© matthew wharton

I loved growing up in rural, southwestern Virginia. Castlewood was nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and the rolling terrain stretched as far as the eye could see.

I was fortunate enough to visit Scotland and the home of golf, St Andrews, in January 2019 and I was immediately enamored with the landscape. I could easily recognize why emigrated Scots would choose to settle in my neck of the woods centuries ago.

When I received an invitation earlier this year to return to Scotland, I did not hesitate to ask my wife for permission. It had been 20 months since I last traveled to the 2020 Golf Industry Show, and those 20 months had been filled with the pandemic and my wife’s battle with breast cancer. Perhaps she needed a break from me as much as I just needed a break!

In 1964, famed golf writer Herbert Warren Wind penned North to the Links of Dornoch for The New Yorker. Golf has been played on the links land in Dornoch since 1616. The golf club was formed in 1877 and in 1886 Old Tom Morris was “invited to survey the links and lay out a more fully planned golf course!”

Also, Dornoch is the birthplace of Donald J. Ross. Born November 23, 1872, Ross was nearly 14 years old when Old Tom improved the links, and he would go on to apprentice under Old Tom in St Andrews before emigrating to the U.S. and becoming our most prolific golf course designer of the Golden Age. I had to make this pilgrimage.

Now, with this much build-up prior to arriving, I had the highest of expectations I have ever had for a golf course. Many times, I have walked away unimpressed with other highly touted courses simply because my expectations were too lofty.

But not this time! My first round at Royal Dornoch was played in a steady rain. Course manager Eoin Riddell messaged me: “Think you’re going to get wet! 14 mm” — a little more than half an inch — “in the last couple of hours and not stopping, welcome to Scotland!” At least Eoin was kind enough to include a laughing emoji.

The rain stopped and we had a couple hours before dinner, so three of us went back out and walked the course. We walked to more closely inspect the landscape, turf, conditioning and architecture.

It was cloudy and cool as we made the trek past the second green and through the gorse to the third tee. Holes 3 through 6 continue outward and then we made the climb up to the plateau where No. 7 resides.

And there the whole course stretched out below our feet, and it was now basking in the golden glow of the late afternoon sun. I knew then there was not a finer piece of ground for golf anywhere in this world. The beautiful contours are simultaneously unbelievable and indescribable and for the first time in I don’t know how long, I felt at peace.

I Facetimed Mrs. Greenkeeper standing on the edge of the seventh fairway. I flipped the camera and told her you must see this. When my trip was over, I made four trips around Royal Dornoch with golf clubs in tow, but the journey without them will hold memories for a lifetime.

A little more than 16 miles north of Dornoch lies the village of Brora. And Brora is home to a golf course on the North Sea redesigned by five-time Open champion James Braid. The golf course is mostly unchanged from Braid’s 1924 handiwork and my round there was a golf experience unlike any other.

Head greenkeeper James MacBeath and his team maintain the closely mowed areas of the links while nearly 100 head of sheep graze and maintain the rough. Small electrical wires encircle the putting surfaces to keep the sheep and cattle from wandering onto the greens.

As I looked out over the course and the surrounding landscape as far as the eye could see, I could envision the same terrain back home in Russell County, Virginia — minus the North Sea, of course. I felt totally at home on Brora’s links and was overcome with emotion.

I do not believe in reincarnation, but Mrs. Greenkeeper frequently tells me I am an old soul. When I stop to think about the things that pique my interest, I understand what she means. It was a long journey home, and this weary traveler was happy to be back in his bed, but my heart remains in the Highlands.

Matthew Wharton, CGCS, MG, is the superintendent at Carolina Golf Club in Charlotte, North Carolina and past president of the Carolinas GCSA. Follow him on Twitter @CGCGreenkeeper.