Feature Interview with Richard Goodale

July, 2005

Rich Goodale is an American who has lived for most of the past 15 years in Fife, Scotland, with his moderately-long sufferring wife and two female sprogs (ages 12 and 8). Neither of his parents played much golf, even though they met at Winchester Country Club (one of Ross’ finest), outside of Boston. Neither did Rich until he dropped basketball (too short), hockey (insufficiently Canadian), baseball (bad arm), tennis (bad attitude), sailing (too expensive) and rugby (too easy). All that was left was golf. He took a trip to Scotland in 1978, fell in love with Dornoch, met his future wife there during a 4-month stay in 1981, and the rest is history. Headvises businesses on strategy and organisation, but increasingly believes that golf is the ‘real world’ and would preferto makehis living as a writer. Experience Royal Dornoch is his first widely published work, and hopefully not the last.

How did Experience Royal Dornoch come about?

It’s all your fault!

A company called OptimizeGolf (www.optimizegolf.com), wishing to publish a book on Dornoch, read the ‘My Home Course’ essay I wrote on GCA 4 years ago, liked what they saw and got in touch with me through the Club. We quickly came to an agreement as to roles and responsibilities, and the book was designed and written in 2-3 months and published in early June. They (and I) had done a lot of groundwork, of course, but it does show how quickly an idea can be put into practice if the participants are of one mind.

How would you describe the book?

I’d call it a high-end personal course guide. Just small enough to fit in your bag, big enough to enhance, but not dominate, your coffee table, and nicely fitting into a comfy and accessible nook in your library. The publishers assert on the back cover ‘This book is like no other.’ I tend to agree. It melds:

  • Some stunning photography (mostly from Glyn Satterly and Eric Hepworth, but also including David Scaletti’s magnificent early morning view of the humps and hollows of the 8th and an excellent image of the course at sunset (or is it daybreak?) by Craig MacKay)
  • Artistically enhanced photo imagery of each hole, taken from various angles, but providing as good a schematic sense as to how they look and play as any photograph
  • My humble prose
  • An interactive section at the end where one can record their own experiences of Dornoch, in general and hole-by-by hole, on both a tabula rasa and schematics of each hole.

To me, the design content of the book is what really sets it apart. The pictures and prose and schematics are fully integrated and the didactic and personalised elements of the ‘experience’ of reading the book blend together very well. It is neither a research tome nor a photographic essay nor a tour de force of computer technology nor a participative medium, but something unique which combines some of the best elements of all of the above, seamlessly.

At least this is what I think, and why I was very happy to participate in this project.

The book is relatively short on words. Why?

As the writer of most of the words, I was continually asked to cut rather than add them. This suits me, as I was taught to write by devotees of the Yvor Winters epigrammatic and imagistic school, and have always loved Pascal, who once said:

    ‘I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short.’

Also, the book is an integrated, interactive experience. The pictures and the images and their interrelationship with the words are equally important. If there is an ‘author’ of this book it is the publisher.

A final and perhaps relevant quote from Pascal, both for writing and for GCA:

    ‘Let no one say that I have said nothing new… the arrangement of the subject is new. When we play tennis, we both play with the same ball, but one of us places it better.’

How would you describe OptimizeGolf’s ‘Product?’

OptimizeGolf offers a series of products, all based on the use of carefully collected data on individual golf courses. These data are an integration of high-resolution fly-over photography and meticulous 3-dimensional measurements of actual points on the course using GPS. From these data, they can produce:

  • 3-dimensional course surveys, to 5cm accuracy
  • Computerized maintenance programs using these surveys
  • Historical data to assist in future course restorations
  • Daily pin position sheets, including complete green site information
  • Software which allows players with hand-held devices to get exact yardages, from and to any point on the course, as well as exact schematics of each hole
  • ‘Shot Link’ type systems for broadcasting
  • Mementoes (including personalized course routings showing the exact positions of each shot hit by the player in any memorable round)
  • Course guides of exceptionally high quality
  • Course and or Event books for gifts and/or as collectors items

Experience Royal Dornoch the just the first of a series of products under the latter category.

Somehow, ‘GPS’ and ‘Dornoch’ don’t seem to fit together.Can youreconcile this seeming anomaly?

I am on record as saying that there is no reason that golfers should not be able to use any positional information which is available (either though a caddy, a yardage book, a range finder, a GPS system, or whatever). As far as I am concerned, it is a ‘matter of public information’, the sharing of the knowledge of which is permitted under the Rules. Some people might think that such systems might slow play, but I think that one could argue otherwise. If yardage information is available to me, I tend to use it, but I also spend time trying to find sprinkler heads, etc. Even though I tend to play courses I know without aids (mostly because I think I know them so well…), if I could get accurate information as to distance quickly, I would use it. Why not?

Yes, it is true that on links courses, due to wind, contours, fairway and green speeds, etc., exact distance is relatively less important than on inland courses. It still is a valuable point of knowledge, however. Purists may disagree, but life goes on, and for all we know, our children’s children may have such information implanted in their brains. And, as somebody sometimes wise once said, ‘Golf is a great big world and there is a place in it for everybody’

Getting back to golf course architecture, what design features have you come to appreciate over your many rounds at Dornoch that might be missed by the occasional visitor?

I’ll offer the following thoughts, in rough order of importance:

  1. Firstly, the occasional visitor (no matter how experienced or talented) to ANY golf course will only learn a fraction of what exists there architecturally.
  2. Secondly, the more complex and interesting the course the more the occasional visitor will be able to learn absolutely, but the less he or she will be able to learn relatively.
  3. That being said, on reflection, the most interesting thing to me about Dornoch GCA-wise is the existence of extremely influential yet subtle central ‘hazards.’ Dornoch looks and is wide but plays effectively tight, because of these hazards. For example:
    1. The lone bunker at 270-290 off the 1st tee which is rarely reached, but psychologically affects the drive and the second shot (if one goes right)
    2. The rumpled ground in the 10-50 yards in front of many greens (i.e. the 1st, 2nd, 7th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 15th, and 18th) which complicates any approach, particularly when the course is playing firm and fast.
    3. The hump in the middle of the 3rd which must be carried to avoid the right hand bunkers or ending up left with a difficult angle to the green
    4. The 4th fairway whose tilt makes a drive down the middle invariably end up in trouble.
    5. The humps at 250 or so on the 9th fairway which makes drives to the right imperfect and allows for a narrow fast lane on the left.
    6. The little finger of green at the front of the 11th which kicks off short and slightly miss hit shots to a gully or a bunker.
    7. The ridge at 290 or so on the 14th which thwarts the long but slightly right drive
    8. The hump in the middle of the 15th fairway. The redanish cant to its green.
    9. The hard to describe but sublime conjunction of horizontal and angular ridges which sits in the middle of the 16th fairway and can kick any drive slightly to the left into an old quarry.
    10. The ‘haha’ in front of the 18th green which accepts the run-up but foils any slightly underhit aerial shot.

I am sure there are more…..

What can Dornoch teach us about (golf course) architecture?

Great architecture is not only built, it evolves. Having a great man on the ground to shepherd the course (e.g. Sutherland, viz. Fownes, Crump, etc.) can be more important than having a great architect. Green complexes are primary, but you must design backwards from the tee to integrate tee shots into the design of the greens. The best linksland is NOT on immature dunes, but on more established and permanent geological formations. Getting the last 5%, the little details, right is critical in the difference between a good and great course.

How well does Dornoch stand up to the new technology?

For all but the elite (e.g. HCP +3 or below) player, very well. Many visiting scratch players still struggle to break 80 from the medal tees and even the very best locals are very happy to break par once or twice a year. Reasonably good players (e.g. 0-9) still struggle to play to their handicap. That being said, a local (Jimmy Gunn) just shot 274 to win the club championship. He is a very long and talented golfer who can drive the 1st and 15th, have no trouble reaching 9 and 12 with mid-irons, and can go low if he is on song, as can 3-4 others up there. While visiting top pros rarely shoot better than 67 or so, if they had an Open at Dornoch, I would be surprised if nobody broke 60 at some time during the 4-days. Even with the blue ‘Tiger’ tees it is just not long enough for the great players, and the greens are so true that a lot of putts can and will be made by the pros. There probably is enough land to add more length through new tees (a la TOC) if they want to, but why? Dornoch is still enough of a test for 99.99% of the golfers in the world, and maybe even more than that!

The only major change I expect to see in the near future is playing more non-elite competitions from the ‘blue’ tees.

How did you come to know and love Dornoch?

I decided to spendthree weeks golfing in Scotland in 1978, and in researching my trip (including buying the ‘World Atlas of Golf’) ‘discovered’ Dornoch. The party line at the time was ‘Great course, but too far away from civilisation,’ but as this appealed to my contrarian nature, I put it in the middle of the trip as a bit of a respite from the rest of the ‘if it’s Tuesday it must be Muirfield’ itinerary. I planned to stay for 3 days, but stayed for 4 (my diary reads ‘seem to have lost a day somewhere….’). In those 4 days I played 7 rounds of golf, broke 80 for the first time in my life, partied until 7 in the morning at a Silver wedding anniversary, learned the difference between Macallan and Linkwood and met 5-10 people who have become lifelong friends. That was just the start…..

Why Dornoch and not St. Andrews, or North Berwick or Lahinch?

There is really no reason why I gravitated to Dornoch in subsequent years other than the people. Two elements of serendipity were involved. Firstly, while at Troon, a member who had played with me and become my friend recommended that I stay at the Burghfield House Hotel, rather than the Castle Hotel, which I had booked. Now the Castle was and is a fine establishment, but the Burghfield was legendary, and rightly so. It was, however, even in its heyday, shall we say variable? On it’s finest days it was Fawlty Towers but with an indescribable grace and charm and camaraderie. On its worst days, there was always camaraderie, but the grace and charm could be lacking. I was lucky enough to get it on a good 4 days in 1978.

If there had been a Burghfield in St. Andrews or Lahinch (or Southport or Rye or Ballybunion or….) I could have just as easily fallen in love with those places, but there was not (at least for me). So, when I decided to quit my job in the spring of 1981 and take a summer holiday in Scotland, Dornoch it was, and those 4 months cemented my love affair with the town and its people. The fact that the golf was great was just a bonus.

The book engages the reader to overlay his or her experiences with yours and others. What was the theory here?

It was my idea to put the section at the back which allows readers to record their own experiences of Royal Dornoch. My theory was that the book was meant to engage readers who had played (or at least would be playing) the course, and it would be arrogant to assume that my experiences were all that was relevant to them. If readers have their own thoughts about a golf course, why not allow them to express those thoughts in a book they had bought? By allowing for this I think that readers will feel some personal ownership of the book, and see it as a catalyst for their remembrances rather than just a recording of what others might think

Some of your text implies that Dornoch is not a ‘natural’ golf course. Please expound.

For one thing, no golf course is natural. You just have to wander off line (as most of us are often wont to do) to see that the turf and the grasses and their preparation are very dissimilar to what you find on the fairways and greens. In the book I talk about how the Dornoch greens owe much of their quality to the fact that John Sutherland had local labour hand picking weeds off of them for many years. No grassy surface that does not have rogue plants such as weeds can be called ‘natural.’ IMHO, of course.

For another thing, we know that many of the interesting features at Dornoch are man-made. The two fine short hole green sites at 2 and 6 (each arguably contenders for any world’s greatest sort of contest) are not natural. 2 is a built up ‘volcano’ on naturally gently rolling land. 6 is cut and pushed up into the side of a hill. It has been surprising to me how many otherwise well-informed GCA aficionados have been fooled by these facts.

It is important, I think, to understand and recognise that a course which looks as natural as Dornoch does, is in fact a product of man as well as the rest of nature. To think otherwise might lead one to think that a great course can only be found and not built. I do not think this is true.

The book talks about how the ambience of the course and the club ebbs and flows over the year. How relevant is this to golf course architecture?

In the pure golfing sense, Dornoch plays very differently in April than it does in July or in October or January. The moisture in the ground, the winds, the ambient temperatures, the overall vegetation and the speed of the greens all vary over the course of a year, and this all affects the ‘real’ architecture of the course, i.e. its form and function at any point in time. Just for one example, the 1st hole in the winter, into a North wind onto moist turf can be a drive and a 7- 8 iron, to a green that will hold the shot. In the summer, downwind with the turf firm and fast, it can be a drive and a wee pitch, to a green that will reject all but the mostly cleanly hit shot. I think that great architecture will accommodate such variations and offer differing challenges for differing conditions.

Architecturally, the book gives more credit to John Sutherland than to Old Tom Morris, Donald Ross, AJ Taylor, George Duncan, etc. How did you come to this conclusion?

I think the facts (as we know them) seem to support Sutherland’s primary responsibility for the quality of Royal Dornoch. It was he who hired Old Tom Morris to create a ‘proper’ 18-hole course. He oversaw numerous alterations to the course in his nearly 58! years as Club Secretary, including new green sites for what are now holes 1, 2, 12, 13, and 17. While he took advice from people like DJ Ross and JH Taylor, from all accounts he was a benign dictator who made all final decisions by himself.

Sutherland was a fine player, which certainly helped (particularly in those days)–good enough to beat Harry Colt and Harold Hilton while getting to the 5th round of the Amateur Championship at Muirfield in 1909. (Maybe (like Crump) he got some GCA pointers from HLC too!) Not much is known today of the other work of JS. His 9-hole course at Skibo is now buried under the middle of the new Steel/Mackenzie course. It is said he did some work at Tain and Brora, but I’m not aware what he did there specifically. The 9-hole course that he built out near Portmahomack still exists and it looks wild (although I’ve not played it). He is said to have designed courses at Lairg and Berriedale, but they are both NLE.

Sutherland was also a well-known golf writer, having a weekly column in the London Daily News and also writing for Golf Illustrated. These writings were very much influential in getting serious golfers such as Taylor, the Wethereds and Ernest Holderness to summer in Dornoch.

All in all, I find Sutherland to be a fascinating personality. Probably worthy of a book for someone more amenable to research than me!

PS-much of the history above (and throughout the book) was gleaned from Dr. John McLeod’s fine history of RDGC, which I would recommend to anybody interested in learning more about the club and it’s history

The 6th and 14th green complexes have long been recognised as among the greats in the game. Is there clear evidence as who deserves design credit for each of them?

The 6th seems to have been the brainchild of Robbie Grant, the greenkeeper (and father of current Club President, Dr. John Grant) when the course was extended after WWII. George Duncan was hired as the architect of record, but by all accounts followed Robbie’s basic routing and took little part in the construction of the new holes. As for the actual placement and contours, Robbie, Danny McCulloch (the professional) and Stutt (the contractor) should probably share credit. As an aside, I personally think the 6th, while great, is slightly overrated, getting extra credit for its outstanding beauty, particularly in the Spring when it is surrounded by the flowering gorse. The green itself is one of the flattest on the course and doesn’t have the internal interest of the 2nd or 10th, for example, or even the 13th.

The famous one shot 6th at Dornoch with its green site benched into the hillside.

Now the 14th, well………that could never be over-rated! The more I study it the more I think it is the finest hole in the world of golf. World class tee shot, world class approach options, world class recovery challenges and world class green shape and contours. What else is there? Oh yeah, there are no bunkers. Who needs them!

As for the green, all evidence points to Old Tom Morris having found it. It is on one of a long series of natural fingers of land which connect the middle links with the lower links on the land stretching from the 4th green to the 15th green. The oldest map of the course (dated 1892) shows the green exactly where it is today, and this was only 6 years after OTM’s visit to Dornoch. It is quite possible that the closely mown area grew in subsequent years (as many of the early Dornoch greens were rectangular and small) but the basic green site of today would be recognisable by players from the turn of the last century, IMHO.

Interestingly (at least to me!) I have not yet seen an effective (in terms of playability) copy of the 14th green, even though I know of at least two well known architects who have tried. On the other hand, effective copies of the 6th (sans gorse) are numerous, even at my modest home club in Aberdour where we have three of them!

How does the 14th (Foxy) illustrate your concept of ‘effective width’ discussed above?

A few months ago I thought about Foxy in a discussion on GCA about width, and it dawned on me that the same golfer (e.g. me) could expect radically different outcomes (in terms of second shot requirements and options) with relatively minor differences in the execution of the tee shot.

The fairway on 14 is a wide one, and if you are really wide (right) you can even tack your way up the 3rd fairway to the green! That being said, because of the design of the hole, there is really only a very narrow channel (10 yards or so) which gets you to Position A. This is down the left hand side where a long and straight shot will bound down the firm fairway and end up to the left of the finger of land which protrudes into the fairway at 290 yards or so. Hit the drive just a bit to the right of that left hand channel and you are either blocked by the finger (which is 10 feet high) or (even worse) up against it with an awkward shot from an upslope in medium length rough. Hit the ball a bit further right (safe shot) and you both lose distance (as you are angling away from the straight line to the green) and are assured of a blind shot over the finger. Pull the drive just a bit left of perfect and it will land in the rough, which is not thick but is soft. As a result, while you will probably get a decent lie there, you will only get the distance you can carry the ball, which means you will probably be 30-50 yards behind Position A.

There are a number of holes at Dornoch which have the same sort of effective design. It offers reward to the one who dares and succeeds, but punishes the bold and incompetent, all the while also allowing the average golfer alternative routes consonant with his or her own capabilities and strategies. That’s what I call ‘great.’

Is there another book in the pipeline?

OptimizeGolf and I are talking about collaborating on similar books for other clubs, all of which will be well known to cognoscenti of British and Irish golf. It is very possible that several of these will be available by the end of the year.

And, I do have another Dornoch book (on a completely different topic) which might get off the back burner and, my novel which has been 95% complete since 1985, and involves a murder at a golfing weekend in a remote Scottish village in the early Spring, might just get finished…………..

Where is the book available?

Right now it can be bought at the Dornoch pro shop, plus a few other limited outlets in Scotland. For those not planning to pop over here just to buy it, e-mail me at r.goodale@btopenworld.com , show me the money and I’ll get one to you!

A welcome addition to any golfer’s library.

The End