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Donald Ross Society

In Search of Our Legacy Undefined: A Visit to Dornoch

By Gerry Stratford, Donald Ross Society President

In the very north of Scotland, only 8 degrees south of the Arctic Circle, is an ancient linksland, and on it a golf course that many of those who write and argue about such things claim is the best golf course in all of the world. It is hard to get to, and there are no facilities for Open Championship crowds so it does not host the big events, yet it calls to us and once we have visited and played here we will dream of returning for the rest of our golfing lives.

And, for those of us who have played the American courses designed by Donald Ross, this course has another compelling attraction, for it is here, at Royal Dornoch Golf Club, that Ross grew up. He learned to play on these holes, he worked as a green keeper here, he trimmed this gorse and he was inspired by these greens. The course first laid out by shepherds certainly evolved over time and by the late 19th Century, even Tom Morris had come to Dornoch to make recommendations for modifications. It was during one of these visits in 1892 that young Donald Ross met Old Tom and followed him back to St. Andrews to serve as an apprentice club maker and green keeper.

A year later, Ross returned to Dornoch as Club Professional, Green Keeper, Club Maker and stuffer of featheries. Those who study golf architecture can argue about which holes atSt Andrews and Carnoustie Ross might have worked on with Morris, but there is no question but that his hand can be seen on the roll of the oldest greens at Dornoch. It is interesting to note that even the holes that were added after WWII when the temporary airfield was removed from the land have what we have come to recognize as Ross character. It is almost as if he had come back home in 1947 to work with the shaping of these six holes, so profound was the influence of his early work.

Golf was first played at Dornoch as early as 1616 and it was the natural flow of this land that allowed shepherds to discover and first lay out the golf holes that evolved here. That evolution and his involvement in it remained a significant influence on the work that Donald Ross would ultimately do across the United States in the early 20th Century. To stand on the rock hard turf that serves as the elevated tee for the third hole and look at the tumbling fairways that wind through the golden whins is to be transported back 200 years. This is not cart ball in a manicured garden. Golf here is about bounces and roll and about feel for borrow and carry.

When one plays Dornoch he learns to examine the choices that almost every shot offers. The bold line off of the tee might offer an easier second shot, but tiny bunkers sit in larger depressions and they collect many a shot that is only a little bit off line. There are always lay-ups and indirect routes that are available to the less courageous, but the greens at Dornoch have no patience with indecisive approaches. It has been often repeated that the most difficult shot at Dornoch is the second shot to the green on the par 3 Second hole.

The toughest three shot hole is probably the Par 4 Fourteenth, called Foxy. When the wind is against you, you cannot reach the green in two shots on this double dogleg Par 4, and when the wind is behind you, you probably cannot hold the green. And, the wind can blow at Dornoch. It is know here as an “impatient wind”undefinedImpatient because it does not blow around you but rather through you on its way to or from the Sea. But, there can be days, like some that I had this June, when the sky was crystal clear and the god of wind was resting.

On such a day, golf can be transcendent. There is no more magnificent blending of sand, gorse and turf anywhere on earth, and from everywhere that you stand the breaking surf of the North Sea is a formidable presence. I urge you some day to find your way to Dornoch and sincerely hope that when you come, I will be there to greet you.

The Donald Ross Society members, many years ago now, donated monies to help the local community preserve the Ross heritage. Now, the Royal Dornoch Golf Club is a big part of the march towards 2016 which marks 400 years of golf on the links of Dornoch.   The present club celebrates a mere 150 years in 2027.    Ross grew up on the links at RDGC and his career as a golf professional started at the present links, certainly an inspiration for his golf architecture in America.

There is a warm friendship and camaraderie between the Royal Dornoch Golf Club and the Donald Ross Society membership.

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