Tain golf course offers up a major Scotland adventure

By Gary Daughters, Contributor

There's a riot going on behind the fifth tee at Tain. The sheep are out of control. That hapless dog just may be making things worse. The clamor is spectacular. And rising above it all is the wail of one profane Scottish farmer, a man known as Donald Denoon.

It's a bit shocking at first, this ruckus, this cursing, and then it's outrageously funny. How often does a golf course abut a sheep farm? And sure, you've heard swearing on the links a few times, but compared to this Donald Denoon, Tiger Woods is Laura Bush.

"Poor dog," says a member. "We call it YaHOORya."

He chuckles.

"Real name's probably Bob."

This will sound strange, but it was there on that tee with all that chaos that Tain really hooked me. It's a course that's truly Scottish, a course not unlike Donald Denoon. Scruffy. Earthy. Native. You even want to say ancestral.

In other words, just the kind of course you've come this far to play.

Old Tom Morris came to Tain in 1890, after creating Royal Dornoch up the road. Here at Tain, Morris laid out 15 holes, three of which the club didn't keep. A few years on, Dornoch's John Sutherland extended the course to a full 18. Today 10 of Morris's original holes remain untouched.

Tain has a really fine lineage then, but not a huge following among the travel set. Tain takes Dornoch's overflow. Its clubhouse is modest, a tap-in removed from the tiny first tee. There's a sheep fence across the first fairway. A well-known writer has famously tagged Tain as "golf in a minor key."

Let's see.

From the medal tees Tain goes 6,400 yards, which does suggest that it's one of those courses you are obliged to play "smart." But at par 70, and with four par 4s of more than 400 yards, Tain readily accepts the driver. The par 3s are substantial; one requires a 3-wood and that's without the wind, which is never. The typical Tain green is fast, rumpled and bunkered. Tain holds its own.

Take Tain's third hole, 435 yards, a dogleg left par 4. It's a dog that bites, one that presents on any given shot a baffling series of calculations, none exclusive of the others, and each of which must be reckoned correctly, especially off the tee. There's the ever-present wind, the curve, the plateau up there, and those springy fairways that can carry the "perfect" drive to oblivion. Never mind those bumps in the lawn, they'll do with the ball as they please.

It's a "fearsome" hole, says Munro Ferries, the Ian Woosnam look-alike who serves as Tain's golf professional.

"Offer me four," says Ferries, "I'll take it there every time."

The "smart" play at Tain isn't always what you think. At least not at first. Old Tom's sixth, a short par 4, clearly is a place to keep the big guy holstered. Or so it would seem. I stroke the obvious 4-iron and hit a little wedge that sails in high, scarcely clears two big front bunkers then rolls to the back of the green.

Later I say to Munro, "No way to get to that front pin placement."

"There is," he answers. "With the driver into one of bunkers."

Into one of those things? On purpose?

Sure, says Ferries. All you'll ever do from these big old pots is plop the ball out a few feet.

"You could also get lucky," he says, "run your drive up between them."

Not all of Tain's holes are so subtle. After Morris's dogleg ninth with its bunkers slyly concealed, and then the old man's gorse-lined tenth, along comes Sutherland's comical "Alps," better known here as "Dolly Parton." The approach is played over a matching set of mounds, both obscenely high. Just look at those things!

That odd little anomaly is fairly easily conquered, and now comes the stretch where Tain reels you in. Or so it did me. Ever so briefly the course jogs around to the Dornoch Firth, and the rough, colorful landscape opens up grandly. There's nothing minor about it. The sky is immense. And here it finally hits you that every hole at Tain is its own little world, concealed from those around it. You're the only one out here. Out of the blue, it seems, Tain has induced that calm state of freedom that is golf's fleeting gift, a total absence of care.

The 14th hole begins the turn toward home; a mogul rises up and slashes the fairway in half. The short 15th is dappled with hillocks, nary a flat spot on it, and the green is a work of art. Think St. Andrews.

The 16th is down in a cozy little dell, a modest par 3 with the narrow Tain River forming a "U" around the green. Then another par 3, that long one, with the river in play again.

The drive at 18 is played from a perch set back among a thicket of gorse. The green is right next to the clubhouse, just steps away from that tiny first tee. You could go around Tain again.

"It's not as tough a test as Dornoch," Munro Ferries tells you. "But you get your golfers who know about the game, who appreciate the game, they rave about this."

You can count me among them. Tain is an absolute joy.

Gary Daughters, Contributor

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