There’s been a big change at one of golf’s most historic sites. We take a look at how acclaimed architects Mackenzie & Ebert built a new hole in the Highlands
It was too radical, he thought, a plan that would surely never see the light of day again. “I very nearly didn’t put it in the report,” Tom Mackenzie admitted to an audience of rapt greenkeepers. “It was right at the last minute I decided I would on the basis that I believed it was the right thing to do.”
Royal Dornoch holds a special place in the acclaimed architect’s heart. But what he was proposing needed a careful pitch.
His big idea was to take the 7th hole and rotate it, making it pivot to the right and moving the green.
“The view from the 7th tee is one of the most famous in the world of golf,” he explained. “Is there a first-time visitor to Dornoch who has not taken that photo down over the course?
“It seemed frustrating that, once down off the tee, the sea disappeared until the green on the highest part of the course.”
One of the great views gave way to nothing but gorse. The sea, that had just entranced you, vanished for another hole and a half.
So Mackenzie had a brainwave.
“There was plenty of room to the right so, logically, it made sense to rotate the hole that way, so the entire hole enjoyed the same glorious view with a new sea vista behind the green.”
If it seems sacrilege to tinker with history, prescient that golf’s been played on this Sutherland site on the Dornoch firth for four centuries, those who feel such pain can comfort themselves with this.
The old 7th was a baby by those standards – the green added just after World War II when former Open champion George Duncan was tasked with extending a site that had served as an RAF airfield during the conflict.
“The local stories are such that George Duncan actually pegged out the 7th hole right along the top of the hill, but during the night some unscrupulous local moved the pegs inland!” said Royal Dornoch general manager Neil Hampton.
“The hole was then built along the peg line. We think we are really putting it back to where George originally designed the hole, namely offering a classic links hole across the top of the hill and offering stunning views that we previously only enjoyed from the 7th tee.
“You now get those panoramas from every single pace that you walk along the 7th fairway.”
What may ultimately have given Mackenzie’s ambitious scheme the green light among those who pay their dues was a guarantee to replicate the old green precisely.
Every contour, every break, every subtle slope would be mapped, grid referenced, and resurrected.
“There is no hiding, you’ve got to get it right,” he revealed earlier this year at BIGGA’s BTME exhibition.
“The real challenge was to make sure the green was presented at the correct angle on how the new hole was going to play.
“If you got the angle of the green wrong by 15 degrees, because of the nature of the approach to the hole, it just wouldn’t play correctly at all.
“The green could have been completely identical but the character of the hole would have been totally different and I think we would have failed.”
He added: “I woke up in the middle of one night and it dawned on me that was the case and we then spent a lot of time trying to get that angle exactly right. There was a lot of analysis that went into doing that.”
Mackenzie – and the Dornoch team doing the work in-house – had a helping hand. For a long time, the vision they were trying to repeat was right next door: the two greens sitting side-by-side.
“They weren’t at the same level but it was perfectly possible to have a laser set up and you could check levels.
“You could constantly go across the green, using the grid, to be absolutely doubly sure.”
What was, to all intents and purposes, a brand new hole was scheduled to open in 2021. But with Royal Dornoch lined up for a host of prestigious amateur tournaments, its delivery was accelerated and the first putts were holed late last year.
“Bizarrely, the project has benefited from the Covid-19 situation because the seeded grass has had a period of lockdown rest and, although back in play now, levels of play have been reduced, allowing the turf to establish fully,” added Mackenzie.
He described the green and its approach as “rich in options of playing running shots” and, while the hole at first glance might look intimidating, “the playing corridor is the same width as the original one”.
It was down to Paul Lawrie to give ‘Pier’ its official unveiling, as he took on the challenge ahead of his Tartan Pro Tour event.
While 485-yards, from the blue tees, might be a beast of a par 4 for the amateur, the 1999 Open winner at Carnoustie put a birdie on the card.
“It’s a really, really nice golf hole and they have done a great job with it,” was his verdict.
“The old hole was further left, so it’s gone further right with better views of the sea, which is beautiful.
“It is similar kind of length, there are two nice bunkers down the left-hand side, which are in play, and there is a nice little false front at the start of the green. It’s brilliant.
“Royal Dornoch is one of the best courses in the country – it always has been and always will be.
“I always love playing golf here right back to playing assistant’s golf. It’s just great to spend time here.”
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