Tain Golf Club, Scottish Highlands

The 9th at Tain. Photo by I. Lowe.

In a secluded corner of the Scottish Highlands, on nearly the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska, lays a golf course of compelling beauty, fascinating history and beguiling challenge.

This is Tain, the oldest royal burgh in Scotland and where the steeply winding streets and medieval walls echo a colorful and ancient past. This is where the legendary 16 men of Tain work their magic around the tallest columns of whisky stills to ensure that only the lightest, purest vapors ascend and condense into the spirit that is the most popular single malt in Scotland. This is the Glen of Tranquillity, home of Glenmorangie.

When the oldtimers of today gather together over a dram secreted from the Glen of Tranquillity and talk of earlier times, it is whispered that Horace Hutchinson, and John Henry Taylor, member of the Great Triumvirate, had more than a hand in persuading Old Tom Morris to leave his indelible mark on the links of Tain.

It could well be true; Horace and Old Tom were longstanding friends. Whatever the truth, Old Tom counseled the construction of only 15 natural greens—this was a time when there was still no “standard” round of golf.

By 1894 John Sutherland, a Tain member famous for his work at Dornoch, extended the course to 18 holes, by then the accepted round. Fortunately for Tain, and for the legacy of golf itself, Sutherland was reluctant to alter Old Tom’s creation. He retained five of the Morris holes on each side, and with the exception of the 9th (and it is still used in winter), they remain in play to this day.

On the way out the 2nd, the famous 3rd (“Knowe,” a 435-yard par 4), the 4th, 6th and 9th remain the way Morris conceived them. On the back nine the 10th, 14th, 15th, 16th and the devilish 215-yard 17th (“Black Bridge”) are a living testimony to his skill as a golf course designer.

Golf in this beautiful Dornoch Firth setting remains very much as it did in the 19th century. Here we find the essence of classic links golf: crisp fairway turf and firm, fast, undulating greens that at the height of a Highland summer make Augusta National Golf Club’s putting surfaces seem snail-like by comparison.

Although built with only shovels, horses and carts, two of Morris’ holes remain among the finest examples of links golf. The glorious 3rd, a right-to-left dogleg with a solitary bunker guarding the right front corner of the green, demands both distance and precision. The 17th is a treacherous par 3 with a river snaking twice across its path and threatening again on the right side of the green.

But the 11th hole, which they call “Alps” and strikes out towards the sea, is the vision most visitors will take home with them. The second shot on the 380-yarder is blind over a massive sand dune with a narrow gap offering a sneak view of the Dornoch Firth but none at all of the green. A marker pole provides a general direction; any refinement in aim comes from taking note of the marker on the tee that indicates on which part of the green the flag is located

And while this may well be the picture the visitor takes back, the lasting memory will be the warm feeling of welcome they find here, for this is a special place and those who would pass it by in impetuous haste will know not what they have missed.