The Architectural Evolution of Royal Dornoch Golf Club
by Rich Goodale

In the ‘In My Opinion” piece about Dornoch I chose not to talk about architectural history, but rather playability. However, since spending some time on this site I have come to appreciate the importance of history, both to me and to many others who participate. Also, it seems clear that nobody has really looked at Dornoch’s architectural evolution, which has some fascinating and potentially instructive turns for we aficionados. I also thought that visitors to Dornoch might want to know a little bit more about what they were (or were not) seeing as they walked and played the land. As many of you know too, I am a lazy bastard, so this piece is stream-of-consciousness out of memory and contains speculation and probably more than the odd misstatement of fact. My interest is not to write the definitive tome on the subject, but open up some thoughts and possibilities that might interest most and perhaps spur on others more disciplined than I to look into the issues raised in more depth. Disclaimer finished.

Sources that I have at some point in my life read or studied, with varying degrees of intensity, and which have varying degrees of relevance to the subject include:

Two old routing maps that are sometimes hung on the walls of the RDGC clubhouse

A third old routing map in the recently published book ‘the Scrapbook of Old Tom Morris’

Dr. John McLeod’s ‘History of RDGC’

The two pamphlets published by the Rev. Donald Grant by the club in the late 70’s, mostly relating to his childhood relationship to Donald Ross

A 1990 or so brief history of the club written by Donald Booker-Milburn

Charles Price’s book on the geology of linksland

All are recommended for the student more serious than I.

The Lay of the Land

There are three linked geological formations on which RDGC is built. All are linksland, i.e. land that now or once was ‘linked’ to the sea, but they have different characteristics, based on their elevation and their age. The highest, oldest ground is that on which sit the clubhouse, the first two holes, the 3rd tee, the 5th tee, the 7th, the tee and upper fairway of the 8th, the 16th green, the tee and upper fairway of the 17th, and the final hole. It is slightly harder and more compact than the ground on the lower levels, but still good springy links turf, with fine grasses and wispy rough. That the land is a bit different, however, is clear from some agronomical observations. For one, it is only on this plateau that heather can be found, most notably on the left hand side of the 7th. For another, the grass on this plateau is sometimes subject to a disease which brings rise on the 8th and 17th fairways to one of my top 10 golfing signs-‘Beware of Slime!’

The second plateau is a small one, but fundamental to the greatness of Dornoch. It comprises the 3rd fairway and green, the 4th, the 5th and 11th greens, the right hand bail out areas for the 12th and 14th fairways, and the world famous 14th green. This plateau, the result perhaps of some mini-ice age at some time, gives a vertical texture to the course which allows for the use of subtle and not so subtle elevation changes between holes, and also gives character to the holes themselves. The view from the 3rd tee to the lower plateau is incomparable. The 4th hole, which requires a drive of both length and precision to stay on the middle plateau and offer a shot to the green. The incredibly complex and fascinating 4th green complex. The great 5th green. The great 11th green. Foxy.

The great 17th green. Enough said.

The final plateau is that land which now links the course to the sea. The 5th fairway. The lower 8th fairway and green. The 9th, 10th, 11th (sans green), 12th, 13th, 14th (sans green), 15th, 16th tee and lower 17th fairway. This is rolling dunesland, at or near sea level. It is shifting land–even in the 24 years I have known it, the features have changed. It is endangered land. The seas encroaches on the 9th and 11th fairways and on the 16th tee, requiring periodic shoring up with large boulders and rip rap. Environmental activists in Scotland cite the land around the Dornoch Firth as one of the first places which will be reclaimed by the sea, if and when global warming occurs. It is a beautiful, but fragile place.

First Two holes

Today, these play as a short par 4 (330) and a medium par 3 (180). Diagrams from the early 20th century show them as being two short par 4’s (for the time) at 240-250 each. From these diagrams, it appears that the 1st green used to be on top of the plateau above the fairway bunkers to the left, up against the road which fronts the Dornoch Hotel. Those bunkers, which now serve very well to catch the hook off the medal tee probably were cross bunkers guarding the old green. The flat land to the left of the bunkers, which is now rough, was probably fairway. A safe shot over there would leave a blind uphill shot to the plateau green. Sound like Ross a bit? The 2nd hole teed off from that plateau towards the slight valley from which the 2nd green now rises. This green seems to me to be a manufactured one, and I am pretty sure that documents exist which note that Sutherland and Ross (on a ‘flying’ visit from the US) argued about where to put the green. Donald wanted it to be a punchbowl, to the right of the current green, up against the whins. Sutherland, who had the advantage of being in charge, won out, and the magnificent and deadly pyramid that he created bedevils us to this day.

The Third Hole

As great as the view is from the 3rd tee today, it used to be greater. Up to 15 years ago or so, the tee was on about the same level as the 18th tee, and held a commanding view over the links. At that time, a lawsuit was raised by one of the owners of the new homes built on the ridge overlooking the fairway, and the hole was changed, changed utterly. The initial attempt consisted of digging a 20-30 foot cut in the side of the hill angled out to the right (towards the current bunkers), with a wall of sod on the left so high that it was virtually impossible to hit the ball anywhere but towards the 14th green. To insure this, the powers that were also filled in the bunkers on the right and built two of the most hideous bits of flat sand into the hillocks which define the right hand side of the current fairway. I there were such a thing as a Michelin Golf Guide, and an inspector had been there at that time, Dornoch would have lost any stars it might have previously had. It was the worst architectural butcher job that I have ever seen, or hope to ever see. Fortunately, the butchery has largely been fixed. The tee has been built up to a nearly ‘natural’ height. The bunkering on the right has been restored. The bunkers in the middle of the fairway are long gone. For those of you golfing archeologists out there, the traces of those monstrosities can still be found, but are thankfully being hidden more and more each year through the passage of time.

The New Holes

In WWII, the land to the south of the clubhouse was commandeered by the military for use as a reserve airfield (i.e. a place where planes could be parked if not needed or landed if in trouble). This land included 6 of the holes for the Championship course, as well as the 9 hole ‘Ladies’ course, whose players and members included Joyce Wethered. After the war ended, the club decided to build 6 new holes for the main course, rather than try to resurrect what had been lost. To do this they purchased land from the estate of the Countess of Sutherland from what is now the 6th green out to the 8th green (the rest of RDGC is built on ‘common good’ land which is owned by the Burgh). They hired George Duncan to build 6 new holes. Duncan’s routing dilemma lay in the fact that the new land on the lower plateau was only wide enough to accommodate one golf hole, so he had to climb back up to the upper plateau, which he did, in a very creative example of making use of the terrain one is given.

From the old maps it seems that the old 6th was a short par-3, played from somewhere near the current tee, but to the current 11th green. Looking at that green, with it’s flat back area and rearward facing bunker, this seems right. (PS-a sure sign that a hole has been ‘reversed’ is if the bunkers are hidden from view because the high side is now the low side–viz. TOC). The new 6th green was almost certainly pushed up into the side of the hill. Yet another ‘unnatural’ construction that made for a great, great golf hole. After the climb up to the 7th tee Duncan built one ordinary but very difficult hole. It used to play as a long and seemingly impossibly narrow pathway through gorse, a la the 11th at Troon. With the gorse cut back to speed up play these days, it is just a long hard slog. Not a bad hole, but one of the least appealing at RDGC. Some cognoscenti have thought about building a new green long and to the right of the current one, at the edge of the hill down to the lower linksland, making it a par 5 and giving us a spectacular seascape green to aim at. This may happen one day. 8 takes you along the upper plateau and then plunges down two levels to the sea. A pure yet subtle echo of the 17th, with the archetypal ‘punchbowl’ green, which adds to my respect for Duncan. 9, 10 and the fairway of 11 follow that one-hole wide path of lower linksland that Duncan was given, and do so admirably. The plateau 11th green, which is yet the 3rd short hole that was ‘manufactured’ is particularly good.

The Lower Links

12 to 16 seem to have been relatively unchanged since their basic layout was developed by Morris. They have been lengthened considerably (Foxy once played to 280 yards, with a tee past the 13th green!), but the green complexes seem to be in the same places now as they were 90-100 years ago. 12, which is called ‘Sutherland’ has as one notable feature the 10 ft high hump which pinches the entrance to this par-5, and was manufactured by the long serving Club Secretary of the same name. The other main hump on this part of the land is the one which dominates the 15th fairway. It is apparently natural, and used to have a deep bunker in its face, which was removed sometime in the 70’s. 16 is a controversial hole which serves the routing purpose of moving from the lower linksland to the upper plateau, in a series of steps up to the skyline green. It is surrounded with small humps which serve as convex grass ‘bunkers’ and are probably manufactured.

17 and 18

One of the old routing maps that exists shows a 17th that does not use the current green complex, which is a magnificent natural punchbowl sitting under the 3rd and 18th tees. In that routing, the hole was played across the top of the ridge to about the 18th tee area. One can assume that the lower fairway and current green complex were buried under a sea of gorse in those days. 18 is an extremely difficult finish, made doubly hard by the semi-blind approach to the green. The green complex itself is one of the best on the course. I have seen a picture of it in the 20’s where a ‘necklace’ of 20-30 pot bunkers surrounded the green. It looked hideous.

The Tiger Tees

Starting in the mid 70’s a series of ‘Championship’ tees were built on various holes,. Allowing for the course to add 2-300 yards of length for significant tournaments such as the Home Internationals and Scottish Amateur, which are regularly held on the course. These tees are rarely played by the membership, even in important competitions, and are of varying architectural merit. They include:

2-a silly little elevated tee which adds 10 yards in length and makes the hole play easier as it opens up the angle to the green. Forgettable.

8-a 30-yard straight back into the gorse tee which makes it harder to drive over the cliff onto the lower fairway, particularly into the wind. This tee adds to the course as from the forward tees only a 3-4 iron is normally required to get to position A.

9-another 30 yards back tee which makes 9 more of a real par-5 for the bigger hitters.

10-another silly carbuncle added without much thought. This tee is the regular tee for play in the winter and it makes the hole which can be a wedge in the summer sometimes play as a 3-wood into the wind. Adds 40 yards to the course and winter relief for the real tee, but not much else.

11-one of the first new tees built. Stuck in behind the only spinney of trees on the course, it adds little length, but a lot of challenge, as it requires a long carry over a sea of gorse. A good tee that is fun to play.

12-2 newer tees here. One, about 30 yards back and to the left of the 11th green was played as the medal tee for a number of years in the early 90’s. It was and is a horrible siting, taking away the magnificent sweep one sees from the existing tee and replacing it with a blind view of humps and bumps. Highly recommended for aficionados of holes 2-6 on the Old Course. The back-back tee, on the other hand, gives the strong player a real par-5 to contend with. It adds 60 yards. It demands the long draw. It brings the 5th hole top-shot bunkers into play. It is what a ‘tiger tee’ ought to be.

13-a 10 yard extension directly behind the current medal tee. OK, but nothing special.

15-a tee stuck in the dunes about 30 yards back and to the left of the existing medal tee. I didn’t even know it existed until someone told me it did on this site. It would probably be fun to play, but would take away the option of driving the green, which temptation is one of the interesting elements of that hole.

Changes since 1978

I first visited Dornoch in April 1978. In the intervening years I have seen a number of changes to the course, some significant, some subtle. Some have been chronicled above. Some of the others are listed below:

Conditioning-the course is NOT as fast and firm as it once was. Nor as tight. To some degree this was absolutely necessary, as the turf had become very compacted in the early 80’s through increased play and a series of hot and dry summers. To some degree this was prudent, in that the way the course used to play made it nearly impossible for the average player to enjoy. When the 2nd hole had its sides shaved to near-green levels, one without touch, or imagination or luck could ping-pong across the green almost interminably. With the thick gorse encroaching on the drive on the 7th, players could run out of golf balls just on that hole. ‘Good’ drives would roll straight through the fairway on 17 to oblivion. Hitting the 14th in 2 was a lifetime achievement (come to think of it, it still is!). Some of the changes, however, resulted from a little too much of the ‘Augusta’ syndrome and took some of the fun out of the course. No longer could you/can you bounce your second to the 17th off the hill on the left and expect to see it stiff. On too many holes, imperfect shots were punished only by ending up in a collar of rough, rather than down some slippery slope that might seem to never to be able to be climbed. Things are changing for the better, however. Fortunately.

Bunkers-‘top shot’ bunkers have been removed on 4 and 13. Large bunkers have been made small on 18. Severe greenside bunkers have been softened on 6. New fairway bunkers have been added on 3. Rough has been softened to the left of 1 and grown in to the left of 18. Whins have been cut back to the left of 3, 4 and 5, and to the right of 17.

Greens-the greens at Dornoch have never been fast in the American sense, but they have usually been plenty fast for their slopes and the meteorological conditions that exist in Sutherland. In the mid-80’s the putting surfaces became soft and bumpy, unfortunately just about at the time of the British Amateur in 1985. Now they are excellent-rarely showing a pitchmark, but taking spin from the properly struck shot and rolling steady and true. It is said that the quality of the greens at Dornoch is due to John Sutherland’s use of the fishwives of the adjoining village of Embo to hand weed all of the greens. It was probably better work for these ladies than following the fleet up and down the coast gutting herring.

Geology-either I am getting shorter, or the humps and bumps in the lower links fairways–particularly 11, 12 and 14–are getting higher. My theory is that the land is still shifting, and the cumulative effect of hundreds of thousands of feet and forged irons is making the troughs between hillocks lower and lower over time.

The Struie Course

The course that Ross and Sutherland and Taylor and Wethered and Holderness and Massey etc. played on prior to WWII included 6 holes (13-18) on the land of what is now called the Struie course. When Duncan added the 6 holes out by the turn in 1946, the club reclaimed those 6 holes, plus 3 from the old ‘ladies’ course to create a 9-hole relief course that they called the Struie.

When I first played it in 1981, most of the old Championship holes were intact. The old 13th (then and now the 1st of the Struie) was and is an absolutely charming hole requiring a long and straight drive to get visibility of the hole and then a short iron to perhaps the hardest green in Dornoch to hit, hold and putt. The old 14th (NLE, but all of its bits can be seen on the 3rd and 4th of the Struie) was one of the few near exact copies of the 1st at TOC that I have seen. A drive over to a wide flat fairway and then a pitch to a green tightly placed over a burn. The 15th (now the 5th of the Struie) is a good strong par 4 which used to be bunkerless and whose green was guarded only by humps and hollows to the front and to the sides. The 16th (now the 17th of the Struie) was the longest hole on the championship course, 500 yards with a burn to be crossed 100 yards of so from the green. 17 (now the finishing hole on Struie) was and is a good old fashioned uphill short hole, the ‘Witch’ in honor of its location within yards of where the last witch was burned in Scotland. The 18th on the old course is NLE. It was a strong par 3, uphill at 210 yards. The old tee can be seen to the left and forward of the Witch green back in the corner of the property. The green is now the putting green for the Club, next to the 1st tee. The old 9 hole Struie also included what are now holes 14-16 of the expanded course. They were 1, 17 and 18 of the ladies course. 14 is an extremely quirky and fun driveable par-4 with a fairway that is as humpy and bumpy as any in Dornoch. 15 is a fairly mediocre short hole whose only claim to fame was my ace there in 1992. 16 is a good strong par 4 with a very Old Coursish green complex with a Redanish front. To bump and run or not to bump and run? That is the question it asks. Overall it was a very solid 9-hole course and a joy to play. You could get around the course in under an hour-just time to walk off some of the lunchtime beer and be ready for another 18 on the big course, or just the evening’s festivities.

In the 1980’s the club decided to expand the Struie to 18 holes–partly to make use of land which they controlled, partly to provide relief for the ‘top’ course, partly to give Seniors and Juniors a more user friendly course to play, partly to spend some of the surpluses that were accumulating due to increased visitor play, partly to spend a legacy which had been earmarked for Struie development, and partly just for something for the Committee to do over the winter. Donald Steel was hired and 9 new holes hacked out of the land to the south of the current course. Of this effort not much need be said except that it did accomplish 2 things. Firstly it did add 9 playable holes. Secondly, several plantations of pine trees were introduced. Seemingly a folly at the time, these have grown nicely and actually add a bit of character to the holes which remain from that effort. Some interesting and tricky greens were built, particularly the current 12th and 14th, but most of the holes that were created were very forgettable. In addition, someone decided to try to toughen up the course by growing in the rough, and this, added to the existing heather on the site made the course almost unplayable in a heavy wind. The seniors were not pleased and the juniors soon learned to count in double figures and add to even higher numbers

Over the 90’s, the club tinkered with the course in various ways-building a few new greens (the excellent 7th among them), adding (the 2nd) and subtracting (the 18th) holes,. The most amazingly ambitious plan was to make two holes (300 yards and 150 yards) out of land on which one 180 yard hole existed. They succeeded, sort of…..

In the new Millenium a VERY ambitious plan is now underway, designed by the Aberdeen architect Robin Hiseman. 5 new holes are being built on classic linkland/dunes land out by the Dornoch Firth. 3 of the existing holes are being radically lengthened by new tees and new greens. 2 holes are being eliminated and the three holes nearest the driving range are being converted into a 3-hole practice loop. The new holes and at least one of the lengthened holes are going to be awesome! Potentially good enough to be part of the Championship course. The Struie will be a proper ‘championship’ course itself. In a few years, it is likely that the 3 holes which now lie over the road (1, 2 and 18) will be eliminated, a second starters shed put down on the low links, and further strengthening made to the course. At that time, much of the history and charm of the Struie will have been lost. It will be progress, and allow for some more great golf in the area, but the old Struie will be sorely missed. At least by me.


As is all of my work, this piece is a work-in-progress. All and any comments are welcome.

The End