There are no strangers here, only friends we haven’t met yet.
With those words my time in conversation with the wonderful Neil Hampton, general manager of Royal Dornoch Golf Club draws to a close.
In the time we’ve spent talking he has left me thinking there can be no better ambassador for this extraordinary course and the majesty of the Scottish Highlands anywhere on earth. I’m also convinced he is one of the most contented men on the planet. Let me explain.
There’s a tangible pride in the way Neil speaks about Dornoch, both the town and club. There’s palpable emotion in his voice as he recalls his late father and the paternal pride he saw in his eyes when he brought him to Royal Dornoch Golf Club for the first time at the start of his time in post. And all of it just sweeps you along. “One of my Dad’s great sayings was ‘we’re here to help you play golf, not to stop you,’ and that is something I have carried with me,” he tells The Wandering Golfers.
“The day before I started the job here, I brought him up to the club. He was towards the end of his life; he was on oxygen and I had to change his tank every few hours so he could keep breathing. We came up to the club and I had to go inside to deal with a few matters. While I did, he took a seat on the front benches outside and chatted to people walking past.
“A few hours passed, and I realised I needed to change the tank. I dashed out to see Dad. But he wasn’t wearing his mask. ‘Son,’ he said. ‘I haven’t needed oxygen since I sat down here. The air, you see, is different here. It’s fresh air, real fresh air.’ It was a wonderful moment. He was happy here that day, smiling and full of joy. It’s a great memory, one that I cling on to. He only died two or three months later but before he did, he told me that day had been the proudest of his life to see his son taking the job at Royal Dornoch.”
The Hampton family are steeped in golfing pedigree. Neil’s Dad knew just how special Dornoch was in golfing terms when he visited that day. This golf course is, after all, a place of pilgrimage for golfers the world over. And having been the last man in Scotland to have been both the head pro and the greenkeeper simultaneously at a club, Neil’s Dad knew about golf and the distant allure of Royal Dornoch Golf Club better than most.
Despite its remote location, some 30 miles north of Inverness, this golfing mecca has been an established fixture in the top 10 of the world’s best courses for decades. Only fools come to the Highlands to seek out the Loch Ness Monster. Those in the know, drive north of Inverness with their golf clubs in the back of their car and a hip flask in their back pocket. They drive to Dornoch.
They have been playing golf in these parts for more than 400 years, but because of the setting it feels like a natural wilderness, it feels unspoilt by the march of time. Yellowhammers flit through the gorse. Dog-walkers come and go.
When the gorse glows yellow in the frequent sunshine, the fairways glisten and the white horses gallop across the blue waters of the firth, there are few places to match it. “Something special happens to people when they drive into Dornoch and pass the war memorial on the road in,” Neil adds. “Their world changes, it slows down, they rediscover their smile. And that is not just visitors, that feeling never wears off here.
“We realise we are fortunate to live somewhere very special.”
There is a microclimate in Dornoch which ensures it has a lower average rainfall than London and more hours of sunshine than anywhere in the UK. “The next time you come up, I’ll take you out to the first tee, Ben. We will look south west, and you will see the big black clouds coming over the Struie Hill. But then they will split up, some will go down to Tain in the south and some will go up to Golspie in the north. And we will stay dry.
“We are on the same latitude as Moscow, but we don’t get the snow. We are a little further north than New York but we don’t get the heat in the summer. It’s just perfect.”
Tom Watson, whose photograph hangs in the clubhouse alongside Jack Nicklaus and others, famously said that he had had more fun playing Royal Dornoch than any other course on earth. Even after he had won three Opens, it is said he never really understood why lovers of links golf were so insistent that it was the purest form of the game until friends brought him to Dornoch in 1981. Watson’s visit followed Ben Crenshaw’s 12 months earlier ahead of the Muirfield Open. “Let me put it this way, I nearly didn’t come back,” he would famously say when asked if he had enjoyed the links.
Many professionals are members of Dornoch, several of them live overseas. But Dornoch is no stranger to visitors and members from far flung lands. Out of a membership of 2,100 members more than 700 live overseas. “One of our members missed Dornoch so much during the Covid-19 lockdown that he got on a plane from the United States and quarantined himself for 14 days just to come and play here again.”
This is not a new phenomenon, however. Dornoch has been welcoming distant members for more than a century. As far back as 1913, the club had more than 100 members who lived in London – a journey that would have taken days. As the world has come closer together, the number of overseas members has grown and grown. “If people walk off the 18th green and have just loved the course, they will say ‘can I join?’ And we say, ‘of course you can, here’s a form and off we go.’ It’s a club that is really open to that all the time.
“Rather than having a waiting list where you don’t get to play any golf, we have two courses. And you can play our second course while you are waiting to be upgraded to the full membership. While you are waiting to be upgraded you still get access to the championship course, albeit on a limited basis.
“Outside of that there are no tiers of members here at Dornoch. You are either a member of your not. And whether you live here in the heart of Dornoch or in California, you pay the same. You get treated the same. Like a great friend.”
Visitors are also welcomed. In days of old it was always said that a visitor green fee at Royal Dornoch was actually much more. “In the old days, it was made to feel like a temporary membership. You are welcome into the club to enjoy it as a member. And that endures,” Neil says. “We take visiting golfers seven days a week. You can find yourself playing just before or just after the members. So, when they come into the bar after your round you get a real sense of what it’s like to be a member here and the locals will be asking you ‘what did you think of it?’ You’ll feel like a member for the day.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that listening to Neil talk about his passion for Dornoch, for golf and his overwhelming sense of contentment at where he is and what he is doing, is uplifting, inspiring and, at times, emotional.
The magic of Royal Dornoch Golf Club is, of course, centred around one of the world’s great golf courses. That is a given. But it is also carried and passed on to others by people like Neil. “When people drive into Dornoch, they’re already smiling. All we have to do is keep that smile there.”
I’m smiling just writing this.