Our knowledgeable crew of course raters have stuck pegs in the ground just about everywhere. But which holes stand out as the greatest they’ve ever played? We asked them, and they replied with love letters about their faves.
On a beautiful day 22 years ago, I crossed the Dornoch Firth Bridge for the first time. As I approached the northern Scottish village of the same name, the most natural golf landscape stretched out before me. They claim that golf has been played in Dornoch since 1616. What we know as fact is that a nine-hole golf course was opened in 1877. Nine years later, Old Tom Morris updated those nine holes, and then, in 1889, extended the layout to 18. King Edward VII gave Dornoch its Royal status in 1906.
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Old Tom let his design follow the natural contours of the land, with greens that looked like raised plateaus. This would later become a trademark of Dornoch’s first golf professional, Donald Ross. The son of a mason and a carpenter himself, Ross left Dornoch in March 1899 to become the head professional at Oakley Country Club, in Watertown, Mass., just outside Boston. The reason was simple: the job paid three times his Scottish salary. During the winter, Ross picked up a gig as head professional at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, where he soon began designing courses himself. Today, one can see the influence of Dornoch in the turtleback greens of Pinehurst No. 2, as well as in many other of Ross’s finest designs.
When Tom Watson played Royal Dornoch for the first time in 1981, he said he’d never had as much fun on a course. I remember having a similar feeling after my first round. My favorite hole was the par-4 14th, named Foxy, and aptly so. It plays 445 yards from the back tee. No bunkers. Just natural mounding on the fairway. The raised green is wide but shallow. The turf is wonderfully pure and firm. The hole looks so simple, so natural. A good drive leaves only a mid-iron into the green when the wind is down. So, how is it that I’ve never reached the green in regulation? It starts with the drive. The tee is angled deceptively, somehow misaligning you to this humpy fairway.
On your second shot, you face an elevated green and a five-foot high natural escarpment zigzagging out into the fairway. Pull your approach, and you’re in the rough. A push leaves you with a difficult chip. Long is an unappealing option, as it leaves an extremely difficult pitch, beyond what most of us amateurs can handle. If you don’t hit the green, you’re best off missing right. The only pars I’ve made were up-and-downs from there. I’ve yet to have a birdie putt on Foxy. Maybe one day. Hope springs eternal. What a shame that Royal Dornoch is so remote and lacks the infrastructure to host the Open Championship. It would be a fantastic venue.