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Royal Dornoch Golf Course

For long enough it wasn't Royal Dornoch; more Royal "Dormant." Until the 1970s, when it was "unearthed" by some of the leading American players of the time, the home of legendary course architect Donald Ross lay largely ignored and undiscovered by the world of golf.

Of course, the same cannot be said of this small Highland town's most famous son. Ross was a pioneer of golf course architecture in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. Amongst his most famous designs are Seminole GC in Florida and Scioto (where Jack Nicklaus would learn the game) in Ohio. His most celebrated creation, however, is the glorious Pinehurst No. 2, where, in 1999, the late Payne Stewart won his second US Open title.

Pinehurst typifies Ross's influential design-style. Always one for leaving well alone what nature gave him, the transplanted Scot loved to give his courses a feeling of the Dornoch links on which he was raised. This was particularly true of his greens, which he tended to mould to whatever terrain was available. Thus, he always put a heavy emphasis on the short recovery shot to subtly contoured putting surfaces.

It is said that you can easily tell a Dornoch golfer by his touch around the greens. The player who does not master the art of chipping and pitching will long struggle around Ross's "crown greens." So it is that, at Dornoch, the typical Scottish "chip-and-run" becomes more of a "lob-and-run," a shot which serves well the man or woman who can play it successfully.

Indeed, one look at Dornoch and it is easy to see where Ross got his inspiration. Almost every green is slightly raised so as to place a premium on the accuracy of the approach shot. A player unfortunate enough to miss a putting surface is nearly always left with a tricky chip or pitch to a green higher than the spot where the ball lies.

Nowhere is that more true than at the 182-yard second hole. Because the narrow green falls away sharply on both sides, many deem this the toughest hole on the course. Not for nothing do the locals call the "second shot to the second" Dornoch's most difficult test of a player's mettle.

Still, perhaps the most famous hole on the course is the 14th, "Foxy," a 445-yard bunkerless par-4. A complicated double dogleg, the hole is "made" by the approach shot, over a hump in front of a green which slopes away from the player and is fraught with danger. The ideal way to play the hole is with a hard, raking draw from the tee, followed by a high, feathered approach to the semi-blind green. Easy if you know how!

Take heart, however. Like so many great par-4s on Scotland's links, this hole is an easy five for the golfer prepared to play conservatively, but an equally straightforward seven for his more impetuous friend.

For all that its rise to worldwide fame has come relatively recently, golf has been a part of the Dornoch scene for almost 400 years. Records show that the game has been played in this remote part of Sutherland since 1616. Only St. Andrews and Leith can claim greater antiquity.

In 1630, Robert Gordon had this to say about Dornoch in his History of Sutherland: "About this toun there are the fairest and largest links of any pairt of Scotland, fit for archery, golfing, ryding, and all other exercises; they doe surpasse the fields of Montrose and St. Andrews." High praise indeed.

For all that, a victim of its location - the course is on the same latitude as Hudson's bay in Canada and Juneau in Alaska - and its inaccessability, the delights of Dornoch lay largely hidden to the outside world for long enough.

Then, in the 1970s, three new bridges were built, shortening the journey from the central belt of Scotland by more than 90 minutes. Suddenly, Dornoch was trendy, particularly amongst Americans. Golf course designer Pete Dye was one who made the trip to see what all the fuss was about. He left suitably impressed.

"No other links has quite the ageless aura Dornoch has," he says. "When you play it you get the feeling you could be living just as easily in the 1800s, or even the 1700s. If an old Scot in a red jacket had popped out from behind a sand dune, beating a feather ball, I wouldn't have blinked an eye."

With the flood of Americans to Dornoch came some famous faces. Two-times Masters champion Ben Crenshaw was one of the first to make his way north. Tom Watson was another. Today, many of the world's top players have made the pilgrimage, including Britain's best ever player, Nick Faldo.

"I loved Dornoch from the first time I saw it," he says. "It is a true links, one you could play for many days while still learning more and more of its subtleties."

With that long overdue international recognition came national championships. In the last 20 years Dornoch has hosted both the Scottish and British Amateur Championships.

It's time it hosted you, too. You won't be disappointed.