DAY FIVE: NORTH, TO THE LINKS OF DORNOCH
Arriving at Nairn Golf Club the next morning we were all groggy and hung-over emotionally, which led to the trip’s first act of capitulation: a two-man scramble. None of us had the mojo to grind on bad shots. I retained the tempo from that last swing the night before and drove it better than I had all trip.
Nairn begins hard against the beach and has some truly great holes but a letdown was inevitable given where we had just been and where we were headed. It took three and a half hours for Kevin and Tom to thump Matt and I and then we were gone.
Dornoch is one of the game’s great pilgrimages. Half a century ago, Herbert Warren Wind famously wrote, "Royal Dornoch is the most natural course in the world. We, in America, are just starting to appreciate that no golfer has completed his education until he has played and studied Royal Dornoch." It is the course where Donald Ross grew up and he would export many of its hallmarks.
The hour-and-a-half drive was a little melancholy -- we could all feel the trip slipping away. We spent the whole time comparing the courses we had played. These golfy conversations are one of the pleasures of this kind of roadtrip. In the real world, nobody cares about your swing path or wants to haggle about merits of chipping with a hybrid. But here we could immerse ourselves in these conversations without apology.
We pulled up to Royal Dornoch hooting and hollering, with the radio blasting. Like Ahab chasing his whale, we’d all gone a little crazy. The upstairs restaurant in Dornoch’s clubhouse is a really cool place to eat lunch -- you’re right on top of the first tee, with views of the coastline beyond. We sat there so long, and ate so much, I was feeling rather logy by the time we were summoned by the starter, who was memorably wearing a kilt. Unfortunately, the first seven holes played straight into some of the strongest winds of the trip -- it was like a punch in the mouth. The second hole, with its severely elevated green framed by gorse and other horrors, was one of the toughest par-3s in Scotland, and it is with great shame that I report Matt won the hole with a triple bogey. I was playing a little better by the sixth hole, a 161-yard par-3. I pured a four-iron that trickled just past the flag. I thought my ball was hiding in a swale, but in fact it had rolled over the back of the green into a collection area with almost no grass that was 15 feet below the putting surface. I wanted to cry.
The eighth hole, with a massive drop-off from fairway to green, is one of the coolest holes we saw. After that the course plays mostly downwind, but that’s not necessarily good news. Dornoch offers great views, spectacular terrain, and gorgeous bunkering, but its most marked feature is the elevated turtleback greens, which Ross would bring to Pinehurst. But you can’t run the ball up to these greens, and downwind if you fly it pin high your ball will skitter over the back. On a calm day Dornoch would be a great challenge, but in 30 mph winds, in our weakened states, it was an unsolvable riddle. Over a late dinner at our B&B, Matt spoke for all of us: “I’m beginning to rethink this itinerary.”
In the room we were sharing, Matt, a famously fastidious scorekeeper, spread out all our scorecards and ran some numbers. In our seven individual matches I was 2-1-4. Amazingly, in the cumulative tally, I had won a mere two more holes than he had. At least, that’s what the cards showed. Now, at this late hour, Matt wanted to revisit our first match at North Berwick West. One of the quirks of that course is that the pro shop is just off the 18th fairway, well within play if you pull your drive, which I did. My ball came to rest on some rocky landscaping framed by a low-hanging chain-link fence. It looked to me like an immovable obstruction, on the order of an on-course ballwasher or bench. Matt had the scorecard in his pocket, which spelled out the local rules, so I yelled across the fairway seeking advice. He said to take a free drop, which I did, making a par that halved the match. Now Matt was saying that I was not entitled to free relief, that it should have been a penalty drop for an unplayable lie, and therefore I really made a bogey to lose the hole and the match. I accused him of pulling a Fred Ridley and trying to rewrite history. He accused me of being a bully like Tiger. In his telling, Matt hadn’t wanted to enforce a penalty because he was “trying to be nice to the trip organizer.” We resolved to call North Berwick the next day for a ruling. Throughout the trip, we had shared a room and our late-night conversations felt like breezy dorm room confessionals. This time, no pleasantries were exchanged at bedtime.