616, Sir Robert Gordon, in his capacity as tutor to the 13th Earl of Sutherland, turned in an expense report seeking reimbursement for, among other things, “My Lord’s Golf Clubs and Golf Balls — £10 and £12”. Today the bean counters would kick that one back but, apparently, Gordon was able to get it past ye olde green eyeshades. Construction on the Dornoch Cathedral was begun in 1224, and from its completion until the Reformation in the 16th century a bond existed between clergy in St. Andrews and Dornoch. If they were playing golf in one, they were probably swatting it around in the other, too. Four hundred years, plus or minus, seemed excuse enough to throw a party.
One of the charms of Dornoch is that it does big things in a small way. The cathedral has been sacked, burned and used to stable horses but is, in its restored glory, nothing short of stunning. The championship golf course (there is a second course, the Struie) is beyond dispute one of the finest on the planet. The refurbished Royal Golf Hotel is just to the left of the first tee and right behind the clubhouse is Links House, owned by a couple of Chicagoans. It has as many stars as Italian marble and gourmet food can get you. The dual themes are golf and fishing. The eight bedrooms (some in the old, 1843 house, others in a newer addition) are named after the area’s salmon fishing rivers. The interiors are plastered with original oil paintings by original Scots. You can fall out of bed onto Royal Dornoch’s first tee or walk up Golf Road from one of the town’s B&Bs or other boutique hotels with your bag over your shoulder or a pull cart behind you and it’s as normal as the sight of blood pudding at breakfast. Dornoch is far away enough that it attracts the kind of people who seek out places that are far away enough.
The Castle Hotel, originally the cathedral bishop’s castle, has a pub where you’re as likely to run into a novelist who doesn’t play golf at all as you are to run into say, Ben Crenshaw, who played Dornoch for the first time in ’80 and is building a new course nearby with his partner, Bill Coore, the restorers of Pinehurst No. 2. The novelist, on the occasion I was there, was John Dodds, whose first crime thriller was “Bone Machines.” An excerpt: “Striding along one of these alleyways now, in the hour after midnight, confident as only an experienced native can be, it didn’t occur to Ray that he might be mugged or battered to death with a crowbar for no reason whatsoever.” Dornoch’s timeline includes Vikings fighting Picts in 850; Janet Horne burned at the stake for witchcraft in 1727 (the stone marker by the golf course indicates the spot of Scotland’s last such execution but with the wrong date, 1722); and Madonna’s visit in 2000. Make up your own witch joke.
The repurposed jail is an upscale gift shop with fine woolens over here and a vicious caning table over there. While it’s Donald Ross who brings the Americans by the busload, it’s the golf that takes them prisoner. Though Ross didn’t outright transplant Dornoch’s second green — a par three with a target shaped like the Devils Tower in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — pretty much everything else made the voyage to America after he was talked into leaving his post as the professional and greenkeeper at Royal Dornoch in 1899 by a Harvard professor. Blame the Ivy League for all those demonic, inverted saucer greens that demand just the right shot. Pinehurst No. 2 owes everything to Dornoch from its greens to its natural areas. Incidentally, some of the local Scottish folk weren’t amused when Donald up and left. They’d paid good pound sterling to have him study under Old Tom Morris in St. Andrews. More than a century later, this is their payback: Yanks making pilgrimages to a builder’s blueprint.
Jim Moriarty moved to Southern Pines in 1979 to join the staff of Golf World magazine, a publication founded in Pinehurst in 1947. He worked for Golf Digest and Golf World as both a contributing writer and photographer for 35 years