The town of Dornoch, Scotland, lies at nearly the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska. A bit too far removed for the taste of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the Royal Dornoch Golf Club has never hosted a British Open, but that has hardly diminished its mystique or its renown. In an influential piece for The New Yorker in 1964, Herbert Warren Wind wrote, "It is the most natural course in the world. No golfer has completed his education until he has played and studied Royal Dornoch."
If any town in the world deserves to be described as "the village of golf," it's Dornoch. You can take the legendary links away from St. Andrews, and you'll still have a charming and beautiful university town with great historic significance; take the links away from Dornoch and it would be as little noted or known as its neighbors Golspie, Tain, and Brora. (The town is forty miles north of Inverness, generally thought of as the northernmost outpost of civilization in Scotland.) The game has been played in Dornoch for some four hundred years. Its native son Donald Ross brought the style of the Dornoch links to America, where his legendary, classic courses include Pinehurst #2, Seminole, and Oak Hill.
Lorne Rubenstein decided to spend a summer in Dornoch to clear the muddle from his golfing mind and to rediscover the natural charms of the game he loves. But in the Highlands he found far more than bracing air and challenging greens. He found a people shaped by the harshness of the land and the difficulty of drawing a living from it, and still haunted by a historic wrong inflicted on their ancestors nearly two centuries before. Rubenstein met many people of great thoughtfulness and spirit, eager to share their worldviews, their life stories, and a wee dram or two. And as he explored the empty, rugged landscape, he came to understand the ways in which the thorny, quarrelsome qualities of the game of golf reflect the values, character, and history of the people who brought it into the world.
A Season in Dornoch is both the story of one man's immersion in the game of golf and an exploration of the world from which it emerged. Part travelogue, part portraiture, part good old-fashioned tale of matches played and friendships made, it takes us on an unforgettable journey to a marvelous, moody, mystical place.
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Simon & Schuster
March 31, 2003
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Excerpt from A Season in Dornoch by Lorne Rubenstein
There is a point, far out on the links of the Royal Dornoch Golf Club in the Scottish Highlands, on the edge of the North Sea, where the world opens up in all directions. If you stand on the seventh tee, on the high ridge overlooking much of the course, you will see the sweep of this ancient linksland. If you look just left, beyond the course, you will see on top of Ben Bhraggie a monument to the first Duke of Sutherland, an infamous personage in the "empty lands," as writer Tom Atkinson calls them in his book The Northern Highlands. The colossal statue of the duke -- contemptuously called "the Mannie" by people hereabouts -- commemorates a man who was at the forefront of the Highland Clearances in the early part of the nineteenth century. The Clearances emptied these high lands of some fifteen thousand people, most of them crofters, or tenant farmers, whose ancestors had lived here for generations. Sheep, it was argued by the duke and his minions, would prove far more profitable than people.
You avert your eyes from the Mannie and rotate farther left. You are still standing on the seventh tee at Royal Dornoch, on seaside turf where golf has been played since at least 1616, and you hear the North Sea surf and the songs of shorebirds, and you feel the warmth of the midsummer sun setting down your line of sight. You are now looking across fields of gorse bushes rendered a vivid yellow on this early-summer day and beyond to footpaths in the scrub where people are walking their dogs. You stand in place, your golf clubs in a bag strapped behind your back, your feet light on the firm, fast, running fairways where a golf ball bounces, as a golf ball should. The course is open and empty and nobody is in view ahead of you or behind you as you look westward. You are looking toward the hills where displaced crofters also traveled, and over those mountains, only ninety miles away, lies the western rim of Scotland. For here in the far north it is only that far from the North Sea on this east coast to the Sea of the Hebrides on the west coast, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. And beyond, across the ocean, Newfoundland, in Canada. New Found Land to many of these refugees.