Dornoch’s harsh winters and unrelenting gorse shaped one of the world’s great courses and a friendship found only in golf
Words by Crawford Anderson-DillonPhotos by Tom Shaw
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The far northeast coast of Scotland is covered in gorse. It smothers the coastline, reaches deep into the shaggy fields and claws up the craggy hills like a spreading plague. It is a weed, known locally as whin, but in the bright sunshine of spring it flowers egg-yolk yellow and gives off the scent of coconut oil. It thrives in the sandy, acidic soil where other flora struggle. The spring flowering reveals just how successful it has been in this remote outpost, the countryside awash in gold.
The linksland golf courses of Scotland all share a battle with gorse, as greenskeepers use it to frame holes and line fairways, but constantly cut and burn it back where it bullies through. No part of the country, however, uses gorse like the courses of Sutherland in the northeast reach of Scotland’s high wasteland. The Royal Dornoch Golf Club Championship Course stretches out in an S shape along that coastline on ground that rises above the sea in steps and ridges, the slopes of which having long since lost the gorse tug-of-war. It’s hard to find any promotional photographs that do not include the bushes in springtime, when the vibrant green of the course contrasts sharply with the yellow flowers of the whin.
This hardy plant reflects the gritty determination of the Sutherland inhabitants. Sturdy against the cold northerly winds and long, dark winters, they move through life swaying in sync with the seasons. They are a quiet people, not easily turned by fancy. Lives are built slowly here. Hour by hour. Day by day. Year by year. It is said that remote communities meet adversity with a matching obstinance, and that is never more evident than here in Sutherland, only 80 miles shy of John o’ Groats and the very tip of Great Britain.
I had driven here from London, some 600 miles, to play Royal Dornoch for the first time—a journey that had been on my mind, as with so many golfers, for years. It was an unusually cold day at the end of April when I finally pulled into town, so late in arriving that I missed dinner at every restaurant, bar, takeaway, outhouse and alehouse. I ended up eating a cold sandwich in my hotel room, peering out into the dark, knowing that out there, somewhere, was one of the world’s greatest golf courses. But that wasn’t the only reason I was here. I’ve been to many golf courses around the world, and while those first encounters are always memorable, I’ve become perhaps even more interested in the people who live there. Because the soul of a golf course is not only its fairways and greens. It’s the people who play it every day, the people who tend to its needs in the darkest of winter when the tourists do not come. The people, like Chris Surmonte and Alan Grant, who love it so much that they cannot bear to leave it.
Chris Surmonte is not from Dornoch. He is not even from Scotland. His childhood was spent in the leafy suburbs of northern New Jersey, the fourth child of an Italian immigrant family whose grandfather was 2 when he left a small village in the southern Puglia region for a new life in America. Chris grew up in the 1970s and early ’80s in Asbury Park, a middle-class boy hanging out on the Springsteen-soaked Jersey Shore. He is the baby of the family—his siblings were all in their teens when he was born—and his father and older brother started him playing golf when he was 2. By his teenage years, he was playing off a 6-handicap and tagging along on weekends when his brother was picking up loops at Hollywood Golf Club, a Walter Travis–designed course from 1917 that has held the USGA Women’s Amateur, among other events. He still remembers earning $12 for his first bag.
Chris says his life then was uneventful, which he puts down to being the baby and benefitting from older siblings who took the sharper edge of the parental angst. By the time he came along, they were older, wiser, richer and unworried by his blithe attitude. Chris was loved and guided, but given very few hard pushes toward academia or professional rat-racing. He was a competent student at his Catholic private school, and his family was happy that he was happy.
Everything changed when applying for colleges in his senior year. The assumption had been that he would slip seamlessly into a classic New England Ivy League school, until a friend applied at the University of Colorado—a place that had, up to that point, never entered Chris’ consciousness. A week later, he had also applied, and within a few months he was looking up at the Rockies and realizing the world was a much bigger place than he had ever imagined.
Golf and looping followed him there. But, good as he was, Chris was never that interested in competition or the endless drive to be better. Golf to him has always been about connecting to something ethereal, something primordial. It’s about communing with the course, with nature, with the world. He doesn’t want to beat anyone. He wants to share the experience with them.
The high Colorado peaks and their endless stretch to the sky also gave him a taste for adventure. He vividly remembers the decision to go to the U.S. Open at Olympic Club in 1998, handing in his final paper for college and hitch-hiking to Northern California on a trip that included jumping a coal train to Salt Lake City.
He ended up falling in love with Marin County, just north of San Francisco, and spent as much time there as he could, caddying to pay the bills. Even today he talks about it with a wistful and faraway look that tells you he still thinks he could live there again. The reason he doesn’t, of course, is Dornoch.
While still in college, Chris had amassed enough money caddying for a trip to Scotland. Like all golfers, he felt Scotland was a pilgrimage he must make, but for Chris it was more than simply bucket-list bag tagging. Scotland was the first place he found that married the game he loved with the attitude he embraced. Golfers there are as often blue collar as white. The ability to clip a 7-iron approach from a tight lie gains you more credibility in the clubhouse than the car you park outside. Chris felt an instant affinity with the country.
And then he arrived in Dornoch.
“Elemental” is a word he uses often when chatting about the place in which he has lived the greater part of his life. It is a word loaded with context, but he chooses it wisely. Dornoch, though closely related to the ubiquitous golf towns of Fife, Lothian and Ayrshire, is not the same as St. Andrews or Troon. It is more remote, smaller, more intimate. And while it is physically not that far from the southern regions, it could not feel further from them in temperament. St. Andrews is a middle-class town, populated by university students and retirees from the professional services of Glasgow and Edinburgh. It hums and buzzes where Dornoch snoozes and plods.
The history of Dornoch is complex and varied, much like Scotland itself. Populated and subjugated by the Viking Danes in the Dark Ages, it became a center of power when the cathedral was built by the first Christians. That cathedral still exists, though the label feels like an exaggeration for what really is a small parish church. Nevertheless, it held sway over the northern lands and provided a castle as residence for the bishop. The local farming communities lived cheek by jowl with the fishermen and traders who ploughed the waters of the North Sea and interacted with the coastal communities of northern Europe. At some point, those traders picked up a Dutch game with small balls and a stick, which they brought back to Scotland, playing it along the dunelands that were no good for agriculture.
By the 19th century, the Highland Clearances, along with famine, had moved the communities into small crofts of tenants to wealthy English landowners. That casual ball-and-stick game had become more widespread after someone decided to add a hole, and when the great Victorian leisure boom happened, Dornoch was right in the crosshairs of those searching for natural beauty and authenticity. It became a destination for the train trippers, and that duneland was chosen to be the site of a new golf course, laid out originally by Old Tom Morris. As with all old courses, it’s hard to say now what exactly is original and what was added later, but what is not disputed is that the plot along the coast to the north of the town is perhaps the most perfect parcel of golfing land in the world.
Rising from the shoreline in steps and waves, the dunes of Dornoch achieve what decades of earth-moving could never. It lures you in with beautiful vistas and inviting approaches, but it also turns on you like a wild dog when you don’t expect it, kicking balls into impossible rough and unworkable lies. It is the perfect storm of accidental beau idéal, the course bending around the natural shape of the bay to create flawless rhythm, using the wind as an ever-changing color in its palette. It has been called the best course in the world. I believe it is the definitive golf course.
Alan Grant wasn’t aware of Dornoch’s reputation growing up. To him, it was just where he learned to play, no different to a kid hacking around a local muni. Everyone was proud of it, but in the 1960s the course’s quality was more a whispered secret than the raging yell of today. For Alan it was just his playground. Something to do while he waited for his life to start.
His boisterous nature stood in contrast to the staid attitudes around him, and he grew up looking out, not in. When he graduated from the local high school, he headed for the biggest, brightest light he could reach: London. He enrolled in art school at a time when punk was about to rip through the British establishment. Those first heady nights of student life drew him to the roof of the building with a group of excited co-conspirators, and then…Alan disappeared.
He fell 75 feet down an electrical shaft after the roof beneath him collapsed. He hit the bottom with such force that his abdomen exploded. It took hours to find him—even longer to get him out of there. It was presumed he would die, but he didn’t. Within months, he was back at college, trying to pick up his life.
Then he broke his neck in a car accident.
He tried to get himself up. Again. But this time, something profound had changed. The physical trauma turned to his mind, and he headed for the only place he felt safe: home. Fifty years later, he is still there.
It would be easy to assume that Alan’s trauma had simply scared him into permanent retreat, but the truth is more complex. What he discovered in the years after his accidents was that the thing he had been looking for could be found in the tiny, isolated town where he grew up. And the golf course gave it to him.
Alan found work in many places around Sutherland, but by the mid-’90s he was working in a local hotel bar. He was well known and well liked, not because he poured the best Buckfast cocktails, but because he was “a character,” that colloquial catchall for someone who entertains others by sheer presence. Peter de Savary had recently taken on Skibo Castle, the local estate once owned by Andrew Carnegie and into which Carnegie had poured large parts of his vast fortune toward the end of his life. De Savary had a grand vision to restore Skibo to its luxurious Edwardian splendor and saw in Alan something he could harness as an asset. Asked to come and work there, Alan at first didn’t really know what he was expected to do. “Just be yourself” was the answer. He has been there ever since, through a change of owners who also recognized him as an integral part of the purchase. Thirty years getting paid to just be himself.
Alan is a fundamental part of the Skibo experience, acting as host, friend, confidant, entertainer and partner. It is a place for those who find five-star accommodation lacking in grandeur. Guests are there to enjoy the best of Scottish hospitality, including one of their best golf courses. Alan makes their experience personal, jumping in to play a few holes with them, sharing a dram around the terrace fire pit or sitting down for dinner and tall tales. He makes them feel special.
Playing golf with Alan is different. He doesn’t stop talking while playing, chattering away with some brilliant story while swinging his own club. He doesn’t care about scorecards or handicaps. He doesn’t want to beat anyone. He wants to share the experience with them. So when Alan met Chris, the connection was instant and obvious.
By then Chris was a regular at Dornoch, spending every season in Sutherland as part of its caddie program. He had first arrived in the autumn of 1997 and found out that, due to increasing popularity among American tourists, they needed experienced caddies. A cheeky letter to the club secretary that winter secured a job in the summer of 1998, and during that sojourn he met Kate while living in a flat above her ice cream shop. She became the woman he has subsequently spent most of his life with. In 2005, Chris’ grandfather granted him one last gift: his Italian heritage provided him with an EU passport and the ability to stay full time. He has been in Dornoch ever since, at first caddying through the season and later running Luigi, a restaurant he and Kate built in the center of the town that has become the focal point for villagers and golfers alike. He has assimilated into the town and its people and been a member at the club for more than 20 years.
Chris has, by his own estimation, more than 3,000 rounds on Royal Dornoch. He knows it intimately and talks about every inch, every nuance, every story its folds and quirks try to hide, like an eager schoolboy telling tales. It is, in golfing terms, the love of his life. He has never lost the sense of wonder that everyone else feels the first time.
It seduces you with views and tee shots, teases you with approaches and praises you when you get the line right on the green. Watching those shots land on the putting surface and then slowly, slowly, slowly trickle off and run 20 feet down the tightly mown runoff is like watching the person you love start to undress before laughing and coyly running away. It’s heartbreaking. But nothing makes you want it more. His great strength is the ability to see those moments and dwell on them, supporting you through the failures and pausing to celebrate the successes. Great caddies, and great playing partners, are never there just for perfunctory tasks. They provide friendship and congratulations. A ballast when things get stormy.
Chris first met Alan when he caddied for him in the Carnegie Cup, one of the big competitions Dornoch holds each year, which are hotly contested by locals and visitors alike. Alan, the local, had a silky game. His greatest weapon is what he calls “the Wand,” an old Ping sand wedge with the grooves worn off that he uses to coax balls back up the deadly slopes of Dornoch’s raised greens like the artist he went to London to become.
Alan nearly won that year, but the bigger victory was finding in Chris a kindred spirit. Dornoch, while blessed with sturdy people and abundant nature, is still a small, rural community. People in these communities are rarely affected by the outside world, so it doesn’t form part of their daily conversations in the way the weather does. But Chris and Alan found in each other someone to talk to. For them, the bigger issues of life, love, humanity, conflict, politics, war, art, culture and beauty are topics they fall into as easily as a ball rolls off a Dornoch green, chatting away on tee boxes that face the expanse of the North Sea.
Over the years, their friendship has matured, and their golf is still sharp. Their favorite game is “wine golf,” which is played late in the day when the course is quiet and largely their own to enjoy. Chris’ 1-iron is as well known as Tiger’s putter around these parts, and he and Alan play using only that and the Wand. They start on…whichever hole. They play…whichever hole next takes their fancy. And they finish when the bottle of wine Chris has taken from his cellar, usually a Barolo, is empty. It’s a glorious thing, especially when Chris jumps into a bunker with that butter-knife blade and somehow elegantly flips a ball out. But the true beauty of the experience is in the stream of consciousness from both men as the walk inspires them to think deeper, talk faster and dream bigger. It is possible they could have both been this content somewhere else, but then again, maybe not.
We are, all of us, different. But there is a place for everyone. A space where we fit. Where all the things we need are the things that are there. Chris and Alan have flourished here, Dornoch watering the roots of their identities and growing oak trees of men. Others would struggle, the isolation and solitude too much to bear. Royal Dornoch sits comfortably in its place, revered by many, coveted by some, played by few. It is a perfect reflection of the people who live there, not caring about anyone else and forging its own path for more than 140 years. Chris and Alan play it every day, reveling in the sandy, acidic soil.