Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Donald Ross' Scottish Inspiration for Pinehurst No. 2

This story originally was published in the Greensboro News & Record's 1999 U.S. Open Championship preview. I volunteered to go to Scotland during a vacation to the Lake District of England that Elizabeth and I had planned for that spring. We drove up in a Peugeot named "Hugo," surviving the leftlane roundabouts and a drive along the perimeter of Loch Ness. We stayed in Dornoch's haunted castle. I played two rounds of golf on the same day, while she toured a couple of whiskey distilleries. My scorecard indicates I might have been the drunk one. I blame the rented clubs. I nearly died of gorse scratches while trying to find errant golf balls. I was truly the "rabble" the Ross claimed was nowhere to be found near Royal Dornoch.
Picture courtesy of Royal Dornoch Golf Club
[Copyright Landmark Publishing, 1999]

“Modesty forbids me saying more than it is the most beautifully situated links in the world, and that no American golfer should omit to go there, where he will find the best golf, a royal welcome and no rabble.'' 
-- Donald Ross, about his hometown in Scotland

DORNOCH, Scotland -- The other thing an American golfer won't find in this higgledy-piggledy town is any mention of its favorite son.

There's talk of putting a plaque at No. 3 St. Gilbert Street to trumpet the birthplace of the world's most celebrated golf course designer, but no picture of the man, more famous abroad than in his own hometown, hangs on the wall of the tiny, cluttered clubhouse of Royal Dornoch Golf Club, where he began his life’s work before leaving for America in 1899.

But step on the second green, a par-3 sitting atop a ``domed hillocks,'' with a smooth runoff that carries the ball into a smooth collection area, and you know. Walk the course with a caddie and listen to frustrated stories of four-putters from all over the world, and you know. See the scruffy areas of overgrown bent and a yellow sea of blooming whins (or gorse, if you are not from upper Scotland), and replace them with pine straw and wire grass, and then you certainly know.

This is where Donald Ross learned his trade. His memory and the Ross name live on here, in the tiny village, even if there is no tangible evidence of the man.

“The Scots are not given to hero worship,” John Duncan, Royal Dornoch Golf Club's secretary, said in a perfectly Scottish answer. “The Club's members take quiet pride in Donald Ross' achievements and we do recognize the debt we owe to him.”

It doesn't take much to notice the similarities between Dornoch and Pinehurst No. 2, especially in the location of the greens. At both places, the greens sit on high spots, natural vistas with steep banks feeding off the sides. The most frequent shots at both places are the run-up, the pitch-and-putt or the lob-and-run.

Explaining the four putts

Dornoch is a sleepy little town, 50 miles north of Inverness, straight up Scotland's windy east coast. It's not as far up as John O'Groats, the quaintly named village that claims to be Britain's northernmost point, but it is farther north than Moscow and just south of Juneau, Alaska, a mere 8 degrees below the Arctic Circle.

Purportedly, this is Donald Ross playing "The Witch," the former 17th hole at Royal Dornoch.
Hardly anything would draw a tourist here, if the world's third-oldest golf links didn't rise and fall on three plateaus of linksland just a few blocks from the town square. There's a cathedral, a restored jail and a haunted castle that has been turned into a rather lively haunted bed-and-breakfast.

“It hasn't changed much in many years,” said Jimmy Bell, the retired head of the Dornoch Historical Society. “It is mostly the same little town.”

Historically, the Royal Burgh of Dornoch has one notorious claim.

In 1727, an odd little lady from a neighboring town was tried in Dornoch as a witch, accused of turning her daughter into a pony and riding her into town. Janet Horne could have convinced jurors of her innocence had she recited “The Lord's Prayer” correctly, but when she said ``Our Father, who wert in Heaven,'' that simple Gaelic misstep cost Horne her life.

She was tarred, paraded naked through town and burned in a barrel of oil, only a few paces from where the golf clubhouse sits today.

Is her spirit still casting about? How else would you explain all the four-putts?

A remote outpost

Ultimately, it is the beautiful stretch of linksland that gives Dornoch its lasting fame, even if the golf course does, disappointingly, share the links with trailer parks on either end.

A view of the 13th fairway of the championship course. [Dornoch Golf Club]
For the uninitiated, ``links'' is the traditional Scottish word for the grassy, undulating turf that borders the coast. It's sandy, hard ground that is constantly whipped by winds and the salt air of the North Sea. Like St. Andrews and Leith, the only places in the world that have older records of golf, Dornoch's links were the perfect place to play this uniquely Scottish game.

Ross was born here in 1872, the eldest son of Murdo and Lily Campbell Ross. In his wide travels from this tiny point, he found only one place that seemed to have anything similar in terrain: a village called Pinehurst.

Sporting Scotsmen and curious tourists have been playing golf on the Dornoch Links since the 16th century. When Golf magazine recently ranked its greatest courses in the world, the Royal Dornoch Golf Club was No. 12.

The only reason it wasn't listed up there with St. Andrews, which is four hours to the southeast, is because of its remote location, which has prevented it from hosting anything bigger than a British Amateur. Some of Scotland's most famous golfers have never been here.

“I've always wanted to go up there,” said two-time Masters champion Sandy Lyle, a native of Edinburgh, “but it is so far away.”

Colin Montgomerie, who grew up on the southeast coast, hasn’t found the time, either.

But there are plenty of international players who will sing wondrous praises of the old links. Tom Watson played three rounds in a 24-hour span with Sandy Tatum the weekend before the 1981 British Open.

“We played 18 holes in the mid-morning and enjoyed it so much that we went out at about 5:30 that afternoon,'' Watson recalls. ``The wind was blowing and the rain was coming down like crazy. We had just a great time. That's part of what makes golf over there so special.''

Ben Crenshaw drove up one weekend before the British Open at St. Andrews and almost didn't go back.

Greg Norman is a member at very exclusive Skibo Castle, Andrew Carnegie’s magnificent mansion-cum-resort four miles away. Norman has been known to forsake the private course on the grounds for a loop round the open-to-the-public Dornoch.

Sadly for those who want to keep this gem hidden, a new two-mile bridge near Tain crosses the Dornoch Firth and makes Ross' hometown more accessible than the out-of-the way trip through Bonar Bridge. Instead of a two-hour trip from Inverness, it's a 45-minute trip over a wind-battered steel bridge that eradicates a lovely sheep-lined drive around the firth.

What draws players here? For Americans, who account for some 7,500 of the course's 26,000 rounds played every year, it is the faint possibility of discovering Ross' inspiration among the sloping, uneven fairways and massive, lumpy greens.

Proper Scottish golf

The despicable whins of Royal Dornoch Golf Club.
On an April morning, before the bluebells bloom but in time for the butterscotch-colored flowers of the despicable whins to fight through their thorny branches, the sun never really makes its way through the clouds.

There are rumors that sunlight once existed in northern Scotland, but those could be the same exaggerations of the people who say in 900-feet deep Loch Ness, located some 60 miles south of Dornoch, there swims an ancient monster.

Who knows if either are true, but any real golfer who plays the 14th green will swear that the fierce behemoth of those famed grainy pictures is buried in the middle of it.

On this particular spring day, angry looking clouds roil overhead and occasionally spit drizzly disdain on an American's effrontery to the respectable old course.

Golf here has an ancient, proper feel. Roll the ball in the fairway, and the spirit of Old Tom Morris hovers disapprovingly. Play a slow round on a lonely afternoon, and you can sense a shepherd with a crooked stick and rounded stone impatiently waiting to play through. Go digging in the whins that shroud the seventh fairway, and you don’t know if you will come back with your brand-new Titleist or a long-forgotten gutta-percha.

After centuries of sharing the linksland with cows, archers and townspeople, Dornoch formed a golf society in 1877 and invited Old Tom up from St. Andrews to lay out “nine proper holes of golf.” The course evolved over the years to 36 holes, thanks to the tireless efforts of long-time club secretary John Sutherland.

Some creative extrapolation leads a few historians to believe that a 14-year-old Ross, who was a veteran Dornoch caddie and an apprentice to a local carpenter, shadowed Old Tom as he laid out the course’s original holes.

Whether that is true doesn't matter, because Ross obviously learned from the old master's techniques. At the urging of Sutherland, Ross spent two years learning the art of clubmaking from Morris at St. Andrews and Carnoustie. When he returned, he became Dornoch's first full-time greenskeeper.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that says Sutherland and Ross decided one of them needed to set out for the riches of America. They flipped a coin, and Ross won. He showed up in Massachusetts without a job but eventually fell in with the right crowd and became America's pre-eminent course designer.

Ross never got Dornoch out of his blood. He named his house in Pinehurst ``Dornoch'' and sent thousands of American dollars home to his family.

The spirit

There is something haunting about the thick air that lingers around the Dornoch Links.

Maybe it's the restless soul of Janet Horne, smoldering over her fateful recitation.

Maybe it's the same intoxicant that convinces people they see swimming monsters in the depths of ancient waters.

Most likely, it's the spirit of Scottish golf guarding the sanctity of the homeland's obsession from the thousands of foreign invaders who have uncovered Old Tom's hidden wonder.

Whatever it may be, Ross brought it with him to America. It's not as bleak and gray, sitting heavily on flat fairways and crowned greens. But that same spirit is there, hovering over his creations in Pinehurst.

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