Royal Dornoch: mystique and emotion at heart of golf’s greatest outpost

“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.

Neil Hampton, the general manager of Royal Dornoch

There’s an 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 Dornoch 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 Dornoch better than most. 

A view across the championship course at Royal Dornoch, with the Fifth in the distance

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.

The stunning beach at Dornoch

“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. 

“The most fun I’ve ever had playing golf.”

Tom Watson, 5-time Open champion, on playing Royal Dornoch
The signed photograph of Tom Watson’s first visit to Dornoch, which hangs in the clubhouse.

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 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.” 

Dumbarnie Links: how golf’s most exciting new course defied Covid-19

This global pandemic has been difficult enough for golf clubs which have been around for centuries. 

Imagine, then, trying to open a new one. That was the reality facing the team at the breathtakingly beautiful Dumbarnie Links, on the Fife coast, and it was a challenge they embraced wholeheartedly. 

“It’s been harder than anything I’ve ever had to do” David Scott, the general manager at Dumbarnie tells The Wandering Golfer. It must then have brought him an overwhelming sense of satisfaction that those who have played it have spoken with one voice: special, magnificent, stunning, wow.

The picturesque par-3, 6th hole at Dumbarnie Links

“We’ve been thrilled with the reaction, “ Scott adds. “I’m sure at some point we may find someone who isn’t happy with the course, but we’ve not found anyone yet and we have had more than 5,000 golfers play here now. So that is testament to Clive Clark, our Chairman and golf course designer, Malcolm Campbell who played such an important role in making this place a reality, our management company OB Sports, and the incredible team I have here.”

Dumbarnie had originally been slated to open on May 16 with more than 3,000 overseas visitors, primarily from the United States, booked in for the early months. The lockdown imposed by the government meant they were not able to open until May 29th. But that was only half the story. 

“There was one gentleman who came off the 18th so overjoyed with the golf course that he asked me if he could buy 100 rounds in advance…”

David Scott, general manager at Dumbarnie Links

“I’ve had to call on all my skills that I have built up during my career to ensure we opened when we did,” says Scott, who was previously at the acclaimed Kingsbarns and The Old Course Hotel in St Andrews prior to that. “I was very fortunate to be able to hand pick my team when I started this job and the work ethic and togetherness they’ve shown has been incredible. They’re all diamonds – their attitude throughout has been ‘the answer is yes, now what’s the question?”

As he says, Scott began his role in January. Office manager Lia Jannetta followed soon after. In April, head professional Blair Cross followed along with Callum Graham, food and beverage manager and head chef Chris Skinner. But when Covid hit, work on the clubhouse ground to a halt. The builders were unable to continue and left the site. “We needed to find a plan B and quickly.  

Dumbarnie Golf Links
David Scott, General Manager of Dumbarnie Links

“We were not able to furlough our staff because of when they started and so, at times, they found themselves doing jobs they probably didn’t ever envisage themselves doing when they signed up. We were in a challenging situation, work needed to be done on the course and around our unfinished Maintenance Facility.

“Ditches needed to be dug for all utilities and telephone lines, and so Chris our chef and Callum found themselves pulling on work boots and overalls and being knee-deep in sandy subsoil.  Blair, our pro, was out on the golf course putting yardage markers on all sprinkler heads and tee yardage plates on every tee. When you think that we have five sets of tees at Dumbarnie that was a huge undertaking. 

The natural beauty of the Fife coastline makes for an incredible backdrop.

“What that has done is brought the team together. Often at clubs there is a ‘them and us’ situation between the operations staff and the maintenance teams. But because of the way our team worked together during lockdown, there is an enormous sense of mutual respect there now. It may sound corny when we use the hashtag #TeamDumbarnie on tweets but in this case it really isn’t.”

The Scottish golfing public have played their part too. Dumbarnie is not a member’s golf club. It is open entirely to visitors and with so much of the forecasted revenue having been due to come from overseas golfers – paying £235 per round – restrictions meant that for a few weeks after opening only Scots and relatively local golfers could visit. “We had more than 3,000 rounds booked from our tour operators bringing overseas visitors in. And when Covid hit, that just disappeared. The vast majority have rebooked for next year but because our rack rate for Scottish golfers is £115 and for those in Fife just £94, it meant we would need to do almost twice the rounds. And I am delighted to say we are just about there with an average of more than 100 golfers on the course each day.”

Dumbarnie is already seeing lots of golfers returning to play time and again. Some have gone further still. “There was one gentleman who came off the 18th and was so overjoyed with the golf course that he asked me if he could buy 100 rounds in advance right there and then, rather than having to pay each time. That said it all, really. And I nearly fell over when his friend said, ‘go on then, I’ll have 50 rounds in advance, please.’ It’s just testament to the very special golf course we have here.”

There is already a sense that Dumbarnie Links is destined to establish itself as one of the very best courses in Scotland and therefore the world. The course and the land it sits on, just south of St Andrews, is majestic. In terms of golf courses which skirt the beaches and ocean so extensively and effortlessly, it is matched only by the iconic Pebble Beach in California. With six holes that play directly towards the Firth of Forth, the visuals are unmatched and with three short par-4s and a dusting of spectacular par-3s this is not a golf course you need to arm wrestle. That it is already in the conversation alongside Kingsbarns and even, whisper it quietly, the Old Course itself, is all you need to know about this place.

“The course has been designed so that it can provide a real test for the very best players – we can go to 7,620 yards off the tips – but it’s also very playable for golfers who aren’t at that level. We’ve five sets of tees – the blues are 6,400 yards – and this course doesn’t beat you up. We want you to enjoy it. There’s a good chance a golfer off 10 can shoot level or even under their handicap. 

“I love the par-3s – they are very special with a good mix of length and direction. We have a three drivable par-4s – offering thought-provoking ‘risk and reward’ decisions to be made. It’s great fun for golfers. We have a couple of holes with dual fairways – the 5th and the 15th. It is a thinking person’s course, you have to plot your way around with brain, rather than brawn. 

Our fairways, on average, are 45 yards wide. And we have set the greens up in such a way that you can chase it up there and use the slopes if you wish. Our greens are not upturned saucers, they are built into the dunes around the green, with many times, the greens being an extension of the slopes and dunes around the green. You can just imagine our caddies telling our American visitors to run it in low with a 7 iron from 100 yards – that’s what links golf is all about. We want people playing those shots if the wind is up.”

Not even a pandemic could stop Dumbarnie from opening its fairways to the world in May. And, it seems, very little else will prevent this extraordinary new golf course on its inexorable rise to join the pantheon of great links courses not just close by in Fife, but further afield in Scotland and the world.