The Royal Dornoch Championship Course design for Links 2003, a long story…

This begins in two times. First, a little software, named MacGolf hooked me on the very first MacIntosh I used. From then, I tried franticly any new Golf software that came out on Mac or PC. The real thrill was when it came to software making the design of courses possible. The first for me was Jack Nicklaus S.E. and I really enjoyed the ability to share the creations of this little community. At this time, a course file weighted about 200Ko (!!!) and it was so fun…

Second is, as I am a real golf hacker but true lover, I bought a book on the golf courses around the world. In this book, one picture was fascinating me, a view of a golf course laying its fairways down a steep slope full of gorse and a long beach just behind. This was Royal Dornoch Championship Course and the photo was taken from the road that goes down the dunes from behind the 4th green. I really can’t tell why, but since then, this course is part of my true loves.

So it came obvious that I had to design this course for the PC golfer’s community, and before that for my own satisfaction. At the time of JNSE a course was already designed, I can’t remember the designer’s name. When JNSE turned into Jack Nicklaus 5 then 6, I decided to give it a run and found a skilled and motivated co-designer with Mr. Göran MENTZER. This was a single hole oriented design software, that means that we had to design hole by hole without any link between the holes, no full landscape (and on each hole we had to simulate the surrounding holes with the most shameful processes). This kind of design is comfortable with a tree lined course where holes are well separated, but very difficult with such an open course than Dornoch. At this time, we had rather few references of the real course and we worked with the little pictures that we had and some other data about the routing. For that moment, the result was not that bad, but we had a lot of parts of the course where no information was available, and we had to invent the things we didn’t find, mostly based on the written course descriptions that we had. Looking back, it was rather accurate, and some of our assumptions were quite right.

The came the Links 2001, and 2003 series, where a full landscape routing was available and I immediately considered the design of Royal Dornoch. But I put a condition that I walk the true course before I start the design. Unfortunately, life made this trip not possible (I still want to make it now), and I decided to go for it in 2008. I got in contact with the course staff to see if it was possible to make this design and if they could be of some help for me. The answers were kindly positive but, then again, life delayed the process, and I waited one more year to get again in contact with people a the Royal Dornoch Club.

With their authorization and encouragement, I started the design in Summer 2009 and we are now in Spring 2001. Quite two years of design! It’s just a hobby, so it’s far from two full years of design, and there were some long pauses due to some weariness or when I felt blocked by a specific problem. Though, I spent several hundreds of hours on this course, more than I ever spent on other courses, even real ones. Fantasy courses are far easier to design as when it comes to a difficulty you can erase the cause and start on another way. It’s very different for real courses where you have to stick the most to reality. The other big real course design I achieved is Bethpage Black, but there was far less constraints than for Dornoch and it was easier to hide the nasty stuff with some well placed trees.

Dornoch is very special in the fact that it is a wide open course, certainly one of the more open that you can see in the world. When you are on the 18h tee, a full rotation make you see almost each hole except the 8th hidden behind its great slope. No way to cheat, but it is a tremendous challenge to take benefit of the full landscape design of Links2003. It sure was pushed to its limits, as the distances a too long for the game engine. In fact the game does not show anymore terrain at more than 1400 yards. It’s a long distance, but at Dornoch it’s easily reached. To take an example, looking from the 18th tee, the slope over the 11th fairway disappears at its middle. So, I had to cheat still, and I made that with the course panorama. If you pay attention, you’ll see in the game that, from that same point, at the middle of the slope, the image continues with the panorama. I had to work a little on this cheat but not that big, and the result is really one of my big satisfactions on that design. Distance comes into play while showing the objects too. The limit is shorter than for the terrain, but then again, I cheated by making textures that looks quite like the objects form far. You can see that on every gorse slope seen from far away and also on the dunes where I used the same trick.

Unfortunately, I was unable to cheat on another sight at the 10th tee. There, you have a long view running along the 11th hole, over the 5th hole and 4th green to the Earl’s Cross manor, and further the Earl’s Cross wood. I tried a lot of thing there, such as very big objects, special terrain and so on, but did not succeed to make the Earl’s Cross wood show when on the 10th hole. So, you will have to imagine that there is some mysterious mist around this place that makes it invisible from that point. The wood begins to show at the beginning of the 10th green and is well visible and the end of this green.

Otherwise the design was long also because I wanted to be accurate about the elevations. Unfortunately, I didn’t had the help of satellite elevation data to work on that course and I had to build terrain elevation changes with the only help of the photos that I gathered all raound the internet and that the Club’s staff kindly sent to me.

Once again, Dornoch is a special course as it goes down and up all long the routing, and that the holes are blessed (or cursed?) by magnificent mounds and hollows. Be sure that I did not figure each of them on that design, I tried to be as truth as possible on parts where the balls have some chances to land. On other parts I surely take some liberty with the real landscape and built something credible, but not truth. I take the example of the 12th, where the first part of the fairway and the rough around seems like a meadow infested by moles. No Links gamer will have ever a chance to play from there, so I mounded the place but really far less than the real one, just to have a decent look form the tee, no more.

One more word about elevation to speak of the greens: there again I had no other data than the photos and greens descriptions. So, I tried to do my best to make greens that are mostly like the real ones. Form some tester’s advices ‘who have played the course for real), there no major mistakes. But be aware that some of the slopes are not accurate. It’s appoint that I consider to improve in a future release of this course when I have walk myself on the course or have get some very specific photos or videos of the greens.

(Here, I make a claim to every one which could play the real course and get this data for me. A warm thanks in advance!)

Another big challenge with this course is that it begins very next to the town of Dornoch and that the left scenery of the first 3 holes is essential to recreate to right course look. So, it was essential to have 3d buildings to make it believable. Then I built from the terrain or with a 3D external program all the buildings that you can see all round the course. It was a huge work the blocked me some times as I didn’t succeed to get the right look for the ones made from terrain.  I’m rather slow to understand, so it took some time so that I finish getting the right skills to make nice constructions. The most important are the clubhouse, the Royal Golf Hotel, the Dornoch hotel, and all the houses bordering the left side. That’s one other great satisfaction for me having got some really accurate sights from almost everywhere one the course. For sure, the houses over the 3rd tee do not show from the 10th tee for example, but I particularly love the view from the 13th tee.

To finish a course, planting is also a crucial thing to care about. There, I was not too worried by trees, but I still had to find credible ones for the pines behind the 11th tee. Otherwise, I choose to plant the gorse in a semi-bloom state with most of the bushes in bloom, but not all of them to keep a nice look. By the way, on some special moment, all the gorse is in bloom and the places then are pure gold yellow! About the grasses, I decided to make them rather high, that’s does not happen often on that well maintained course. But it was the easiest way to have a grass that show well; more little objects would have not show form far and make some distant places look unplanted and odd.

Some last word about the textures. I tried to stick to the pictures I have from the course and to have a nice gradient between the fairways and greens to the rough and weeds. I used 1024x1024 textures customized from existent ones. This makes the course only playable with Links 1.7 Mod. I try to improve the look of the mounds by using a dry fairway textures, making large seams with the standard fairway. As the game engine do not build some coarse shadows, which permit to enhance the look of the mounds all along the fairways.

Last, I want to say a word on a little feature that I pout on this course. You can see at your left on the first tee, a little dog waiting to follow you for the round. You will see it on every hole, sometimes crouching and a little hidden but always a faithful companion. This dog was my companion for 13 years and passed away in last December, this design is dedicated to her.

Her name was”Ortie” (Nettle, Urtica) and she was semi-Scottish as and accidental result of the meeting of a Lhassa-Apso and a West Highland white terrier. I say “she”, as I never understood the English who say “she” for their boats and “it” for their animals ;o). To comfort me, a new little four-legged companion has joined the family, this time full Scottish (almost for the race), a female Westie named “Fléole” (Timothy, Phleum pratense)…

You can be sure that such a long design could be commented for pages and pages, but enough comments and I just hope that you will enjoy a unique experience while playing this course, as the golfers do on the real course. If it gives you the will to head for Scotland and test the real flavour of the place, this will really be an achievement.

Keep your head on the ball, keep your ball on the fairway and always keep a fair way in your heart!

Dominique BOIS