A Season in Dornoch - Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands

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9780771075711: A Season in Dornoch - Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands

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 andspirit, 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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About the Author:

Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for Golf and Mail since 1980. He is the author of many books and has won the National Magazine Award in Canada and three first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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

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