Adam Lawrence had the opportunity to accompany golf course architect Martin Ebert and consultant Gordon Irvine as they sought to restore the old links of Askernish in Scotland's Outer Hebrides.
Imagine a vast range of sand dunes, fifty feet or more in height. Imagine also a pristine beach, more than 20 miles long. That's the west coast of South Uist, in the Western Isles of Scotland.
Now imagine Old Tom Morris, already seventy years of age, stumping through those dunes, routing a golf course by eye, and bashing in stakes to indicate to those who would follow him where tees, fairways and greens should be located.
If you can imagine all these things, then you can imagine Askernish Golf Club. Located on the beautiful island of South Uist, Askernish has had a golf course since Old Tom's visit in 1891. The reason for his trip, unfortunately, is not recorded. Did he come to fish, and did he lay out the golf course as an aside? Or were the sensational links of Askernish, and the island's persuasive proprietor, Lady Cathcart, the reasons? We will never know. Nor, unfortunately, is it possible to identify the exact course created by Old Tom: the construction, in 1936, of an airfield that was used throughout World War Two, transformed the nature of the links, and the nine greens now in play may reflect some of Old Tom's work, but certainly don't tell the whole story.
The residents of South Uist are currently in the process of acquiring the freehold of their island from the current laird. Stalwart of the island community, and also chairman of the Askernish Golf Club, Ralph Thompson and his club colleagues have continued to play over the links across the years, and the – admittedly rough – nine of Askernish poses a whole heap of challenges to the most expert golfer.
No-one, though, would claim that the existing course makes the best use of the sensational linksland on this part of the west coast of South Uist. That's why Thompson and his clubmates made contact with golf course consultant Gordon Irvine, and invited him and architect Martin Ebert to visit Askernish and try to restore Old Tom's original layout – or alternatively, to create a new course that would be worthy of its spectacular site and that could hope to attract substantial numbers of golfing tourists to extend their holidays beyond Machrihanish and Machrie out to the Western Isles.
Golf Course Architecture was invited to accompany Ebert on his first visit to the site. How could we refuse? To walk across the links, designing as Old Tom would have, with eyes and stakes, was the kind of offer no-one could resist. And so, on a cold but wonderfully sunny day in early March, we found ourselves flying from Glasgow to Benbecula en route to South Uist.
It quickly became clear that no accurate restoration would be possible. Old Tom's 1891 course was abandoned in the middle 1930s when the central part of the links was bulldozed to accommodate a military airstrip. The nine greens – with separate tees creating an 18 hole course – that remain are interesting, if rather savage (the ninth green is perched atop a rough bank, is tiny, and slopes brutally away from the golfer towards a patch of grass that is lost-ball rough in summer).
Having rapidly realised that a pure restoration was a pipedream, the party began to walk the property looking for opportunities to create a new golf course that would retain the nineteenth century spirit of Old Tom, and do justice to the links. This became both easier and harder when we headed south from the existing holes; easier because of the astounding quality of the land – which architect Ebert likened to Royal County Down – but harder because it was clear that no ordinary golf course would do.
The Askernish links covers a huge area, with the relatively flat land at the centre containing the existing nine holes, some more dramatic land to the north, and the epic dunes to the south. In the southern portion, through which a full nine holes of the new course have been routed, Ebert and his party found a number of green sites that appeared to have been levelled in the past. Although there can be no conclusive proof without the kind of extensive excavations the budget precludes, it seems entirely reasonable to suggest that these holes follow the path of Old Tom's original course.
Holes seven to 12 on the new course hug the Atlantic Ocean. The entire back nine is to the south of the site, through the massive dunescape. Hole nine, a formidable 446 yard par four played into the prevailing wind, features a hugely challenging drive from an elevated tee over the beach – shades of Machrihanish! – and will demand a precise approach to a natural green site that will shed balls on all sides.
Holes ten and 11, by contrast, are classic short par fours. Number eleven, at 286 yards from another high tee, albeit into the prevailing wind, offers the bold golfer the chance to drive the green and make a birdie, or even an eagle. There is plenty of width off the tee, but a deep gully in the sand dunes cuts into the fairway from the right at around 180 yards. The green, set on a ridge, will be elusive, and a deep bunker (either proof that Nature designs the best golf courses or evidence of Old Tom's work) will protect the left side. The golfer seeking to drive the green will have to thread his tee shot through a narrow gap, and the natural movement of the fairway will make the shot still more uncertain.
Number eleven, at 340 yards, will reward the bold golfer who is prepared to hit a strong drive close to the ocean, as the green is angled to favour an approach from the right side. Falling away from the golfer, the green will demand a precise pitch wherever the drive ends up, but the steep drops to front and back will punish the inaccurate, and the slopes to the right of the broad green will encourage a bounced approach should the flagstick be located on that side. From any more than 50 yards away, this green appears to be unbearably narrow: there is more room on top, but the visiting golfer will only see it after the fact.
Another hole that might possibly have been the work of Old Tom is the 13th, a classic short par three. Measuring 132 yards and typically playing downwind, the hole will be little more than a wedge for most golfers, but the green, perched atop a huge dune (again, apparently levelled in the past), will intimidate the best. There is no good place to miss this green. Askernish member Donald MacInnes, the day after the course was staked, hit his tee shot with a six iron (the hole was playing upwind that day) four feet from the peg; anyone who follows him will mix relief with pleasure.
Hole 14, a short par five at 490 yards and down the prevailing wind, will offer a rare birdie opportunity on the demanding back nine. The tee, elevated on a massive sand dune, can either be played with a long iron, safely to 240 yards from the tee, or the golfer can risk the driver. The rumpled fairway, though, narrows dramatically at the 240 yard mark, sloping to the right into an area of wetland that architect Ebert intends to designate a hazard, making the driver a dangerous play. Assuming the drive is successfully executed, the golfer can play with confidence for the green, set beyond the wetlands among more enormous dunes. Those that choose the safe tee shot, though, will either have to take on a 250-yard or greater carry to reach the green in two, or lay up amid crumpled land. Even a short pitch to this green will not be easy – the sand dune cuts off the left edge of the green, and a lay-up played a few yards too far will be mostly blind.
The seventeenth hole, at 404 yards, will be a demanding challenge at this late stage of the round. Curving to the left around the line of dunes, Ebert defied his client, club chairman Ralph Thompson – a slicer! – by laying out a hole that will definitely favour a draw. The approach will be played across a feature that is far from natural, yet a long-term part of the site – a rectangular earthwork built by the local crofters to contain their cattle and sheep, who roam the links during the winter. The green, with a deep crease to front right, will offer the opportunity of a running approach to the left side, but will offer a very demanding pin position to back right, behind the 'Valley of Mortal Sin'.
Critical readers might assume, from this detailed description of Askernish's back nine, that the course's first nine holes will offer less excitement. They will be right, but only in part. The land occupied by the front nine is undeniably less dramatic than the vast dunes to the south, but tremendous golf will still be found on this side. The second hole, the longest hole on the course at 560 yards, will offer a potential birdie in the prevailing south-west wind, but will be a true brute should the wind swing to the north. Hole four presents a challenging second to a skyline green, and the fifth is perhaps the best hole on the front side. A blind drive over a deep crease in the dunes will be required, and the brave golfer who is prepared to play to the left side will be rewarded by a kick forward. And this will be a great benefit, as the green, defended by a massive natural bunker, will be tough to hit, and even tougher to make putts on.
At just less that 6,400 yards, Askernish will not be a long course. But, with many of the strongest holes playing along the ocean into the prevailing wind, it will be quite difficult enough for most golfers. And, although it might not be a precise restoration of Old Tom's 1891 original – sadly, the bulldozing of the central part of the links in the 1930s and the lack of detailed information as to the earlier layout makes any such restoration impractical – it will, with its blind shots, crumpled fairways and natural green sites, accurately reflect the golfing values of a previous generation.
GCA, and your correspondent, feel privileged to have been a small part of the recreation of the Askernish links, and, for golfers who respect the values of the game as they used to be, it will be a must-visit along with Old Tom's earlier links at Machrihanish, also on the west of Scotland.We shall report further on the Askernish project as it moves forward.
This article first appeared in issue 4 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2006.