Dornoch’s conundrum

Added on August 28th, 2016 by Lorne Smith
Posted in book, General, Greenkeeping, New courses reviewed

A Feast of History at Royal Dornoch

In much the same the way that Lord’s is revered as the ‘Home of Cricket’, St Andrews is the ‘Home of Golf’.

But Scotland has many other major centres of golf with the very finest of ‘running-golf’ courses. East Lothian has Muirfield and North Berwick, Angus has Carnoustie, Ayrshire has Prestwick, Royal Troon and Turnberry, while the Highlands have Dornoch.

 John Sutherland, royal dornoch, People down south, having seen my Royal Dornoch head covers and learnt that I have made the pilgrimage every year since 1985 (it is only 80 miles from John O’Groats), often ask “Is it really that good?”

2016 saw the Club enjoying a celebration on the back of golf having been played at Dornoch for over 400 years and so FineGolf  has taken the opportunity to explain to readers what is so different and special about Dornoch.

The last secretary John Duncan gained publicity for the Club around the world. There are more American members than local ones, and there being no ‘country membership’ category both types of member  pay around £500 for either one week or fifty-two weeks of golfing a year.

Castle Stuart (opened only in 2009 with the finest agronomy in GB&I and host to The Scottish Open) is only 75 minutes away and has helped Dornoch to attract increasing golfing interest to the Highlands from across the world, to the extent that the American magazine Golf Digest, from having cited Royal Dornoch as twentieth best in the world not long ago, now has the course as its fifth best, ahead of Muirfield at ninth and St Andrews Old at tenth.

This creates a conundrum for Royal Dornoch’s membership which is what this article explores. Lets first understand the history.

 John Sutherland, royal dornoch, Dunrobin, skibo

Dunrobin Castle

There is documentary evidence that golf was played on Dornoch’s links in 1616 and the Canadian Wade Cormack, whose Ph.d thesis has been sponsored by Royal Dornoch, has shown that the Dukes of Sutherland (Dunrobin castle is their ancestral home) encouraged the ‘people’s game’ as a way of helping develop a gentleman’s sporting behaviour among the populace.

Much as John Low’s enormously important influence on the game from 1901 is now being recognised, (those central ‘strategic’ bunkers on the fourth at Woking are his defining memento) so a new book and Royal Dornoch’s growing fame will ensure that John Sutherland’s influence (the Club’s secretary for fifty-eight years from 1883 until his death in 1941) is the next major topic of discussion among aficionados of the game.

 John Sutherland, royal dornoch, Dunrobin, skibo

Lady Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower and her son the 5th Duke of Sutherland, President RDGC 1913 to 1963.

John came from working-class stock and was of strong character, while having the intelligence and skill to become well connected into Edwardian golfing high society, helped by Andrew Carnegie of Skibo and the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. His abilities as a player, a course architect and as an agronomist were alongside Old Tom Morris in stature in Scotland at the beginning of the last century. Donald Ross, the famed Scottish golf architect in America, and Hugh Hamilton, elected to be the successor of Old Tom as the keeper of the green of the renowned Elysean Fields of St Andrews, are just two of the prodigious sons of Dornoch carefully moulded by John Sutherland.

Representatives of 57 of the 66 Royal Clubs from around the world

Representatives of 57 of the 66 Royal Clubs from around the world

He achieved the ‘Royal’ status for the club in 1906, which has been celebrated in 2016 with the largest ever gathering of Royal Clubs, a total of 57 (from a possible 66) in a week of golf and events in Dornoch and the Northern Highlands.

He toured America in 1909, played golf with the US President Howard Taft and spent two days with the intellectual founder of golf in America Charles Blair MacDonald at the new National Golf Links of America. He wrote combative articles for his weekly column Golf Causerie in the London-based Daily News on wide-ranging golf issues.

These forgotten 252 articles written in the all-important golf era of 1906-1912, have now been resurrected and re-published in full, in a well-illustrated, excellent book ‘Golf Causerie by John Sutherland‘, beautifully published and edited by Robin Bargmann plus an extensive helpful Index. Forewords by Peter Alliss and Philip Truett (President of the British Golf Collectors Society and member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel) and a significant contribution from Todd Warnock (an American Dornochian and owner of Links House Hotel) help make this book undoubtedly

the world’s golfing publication of 2016.


It is now available from the secretariat of the club ( ) for £25 +p&p.  The book is a monument to John Sutherland’s grand opera in Dornoch, still alive today.

 John Sutherland, royal dornoch, Dunrobin, skibo

Wade Cormack, Kelsey MacDonald, Sandy Lyle, Paul Lawrie

To help celebrate the quadricentenary of golf at Dornoch, two Scottish Open Champions Sandy Lyle and Paul Lawrie, with Kelsey Macdonald, the Ladies European Tour pro from Nairn, played an exhibition match in July.

One reason for inviting Kelsey one feels is to show off the inclusiveness of Dornoch golf while a rotating number of youngsters played some of the holes with the pros offering tips and heralding Dornoch’s and Paul Lawrie’s support of junior golf.

Paul won the match (to suit Royal Dornoch’s classless culture it was played for a mere fiver), he having driven onto the twelfth hole’s fairway three times from three different tees from which he extracted a par four from the fourth hole (‘Achinchanter’), a birdie from the fifth (‘Hilton’) and an eagle from a thirty foot putt on the twelfth (‘Sutherland’)!

It is likely that this will be the last time this exceptional feat will ever be achieved as Tom Mackenzie of Mackenzie Ebert has been invited to propose some updating of the course and one of his proposals is to move the twelfth fairway further away from the fifth hole, making it a stronger dogleg.

 John Sutherland, royal dornoch, Dunrobin, skibo

Kelsey wears yellow for Beatson cancer charity.

Kelsey had a remarkable, assured par four on Achinchanter out of heavy rough down the left. But the best shot of the afternoon was played by Sandy Lyle, whose iconic short backswing and high hands finish made him one of the longest hitters of the ball in his pomp, was thrilling to view at close quarters. He stroked his metal from a hanging fairway lie, hit with a slight draw, finishing at the heart of Sutherland’s green, (though he did miss his eagle putt!).

Paul Lawrie whose star is still in the ascendant following his appointment as a Ryder Cup Vice-Captain was kind enough to be interviewed by FineGolf which can be read HERE.

I am not going to talk about the wonder of the course where most holes can be played in so many different ways nor speak about the fourteenth (‘Foxy’) which is undoubtedly in my view the finest hole in GB&I golf and might well be the finest in the world (and on this occasion extracting bogies from each of the exhibition professionals), as these have already been reviewed.

Royal Dornoch, though good enough to be an Open Championship venue, will never host it as the area lacks the necessary infrastructure to cater for a sudden influx of 35,000 people and indeed even present levels of accommodation are tight.

People travel a long way to Dornoch to play the finest ‘running-golf’ but

they return because of the magic of the surroundings.


 John Sutherland, royal dornoch, Dunrobin, skibo

John Sutherland

John Sutherland, in developing the course and the Club, had the vision to set out to renew prosperity to a dying town in the 1890s that possesses a splendid twelfth century cathedral at its heart. He was spectacularly successful and Dornoch and the Northern Highlands, offering

a natural beauty and majesty unrivalled in Scotland,


has attracted golfing tourists ever since. By 1925 63% of Royal Dornoch’s membership were non-residents.

This splendour is epitomised by Ben Bhraggie where the statue of the first Duke of Sutherland stands atop to give the drive line on some holes and forever immortalising a man who enforced the Highland Clearances hereabouts. One can only wonder whether the Duke would have welcomed the 94 enormous, subsidised wind turbines that are proposed and the 56 under appeal at a recent count, across Sutherland with their associated pylons. The tourist board is not too happy.

 John Sutherland, royal dornoch, Dunrobin, skibo

Skibo Castle

Often forgotten because of its exclusiveness, is Andrew Carnegie’s private Skibo golf course under the Struie hill. Those who find a way to play it will be rewarded with wonderful fairway agronomy and updated course design set against the quietest, and haunting ‘joy-to-be-alive’ environment anywhere in GB&I golf and that includes Royal County Down.

Royal Dornoch’s membership comes together once a year at the AGM during Carnegie Week and has a canny knowledge of what it wants. It likes the income from being on the American golf tourist circuit and having a world renowned course but is not too keen on moving away from having the locals in charge with their careful ways.

 John Sutherland, royal dornoch, Dunrobin, skibo

1909 clubhouse and Grange, now the Royal Golf Hotel

The clubhouse, built in 1909 by John Sutherland, is a friendly place where almost the only dress code is to remind the tourists that caps should not be worn within. It sits on the same foot-print with the same structure and though it has been tinkered-with for more comfort, nevertheless it is creaking in a number of ways. A renewal has been discussed for thirty years without yet reaching a decision. There has been a 22% increase in visitor rounds recently and the AGM confirmed the need for clubhouse change. With between two and three million in the bank and a healthy yearly profit of over half a million at a time of the lowest interest rates ever, some thought it was a no-brainer to act now.  Others concerned about another recession or terrorist bombs frightening Americans from travelling were vocal as were those not wishing to be in hock to the banks. With the discussion being set against a back-drop of a Council of Management policy of no borrowing, there is unlikely to be any change in the near future, though there does seem to be a consensus that the design should be traditional.

Nevertheless confidence is given to the wider golfing public that this historic and world class course is in good hands.

 John Sutherland, royal dornoch, Dunrobin, skibo, jim arthur,

view from 7th tee in a dry spring

Following a number of upgrade recommendations from Tom Mackenzie, who is a member of long standing, there was a strong AGM vote in favour of a radical re-arrangement of the seventh and eighth holes to create the opportunity of an even more dramatic panoramic view from along the top of the escarpment.  The wonderful seventh green with its enigmatic front swale will be moved but exactly replicated. The second shot on the eighth for all but the biggest hitters will once again be from the glorious top as designed in 1946 by the 1920 Open Champion George Duncan from Aberdeen, who was almost an apprentice to John Sutherland, who repeatedly wrote about him in his newspaper articles.

The vote against two extra bunkers on the ninth and eleventh was in line with the view that the course is already quite hard enough! The decision to scrap a bunker that only high handicappers get into on the first was also correct but FineGolf  sees no need to create another one to tighten the tee-shot on the right thirty five yards further on. On this opening hole the bunker shy of the green and particularly another on the greenside are card wreckers already for golfers who leak their tee-shot.

For my sins you can imagine my anguish when I took a ten from out of that greenside bunker in the first round Carnegie qualifier in 2015 and every shot was played with studious thought!

 John Sutherland, royal dornoch, Dunrobin, skibo, jim arthur,

Jim Arthur’s Bible of natural greenkeeping. Available from the R&A shop.

Quickly moving on, it is pleasing to report that the greens agronomy at Dornoch is continuing to improve and with course manager Eoin Riddell, a staunch Jim Arthur fan, and his team having extracted most of the ryegrass and Yorkshire Fog from the greens they are now predominantly fine fescue with some highland bent (a vigorous, coarser-leaved type of browntop bent). Understandably,  a little of the inevitable  weed grass Poa annua is showing its seeding face in patches on some of the weaker, damper greens like the bowl seventeenth.

The agronomy of some of the fairways is less fine, while the Club tends to do most projects in-house. FineGolf  believes it will be important to take the very best agronomic advice when constructing the two new fairways so that this opportunity presented of raising the quality of the turf can be taken at least in those two areas and be part of a gradual change.

Some of the London crowd who are used to playing on quagmires in the winter and very fast, shaved Poa annua greens in the summer at home, were complaining that Dornoch’s wonderfully true greens were too slow during Carnegie week. Sensibly taking The R&A’s lead at The Open Championship, the Club did not cut the greens Sunday and Monday so as to help steady any balls from oscillating in the high winds but they still ran at just below 10 foot. At the end of the week when the best players were through to the quarter finals, with a cut at 4.25mm they were running up to 11 foot, even though it had rained at some time every day of the week.

John Sutherland, royal dornoch, Dunrobin, skibo, jim arthur,

Norbert Lischka’s Logo

This is as fast as is recommended for professional tournament play (see Norbert Lischka’s article) and challenged the competitors to get their balls below the hole to have a chance of a birdie. Frankly, when low handicappers demand a speed faster than ten foot it spoils the game for normal folk who become so scared of running a putt six foot past.  With fewer putts being taken, it also quickens up the pace of the game, which is a major benefit.  It should also be remembered that this pressure for pace is happening during a wet summer when good natural fine grassed greens will be slower if truer than the chemically managed one-paced, shaved, weed grass (Poa annua) greens.

I finish with the conundrum facing Royal Dornoch’s membership.

It enjoys the income from numerous tourists bussed-in from overnight stays in Inverness.  The Council of Management has discovered that apparently Americans like greater facilities than just a net to warm up in and so the Club is considering building a new driving range with a bus park and teaching area to help relieve them of more sterling.

If these tourists could be attracted to stay overnight in the Dornoch area then the old Royal Burgh of Dornoch and the Northern Highlands would not miss out on their spending.

Even more importantly these visitors would enjoy the opportunity to discover the wider magic of the place and want to return, rather than just ticking it off on their golfing list.



There are some of the finest, fine-grassed, traditional ‘running-golf’ courses in GB&I,  like Brora, Tain and Fortrose & Rosemarkie close to Dornoch but they lack that extra pull to be regularly on the American golfing tourist circuit. If Dornoch became their overnight base they would be more likely to play them, like they used to before being pulled away to the courses south of Inverness.

 John Sutherland, royal dornoch, Dunrobin, skibo, jim arthur,

Coul Links terrain

American fans of Dornoch,  Mike Keiser of Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links fame in liaison with Todd Warnock who has already built a high quality hotel and Carnegie-themed renovation of the old Dornoch Courthouse (1849) with Tearoom, Deli and Spa, bespoke Whisky Shop and Visitor’s Centre, have retained at an exorbitant fee the very finest ‘running-golf’ course architects in the world, Coore & Crenshaw to design a new links course on fabulous ground almost next door to Dornoch at Embo to be called Coul Links.

If this second world class course ever gets built and some are protesting it being on part of the habitat of a rare fly, the one thing that might hold those extra thousand wealthy tourists in town overnight is their wish to play both courses. Would this opportunity unleash a local entrepreneurial spirit to provide the necessary retail and accommodation services required and the jobs associated?

So as FineGolf sees it there seems to be a choice for the membership:

1) Continue with the scepticism that these millionaire Americans do not really want to fit into the unique and proud local culture, while confirming it would be better to just keep Royal Dornoch for ourselves, perhaps being worried about an increased scramble for the first tee.

2) Royal Dornoch is a vibrant club, embracing  the town and the Royal Clubs around the world as has been seen during the 2016 historic year, with members who have diverse backgrounds, united by the desire to be the best in the world. 

It seems a simple choice when so many say “Stay where you are and you will go backwards”.

Has Dornoch’s great man  John Sutherland’s vision of prosperity already been fully realised or is there an opportunity to go to the next level?

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