A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlandsby Lorne Rubenstein
The town of Dornoch, Scotland, lies at nearly the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska. A bit too far removed for the taste of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the Royal Dornoch Golf Club has never hosted a British Open, but that has hardly diminished its mystique or its renown. In an influential piece for The New Yorker in 1964, Herbert Warren Wind wrote, "It is the most natural course in the world. No golfer has completed his education until he has played and studied Royal Dornoch."
If any town in the world deserves to be described as "the village of golf," it's Dornoch. You can take the legendary links away from St. Andrews, and you'll still have a charming and beautiful university town with great historic significance; take the links away from Dornoch and it would be as little noted or known as its neighbors Golspie, Tain, and Brora. (The town is forty miles north of Inverness, generally thought of as the northernmost outpost of civilization in Scotland.) The game has been played in Dornoch for some four hundred years. Its native son Donald Ross brought the style of the Dornoch links to America, where his legendary, classic courses include Pinehurst #2, Seminole, and Oak Hill.
Lorne Rubenstein decided to spend a summer in Dornoch to clear the muddle from his golfing mind and to rediscover the natural charms of the game he loves. But in the Highlands he found far more than bracing air and challenging greens. He found a people shaped by the harshness of the land and the difficulty of drawing a living from it, and still haunted by a historic wrong inflicted on their ancestors nearly two centuries before. Rubenstein met many people of great thoughtfulness and spirit, eager to share their worldviews, their life stories, and a wee dram or two. And as he explored the empty, rugged landscape, he came to understand the ways in which the thorny, quarrelsome qualities of the game of golf reflect the values, character, and history of the people who brought it into the world.
A Season in Dornoch is both the story of one man's immersion in the game of golf and an exploration of the world from which it emerged. Part travelogue, part portraiture, part good old-fashioned tale of matches played and friendships made, it takes us on an unforgettable journey to a marvelous, moody, mystical place.
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Chapter 1: Back to Dornoch
There is a point, far out on the links of the Royal Dornoch Golf Club in the Scottish Highlands, on the edge of the North Sea, where the world opens up in all directions. If you stand on the seventh tee, on the high ridge overlooking much of the course, you will see the sweep of this ancient linksland. If you look just left, beyond the course, you will see on top of Ben Bhraggie a monument to the first Duke of Sutherland, an infamous personage in the "empty lands," as writer Tom Atkinson calls them in his book The Northern Highlands. The colossal statue of the duke -- contemptuously called "the Mannie" by people hereabouts -- commemorates a man who was at the forefront of the Highland Clearances in the early part of the nineteenth century. The Clearances emptied these high lands of some fifteen thousand people, most of them crofters, or tenant farmers, whose ancestors had lived here for generations. Sheep, it was argued by the duke and his minions, would prove far more profitable than people.
You avert your eyes from the Mannie and rotate farther left. You are still standing on the seventh tee at Royal Dornoch, on seaside turf where golf has been played since at least 1616, and you hear the North Sea surf and the songs of shorebirds, and you feel the warmth of the midsummer sun setting down your line of sight. You are now looking across fields of gorse bushes rendered a vivid yellow on this early-summer day and beyond to footpaths in the scrub where people are walking their dogs. You stand in place, your golf clubs in a bag strapped behind your back, your feet light on the firm, fast, running fairways where a golf ball bounces, as a golf ball should. The course is open and empty and nobody is in view ahead of you or behind you as you look westward. You are looking toward the hills where displaced crofters also traveled, and over those mountains, only ninety miles away, lies the western rim of Scotland. For here in the far north it is only that far from the North Sea on this east coast to the Sea of the Hebrides on the west coast, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. And beyond, across the ocean, Newfoundland, in Canada. New Found Land to many of these refugees.
If you rotate to your left again, so that your back is to the Mannie and you are facing in a generally southerly direction, you will be looking toward the center of Dornoch, which Charles i designated a royal burgh in 1628. (Royal burghs, in theory, had a monopoly on foreign trade.) The club itself was granted its "Royal" designation by the monarchy in June 1906. Dornoch is dominated by the spire of a thirteenth-century cathedral, the links a five-minute walk from there, and the Dornoch Firth that empties into the North Sea. You are looking past a forest toward the clubhouse of the Royal Dornoch Golf Club, an unassuming edifice where no doubt golfers are gathering. They are drinking a club ale or a spicy rum or a whisky. They are considering their day's golf and their upcoming matches. Perhaps they are discussing the minutiae of the golf swing, or the merits of seaside versus inland golf. Is match play a more revealing test of ability than stroke play? They are doing what golfers have done for centuries -- telling stories, reliving their rounds, revelling in the game. You look beyond the clubhouse and the end of the course and the practice putting green and over the club's lower course, the eighteen-hole Struie, toward Dornoch Point, and across the firth to a line of hills beyond.
You stand here and, mesmerized, spin yourself some ninety degrees left, so that you are facing generally east. You are looking across a few hundred yards of the links to the sea. Your eyes take in undulating fairways, bunkers small, large, and invariably deep, plateau greens, the dunes, the sea, and you look toward the fishing village of Portmahomack, and farther east, on a point, the Tarbat Ness lighthouse. The lighthouse is the second tallest in the United Kingdom, and flashes four times every thirty seconds; it has done so in peacetime every night since January 26, 1830. Silence. Peace. What feelings do you have in these empty lands? Here is a golf course renowned for the way its holes meander through sand dunes between the ridge and the North Sea, for the way its fairways bleed into the greens, and for the way its ground is a gift that nature bestowed for human recreation. Donald Ross was born in Dornoch, and before he became America's most famous golf-course architect in the first half of the twentieth century he walked its links regularly, worked and golfed there, and absorbed its spirit as if by osmosis. Transfixed by the views with which you are presented, you are not surprised. You sense that this place will absorb you, and you it.
I have traveled to these Highlands and on to Dornoch from my home in Toronto, a sprawling city where four million people jostle for space. I flew to Glasgow, where I walked the streets and spent a few pleasant hours in the city's main library, then sat in a café until it was time to return to the airport. From Glasgow I took a small plane forty minutes northeast to Inverness, a city of forty thousand people that is the main population center in the Highlands. I rented a car at the airport, and drove an hour north in the long light of the first summer evening in June 2000. I immediately felt far from Toronto and from the south, the central belt of Scotland. There, in the south, are the big cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the medieval town of St. Andrews, where lies the Old Course. Too busy for me.
I have spent twenty-five years chronicling golf around the world, roughly from Jack Nicklaus's successful mid-career through Tiger Woods's dazzling early career, and I have seen the game grow and find a home in countries all over the world. It has become a huge international business. Still, it remains a good game because a golfer can play for a lifetime, alone or in company, and in attractive settings that offer a peace that is not easily found elsewhere. It's now less easy to find courses that offer repose, that soothe the fevered brain, that provide clean oxygen to it, and exercise to the legs while one walks a course. Golf carts are ubiquitous, and even some Scottish courses now offer them (although mostly for people who need them for medical reasons). Carts are often compulsory in America. Sandy Tatum, a former president of the United States Golf Association, calls this not golf but cart-ball.
I have come to Dornoch for golf, not cart-ball. I have traveled to this seaside village of thirteen hundred permanent residents because Royal Dornoch is one of the most beautiful, and tranquil, courses in the world. I have come to explore empty lands, to fill myself with the virtues of golf as sport rather than commercial enterprise. Perhaps my season in Dornoch will help me understand whether people and land can exist in harmony, and if and how the former compromises the latter. I am searching for scale, for proportion, for perspective. I wonder what happens when too many people crowd a space, and believe that something essential is lost in the game when a course is clogged with golfers. Nobody enjoys it when players knock against one another. A golf course is not an elevator in an office building at closing time; it is a landscape meant to allow for breathing room and walking room and space to join with others, but not for golfers to overwhelm one another. Somewhere, somehow, I think, there is a way for people to live with consideration for a landscape, and for golfers to go gently on the course.
I have been here before, years ago, and something about this place stayed with me. What was it? What has changed? It's time to immerse myself in this course, these Highlands. I'm ready.
In the spring of 1977 I found myself on a train north from Edinburgh, headed for the Highlands. My destination was Dornoch, specifically its golf course. Adrift in my life, I sought a place to anchor myself. I had read about Dornoch, and had decided I would visit there someday. At twenty-nine, I needed not so much a place to which I could escape but one in which I might find, or uncover, an authentic self. At the time I was working on a doctorate in psychology, and had written a minor paper on the psychology of golf.
While at university I had read widely in the literature of golf. Sir Charles Sherrington, an English neurophysiologist who shared the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, had written the foreword to a book called The Brain and Golf; the involvement of such an esteemed scientist intrigued me. I also read Dr. Louis Robinson's 1877 piece in the North American Review on the psychology of the game; he wrote of nerve endings, the way the game confounded us because it provides so much time to think. By 1977, I had acquired my master's degree but had stalled in my doctoral work. I wanted to study golf by living the game. How could something that was just a game capture us so? I was a low-handicap golfer, and that summer I would play in the British Amateur at the Ganton Golf Club in Scarborough, England. I looked forward to that event, but at the same time I knew I needed to sort some things out in my mind if I were going to play decently. Not all of these issues involved my golfing brain. For one thing, I'd been bouncing back and forth in a relationship for three years, unable to commit myself to it or to extricate myself from it. Ambivalence defined my way of living. I sought comfort on a golf course, far from home, where I felt I could discover myself anew.
Dornoch, at fifty-eight degrees north latitude, the same as Juneau, Alaska, would provide that place of pilgrimage for at least a few days. I wanted somewhere remote. Dornoch wasn't easy to get to, isolated as it was from Edinburgh by an expanse of moody hills and three great sea firths north of Inverness. The final one was the Dornoch Firth; there was no bridge across it then, and there wouldn't be one until 1991. To approach the Royal Dornoch Golf Club rolling above and along the firth was to do just that -- approach it, slowly, with anticipation. I took a train north from Edinburgh's Waverley Station, stopping in Inverness. There, after a pint in a local pub, I boarded a bus bound for Dornoch that went inland at the Dornoch Firth. Traveling northwest for a while, the bus climbed into the hills above and crossed the firth inland at Bonar Bridge before turning east and making for the village with the rumpled, golden links awaiting me.
I had read and remembered the essay Herbert Warren Wind had written in 1964 in the New Yorker called "North to the Links of Dornoch." He wrote that the village's remoteness "explains the unique position that Dornoch has long held in golf; for over half a century it has been regarded as one of the outstanding courses in the world by men close to the heart of the game, yet very few of them have ever played it." Pete Dye, who was to become a celebrated American course architect, had told Wind, "No other links has quite the ageless aura Dornoch does. When you play it, you get the feeling you could be living just as easily in the eighteen hundreds, or even the seventeen hundreds. If an old Scot in a red jacket had popped out from behind a sand dune, beating a feather ball, I wouldn't have blinked an eye."
Dornoch called to some golfers. It was calling me.
I'd been to Scotland once before, in early 1972, when I spent a month there prior to visiting Israel. I had lived in a flat in Edinburgh, and played many courses. The first was Kingsknowes, in Edinburgh, and a rougher, more basic course you couldn't find -- or so I thought then. I enjoyed the round with the proprietor of the bed-and-breakfast where I stayed. Later he invited me on an outing with other golfers to the plush Gleneagles course. We took a bus into the hills of Perthshire, and on the way everybody drank more beer in a couple of hours than I would normally drink in a month. We played our round, told tall golfing tales all the way back to Edinburgh, and planned our next games. I played the Old Course and Muirfield, and thirty-six holes one day at Dunbar in an all-day rain. I played North Berwick, where I was enchanted by the thirteenth hole that asks the player to hit his approach to the green over a low stone wall. On the Braid Hills overlooking Edinburgh I walked for miles over several days, gazing down at the ancient city. Well, it was ancient to North American me. I thought any city whose New Town is eighteenth century is a place where I would like to set down.
That trip proved what I had gathered from reading about Scottish golf: the game here was simply a part of life. It was part of the culture of the country. In a restaurant in Edinburgh I overheard two young women who had just graduated as teachers; they were discussing places where they might find work, and were basing their decisions in part on the golf courses in the area. I visited Archie and Sheila Baird at their home in Edinburgh; Archie was a member of the Gullane and Muirfield golf clubs, a veterinarian whose hobby was collecting golf memorabilia. His garage was a museum of the game. Sheila, meanwhile, was a physician in the Red Cross and a great-granddaughter of Mungo Park, the 1874 British Open champion. The Bairds and I became lifelong friends.
But I didn't play Dornoch that first trip to Scotland, and regretted my omission. It remained in my mind's eye a links in an empty, desolate region to the north, and came to appeal to me for those reasons. I'd enjoyed my golf the most when I played on a quiet course in the early morning or evening, and all the better when that course was a links. Golf as we know it began on links courses that connected the sea to, quite often, a village or town. The links was to a resident what a basketball court is to a kid growing up in New York or Los Angeles, or a natural ice rink was to me growing up in Toronto.
But what is a links, technically speaking? It's essentially a landscape of blown sand created by the action of the wind on the seashore. Sand blown onto the shore accumulated over the years and settled into various formations -- mainly dunes, but also the plateaus and humps so characteristic of linksland. The rising and falling of sea levels over the eons combined to create at Royal Dornoch what is known as a raised beach. The ground over which one plays golf is thirty to fifty feet above sea level, and separated from the sea by dunes. The Scottish geologist and geographer Robert Price points out that linksland takes up only three hundred miles of Scotland's 7,500 miles of coastline. Royal Dornoch plays for the most part between a high bluff on its western edge and the dunes; only the seventh hole on top of the ridge and the upper portion of the eighth fairway feel as if they are more inland than seaside -- and even here the sea makes its presence felt.
Links in Scotland have traditionally been places where people went for sport, for recreation and fun with friends, for communion with the self and the outdoors. In the Toronto winters of my childhood, that place was not a golf course, but a natural ice rink a couple of hundred yards down the street where I lived. I'd skate along the hard-packed snow on the road or in the frozen ditches before sewer systems were installed. Night after night my friends and I would shovel snow off the ice under a single lamppost and create banks that served as our boards. We would play and play, whacking the puck along increasingly rutted ice. But who cared about the condition? We were lost in the game.
In the warmer weather, golf replaced hockey, and I didn't care how rough the course was. The idea was to hit an object toward a defined target -- not that different than hockey when I think about it. The simplicity of the game appealed to me. I'm afraid there was more to it, though. I became obsessed with why I could hit one good shot and then a terrible one. Rather too early in my golfing life I became overloaded with swing thoughts. That didn't happen with hockey. I've still never had a technical thought about my slapshot. Hockey was fast; you moved and didn't think. Golf was slow; you thought and didn't move.
On rugged golf courses and on crude ice rinks I found a feeling of freedom that usually escaped me in other parts of my life. Ken Dryden in his book The Game writes that the frozen ponds and ice pads of his youth were focal points for kids in communities across Canada; that was also true when I was growing up. A local golf links fulfilled the same purpose for Scots, and still does in many places. The less adulterated a course is by gatehouses, greeters, cart paths, halfway houses, and global positioning satellite systems, the firmer the attachment is for me. I believed Dornoch offered a pure golf experience, and in the spring of 1976, stagnating in my muddled relationship, I wrote my good friend Howard Ganz, who had gone to Scotland for a month. Howard was living in a flat in Troon, and golfing every day. We exchanged letters; mine were full of tortured prose that reflected my tortured mind. Howard was encouraging me to visit him in Troon, where he knew I would lighten up.
I have Howard's letters at my desk as I write. "Just get an open air ticket good for a year and surrender yourself," he wrote. "It'll do you a world of good. There's much life to live here and there ain't no time like now."
But I couldn't get moving. Then my father suddenly required bypass surgery, and so there was no question of my leaving Toronto. Still, I wrote Howard that I'd get to Scotland soon. I have that letter in front of me twenty-five years later. High on the list of things I wanted to do in Scotland was, I wrote, "playing the links of Dornoch." I added, "If I can work it out, I may even live in Scotland next year."
That next year, I did make it to Dornoch. I planned only a day there in the middle of a crammed schedule, but Dornoch wouldn't let go and I didn't want to let it let go. Instead I spent a week there. "Finally, Dornoch," I wrote in my journal of my first round, on a Sunday in May. The occasion was a one-day competition. "Shot 74 while in love," I wrote rhapsodically. I had high expectations, because I wasn't happy with my round. "Three-putted three of the first six holes, two from birdie range. Struck the ball tentatively. Think I was awed by the course, by just being here." But on the tee at the par-five ninth hole, I decided to stop being afraid, or so my notes tell me. "I aimed down the left centre and hit the ball and didn't guide it. Made birdie after a 2-iron to 30 feet, birdied the 10th with a 25-footer and played well from there in. Found it was a good idea to try my best on each shot and not plan or hope. Lawrence Durrell wrote that we should live with no despair, but no hope either."
I played Dornoch every day for a week, just prior to the Scottish Ladies Amateur that was on that spring. I met Lesley Marsh, a low-handicap Scottish golfer who lived in Newcastle. We practiced on the ground that was used as an airstrip during the Second World War, and which still serves as a practice area for Dornoch golfers. Lesley and I remained friends; from time to time over the years we would designate a specific day when she would play a round at home and I would do the same in Toronto. We would then compare cards to see who won our transatlantic match. During one evening round in Dornoch, I played with a young woman named Fiona, a two-handicapper from Perth who was up for the Amateur. "She hits the ball quite long, with a high draw, but she doesn't enjoy the game when she's under pressure," I wrote. "But she places a lot of pressure on herself by making golf so important. Sounds familiar."
In one round during that first visit to Dornoch I shot 73 while playing with Willie Skinner, the club professional, Dennis Bethune, a member who had played in a British Open during his time as a professional -- "It's aye the pooter," Dennis told me about the importance of putting -- and Sandy "Pipey" Matheson, a learned caddy who would later look after Nick Faldo and Bob Charles when they played the links. Dennis and I beat Willie and Sandy 3&1. Little did I know that I would spend time with these people twenty-three summers later. Sandy called himself an "unhappy" golfer that day we played, because once a round he hit a shank. "Och, there it is," he said when it happened.
My week in Dornoch introduced me to a place with which I felt a connection. Spending a week isn't the same as living there, but it was enough for Dornoch to imprint itself on my mind. I remembered the hours I spent tucked away in the clubhouse reading turn-of-the-century bound volumes of Golf Illustrated magazine -- any club that kept these magazines was the kind of club I wanted to frequent. Dr. John Macleod introduced himself to me while I read; his history of the club would be published in 2000, when I next visited Dornoch. During my visit, I played the Brora Golf Club, a rugged links up the coast from Dornoch. There I played with John and Jenny Louden, who were living in Edinburgh. They were both low-handicap players, and while we had a superb day's golf we lost touch after I left Dornoch. John and Jenny told me about Jimmy Miller, a Brora golfer who was the best amateur in the Highlands. He'd won the Carnegie Shield, the biggest annual tournament at Royal Dornoch, a few times. But I didn't meet Jimmy then.
Between 1977 and 2000 I must have visited Scotland twenty times to cover events or play its courses. But I hadn't returned to Dornoch. That would wait, until there was time -- time to give it time. I had moved on in my life, never finishing my doctoral work but taking up golf writing. In 1980, I married the woman with whom I had a troubled relationship when I went to Dornoch in 1977. I had deluded myself that marriage could make a difficult relationship better -- commitment and all that. Things never did improve. The marriage lasted only a year. We divorced without rancor and put that chapter of our lives behind us. Years later, in 1992, I would get married again, to Nell Waldman. We share our lives in every way, even though she doesn't golf. But she knows golf and how it can consume a person's life. Together, in the summer of 2000, we would venture across the ocean to Scotland, and then north to the links of Dornoch.
Our plan was simple. We would rent a flat in Dornoch for a summer. I would golf at Royal Dornoch, and presumably life would flow from there -- emanations from the links, because of it, and through it. What would happen would happen. I wanted a village that had one of the world's outstanding links courses, and that Dornoch had. I wanted a place that was small enough that the golf course would be a focal point for many people. I also sought a remote village, or at least a place that most people who don't live there consider remote. Dornoch was far away, isolated to North Americans, although, as I learned, many Scottish, English, Irish, and Welsh people also considered it "out there." Not much had changed in attitudes since 1908 when one Thomas Murphy drove around the British Isles and ignored Dornoch. In his popular book British Highways and Byways from a Motor Car, Being a Record of a Five-Thousand-Mile Tour in England, Wales, and Scotland, Murphy included a chapter on the Highlands, but he got no farther than Inverness, forty miles south of Dornoch. In 1985, when the British Amateur championship was held at Royal Dornoch, some Londoners complained that it was too far for them to travel. Even the esteemed English writer Bernard Darwin didn't include Royal Dornoch in his 1910 book, The Golf Courses of the British Isles.
Dornoch was an end-of-the-earth place to many people, and friends would get a faraway look when I told them that Nell and I planned to spend a summer there. The usual reaction was, "One day I'll go there. I've always wanted to. I've been to St. Andrews and Turnberry. But Dornoch is pretty far north. And I hear the weather is rough. But I'll get there."
Now was the time for me, and also for Nell. She teaches English at a college in Toronto, and can travel in the summer. Adventurous by nature, Nell had traveled with Jessamyn, her daughter and my stepdaughter, to Ecuador and the Galapagos. Nell and I had been in the Atacama Desert in Chile, the highest and driest desert in the world, on her fiftieth birthday. Two years before our trip to Dornoch we had retraced the steps of writer Thomas Hardy in Dorset in southwest England for a magazine article; Nell's doctoral work had been on Hardy's novels and poetry, and he wrote of the vitality of Dorset's natural world. We walked in his footsteps and I golfed at courses in his landscape. To us golf and walking and the landscape were woven into the same quilt. In Dornoch, we confidently told ourselves, we would be living in a powerful setting, relatively untouched by the hand of man.
I left Toronto for Dornoch on June 19, 2000, the day after Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links by a hard-to-comprehend record fifteen shots. I was venturing far from the professional tournament scene where I spent months every year. But professional golf is only part of the golf world, a small if intensely and intensively followed segment. There are also other types of golf. There's Dornoch golf, whatever that would prove to be in the year 2000. Nell had been to Scotland once, in 1992 when we went to the British Open at Muirfield, east of Edinburgh. She too felt a kinship with the country and the countryside, and though not a golfer she established a tradition of hitting a shot on the last hole of famous courses. Her shot to the eighteenth green at the Old Course skipped through the Valley of Sin and up to the middle of the green.
I turned east from the a9 road north of the Dornoch Firth bridge to drive the two miles into Dornoch on the evening of June 20, during the summer solstice. The road meandered past woods and meadowland to my right and some homes on my left, then past the shops that framed either side of this main street for a couple of hundred yards. The sixteenth-century castle was on one side of the street, and the cathedral and graveyard were on the other. I turned right where the street ended, then took a quick left up Golf Road so that I could look at the links. I parked and walked out to the empty course.
It was getting on to ten o'clock when I took my first steps onto the links in twenty-three years, but there was plenty of light left. I stood quietly on the course where I would spend the next three months. Nell was scheduled to arrive a week later. Our visit to Dornoch was underway.
Copyright © 2001 by Lorne Rubenstein
Meet the Author
Lorne Rubenstein is an award-winning golf columnist for The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper. He is the author of eight books, most recently The Fundamentals of Hogan (with David Leadbetter), and his work has appeared in Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, Esquire, and many other publications around the world. He lives in Toronto and Jupiter, Florida, with his wife, Nell.
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