I was driving out through the rain for a round at Tain Golf Club, so I had no idea that much of anything besides golf would enter my mind while the Scottish-accented voices of The Proclaimers from their 1988 hit I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) was turned up on the hired-car radio. It was vacation, yet it didn’t take long for my mind to travel back to something familiar from America to try to find a way to explain what I was to see along Scotland’s Dornoch Firth.
I think it happened when I got back onto the pair of water-logged fairways -- at No. 1 and returning again on Tain’s 18th. The 18th, and the opening hole to my left, looked like the worst puddle-pocked asphalt road.
Why, when the 16 holes I had just finished had drained as well as my stainless steel sink? How could I find a way to explain the difference at Tain between the design of the holes left behind by Old Tom Morris compared to the ones that later were foisted to get the course to the accepted 18-hole layout?
My mind happened upon “America’s pastime” of baseball, particularly that time before our suspicions were mostly confirmed that Barry Bonds used steroids including those promoting muscle growth in cattle to beef up his home-run swing for the single-season record of 73 in 2001. As each McCovey Cove-bound ball felt the power of Trenbolone contained in Bond’s swing, my father was watching and thought there were things other than chemicals that aided Bonds during the fouled home-run chase that summer. As Bonds’ bat pounced on select pitches that were placed in the strike zone in a pitcher‘s honest effort to strike out Bonds (rather than load the bases by pitching around him again), my father overreacted.
“They’re helping him!,” my father barked. “They’re throwing it right over the plate!”
Well, I’m afraid that there are times when you have to do something, face and deal with the inevitable, rather than give in or stand pat. And in your effort to conform to the standard, the thing you produce may look feeble when it’s put alongside the original, well-thought strategy.
When the members at Tain commissioned someone to come in and reform the 15-hole golf course Old Tom Morris originally had designed for them, it was the equivalent of pitchers trying to get Bonds out by throwing in the strike zone. Pitchers made Bonds look good. And the fellow who reconstituted Tain from 15 holes to the standard 18 makes Old Tom Morris truly look like the first legend of golf that he is.
Old Tom, it seems, came here in 1890 and sought to create at Tain a links that was playable. And in a land that comes as rainy as it does north of Inverness, playability is boiled down quite simply. Can the place drain? Old Tom didn’t route that first fairway, or the similarly squishy 18th (my socks were almost soaked after the first hole). But he did much of the work everywhere in between. And I might have seen three puddles on those holes from Old Tom compared to the three or four dozen or so I found on the first outward and final homeward fairways from the renovating designer.
OK, let’s be fair to the man who redid Tain (or recast, perhaps, is the better word), and that would be one John Sutherland. Seems Mr. Sutherland, a club secretary at Royal Dornoch from the time when Old Tom was getting old to the years preceding the second world war, pushed back from his ledger and came down the road to Tain to bring the course to the required 18. This was not out of the ordinary; Sutherland is said to be a similar understudy up at Dornoch’s original Old Tom layout.
My guess is Not So Old John Sutherland didn’t have much to work with after Old Tom Morris laid down the law at Tain. According to the club’s website, Master Morris “counseled” a 15-hole layout. Without a Pete Dye bulldozer in tow in 1890, Old Tom saw ground that could handle 15 putting surfaces. Hey, weren’t there 22 holes over at St. Andrew’s? Old Tom was the greenskeeper over there. If he said 15 holes, you were going to tell Old Tom Morris “No?”
The factor that originally restricted Tain from more than 15 holes is visible still today. It’s about 310 yards out into that first fairway. A goat farmer’s road, that adjoins one part of his property to the other, rips right through the fairway with its accompaniment of posts, wire and hoof guards. I didn’t see any mutton herding down that road, but they sure did let me know they were there beyond the out-of-bounds markers as my round progressed rather pleasantly. The road, actually, is a gateway to the charming world as Old Tom Morris came to craft it.
That world has its floor drop out from under it right away. No. 2, the first from the Old Tom lineup at Tain, has a fairway lined with out of bounds right and thick gorse (is there any other kind?) left before it falls abruptly 15 feet nearing the 150-yard marker. Seeing that there is a burn cutting through the fairway a wedge away from the green on the 391-yarder, I took 2-iron and tried to hit it about 210 with the thought that a pure one could get some roll down that slope. I didn’t -- worse -- so I punched back out to the fairway and got past that slope.
Old Tom becomes more subtle on his fairways from here forward through the outward nine. Not so the greens. You see why he chose the areas for us to putt, for at 435-yard No. 3 it typically sweeps upward into a backstop, a putting amphitheater right under your toes. And these greens are properly fast. It’s these places where Tain shines.
The fourth hole on this par-70 is the longest at 542 yards, and it’s where Old Tom gave players a chance to go at the green with the third shot on level ground left -- or mounded, chug-holed lie to the right. That fairway slopes down some to where the green starts and seems to want to stay down there on that level. It doesn’t. Another sweeping backstop is built up from the front. Pity the look back for the putt, although the view of the village center out there at Tain is good to consider.
And so it goes, until the Sutherland work levels things out noticeably. But I got back into the Old Tom frame of mind at 403-yard No. 10, where the fairway splits yellow gorse and indigo heather to an undulating green guarded by deep bunkers I found right in front.
You’d think the next hole -- “Alps,” they have officially named it -- was another of Morris’ work. But the two huge tits that hide the 11th green (I can say that; unofficially, the hole is called “Dolly Parton,“ so “Damn, look at the size of those things!“) were utilized at Sutherland’s request. Hmmm. They’re grass covered dunes of about 20 feet high each.
It’s “blind” to the green and the Dornoch Firth back there, but you get some help, kind of like you do when you look at the dune off the tee on the second hole at Royal County Down. I was a 7-iron out for my approach on the 380-yard hole, and I could aim at the stake up there on top of the tata to the left. My shot ended about 12 feet past the pitch mark. The hole is plenty fair.
The 12th is not a Morris hole, either, but it’s a good bit of routing. The tee sits back there with a whisky cask alongside (crap, it’s empty!), and a peek beyond the gorse and the Dornoch Firth shows you why. The Glenmorangie Distillery is over there past the 386-yard hole.
The Morris flair comes back on the green of the next, 501 yards away with one of the backstops flaring arrear. The worst place to miss, as I did, is long and facing back with not much level green to utilize for the chip.
It’s on to the straight 438-yard 14th, but the three Morris holes remaining at 15, 16 and 17 make for one last deep breath of invigorating air. No. 15 seems to play less than the short 346 yards it is, and the long iron or fairway metal one would think to play with OB right lends itself well to the design challenge of the hole. Old Tom left behind some serious uneven lies on the fairway left, while the strip right is level like the pancake. This just hints to the green, a wonderful surface with a “Valley Of Sin” mindful of 18 at St. Andrew’s pushing the green down at its right front. This is wonderful, elegant golf.
Back-to-back par-3s are up next, and I read that most reviewers claim the 17th at Tain as one of Old Tom Morris’ best. Likely because it’s 215 yards, a brute in the OTM collection, that starts from an elevated tee past a burn but, in my view, becomes bland the closer it gets to that flat fairway at 18. I like No. 16, rather, a nifty measure of 147 yards that starts from an elevated tee to an elevated green. And that green is neatly hugged by burn right and three pot bunkers left. There’s some squeeze here.
But there’s no squeeze on your vacation budget. For a golf course where you get more than half the holes designed by Old Tom Morris you pay about $75. That’s less than half what’s charged for the Morris-Sutherland collaboration at Royal Dornoch. On my next trip to the glorious Highlands, hopefully in less than three years, I’ll look into the Dornoch Golf Pass and get in more golf at perhaps something not too northward of “Golf Like You’re Poor” pricing and value.
There are other detailed reviews of Tain out there, including one from Gary Daughters that’s probably the best written review of a golf course I’ve read. They give Tain fair, high marks.
I’d say my initial thought of a golf course where there’s a noticeable difference in the design of the collaborators would leave me with a weakened impression -- a golf course as bastard. But the more I look into this the more I see that Old Tom Morris layouts are rarely pristine.
I still say there are links courses I treasure more, including the Castlerock offering I played from the Northern Ireland portion of this vacation. But I can solidly proclaim this, turned up, from more than 500 miles after driving through the rain to get to the links up north of Inverness: Tain offered an insightful round, and it has me inspired to research and write more on the legend and seminal work of Old Tom Morris.
Tim Price is working on his second book covering a facet of sports history, and it's due out in Spring 2014. In the meantime, his blogs can be read here and at Tim Price Sports Books. You can follow Tim on Twitter @golflikeurpoor.