There are few courses in the world that have a following like Royal Dornoch. A drive just one hour north of Inverness and along some glorious highland roads leads to this golfing Mecca. In this part of Scotland you are near some of the best courses in Scotland and this is a region where James Braid was prolific. We’re not here to talk about him today though. This article is about a humble greenkeeper and club professional, the darling of Dornoch, Donald Ross.
Born in the town of Dornoch in November 1872, Ross grew up in the dunes of the links land. The rugged rolling links was a part of him. His formative years were spent playing the course and he went on to become a greenkeeper. This allowed him to learn what it takes to keep a golf course in great condition. It is said that he actually hated his work as “keeper of the greens”, however he would later realise how important that training was to his career.
Artists often talk about finding their muse. Finding the inspiration that helps him or her create the great works that people celebrate. With Donald Ross it is very clear to see that Royal Dornoch was his muse.
Ross would go on to work as an apprentice carpenter under Old Tom Morris in St Andrews. This is where he learned about clubmaking. He was one of those golfing polymaths that could do pretty much every job that helped keep a golf club running. He honed his greenkeeping skills at Carnoustie before he made his way home to Dornoch to become their first club professional. This story goes beyond Dornoch though, Donald Ross was a revolutionary.
One thing that Ross is well known for is his attention to detail and his ability to make a golf course that is beautiful whilst moving very little land. It has to be assumed that his love for natural looking courses came from the classic links courses of Scotland. He grew up around one of the best in the world so it stands to reason.
It is around the greens that Ross designs get trickiest though. At Royal Dornoch you find many greens perched on natural plateaus. This creates demanding approach shots with reduced margin for error. Shots that are just off target can find themselves in tough spots and leaving you with a testing up and down for par.
The domed greens became one of Ross’ design signatures. The 10th hole at Royal Dornoch is a perfect example of this feature. The green at “Fuaran” falls away at all sides and will punish any shot that is close but not perfect. The 14th hole, “Foxy” is another with a “turtle-backed” green. The 445 yard par four runs along the white sand beach and builds to the beautiful yet tricky green. It is clear to see that his beloved home course shaped how he designed his own creations. Donald Ross loved attention to detail and so expected it of golfers who played his courses.
When Ross went to America, he started to use some of the features that made links courses so great and applied them to parkland courses. You will often find links-like green complexes in his parkland creations. This is one of the things that makes his courses so challenging, to play them well you certainly need to know how to play links golf and many in North America have never experienced this.
He accepted a job as greenkeeper at Oakley Country Club, near Boston, where he redesigned the course. This redesign caught the eye of the Tuft family who asked him to bring his magic to Pinehurst. It was this project that really put his name on the list of great golf course architects.
Donald Ross spread his love of Royal Dornoch around the world with his designs that are clearly influenced by his beloved home course. His frequent use of raised plateau greens are a celebration of where he learned his craft. We all fondly remember the courses we grew up playing and clearly the great Donald Ross was no exception.
Golf has been played in Dornoch since 1616. In 2017, the year after celebrating four hundred years of golf, the celebrated Mackenzie and Ebert team came in to help refine the course further. One of the key changes was taking the 7th hole closer to the water and opening up the views of the Dornoch Firth by removing the gorse bushes. The land on which the course is crafted feels like it has never changed. The timelessness of the course adds a great deal to its appeal and, astoundingly, the course has become even better.
Royal Dornoch has a quiet confidence about it. It is like a refined highland gentleman at a party. The course knows it’s world-class but it doesn’t shout about it, it knows that you will come play and when you do you will see how great it is. It has a magnetic charm that seems to just hypnotise golfers as they play it. The more you play the course, the harder it is to break the spell. You may be visiting but, from the second you walk into the clubhouse, you will feel like a member of many years.
There is a raw simplicity to Royal Dornoch, a primal beauty that is hard to define. It is a course that appears to have been carved out by the natural wildness of the firthside land. Make no mistake, Royal Dornoch should be in your top five courses in the world, if it isn’t, it can only be because you haven’t played it yet.
Words - Kenny Pallas
Photography - Ross Cooper
Donald Ross image courtesy of Royal Dornoch