Askernish: the rebirth

Sean Dudley

Malcolm Peake visits Askernish in its infancy and gives his verdict. 

Regular GCA readers will be familiar with the story of Askernish Golf Club on the west coast of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

It began in 1891 when Lady Cathcart first invited Old Tom Morris, to lay out a golf course. He described the land as “second to none in the various elements that go to make a very good golf course.” In 1936 a runway was constructed and the course fell into obscurity. In all probability the course would never have been lost, if it had been situated on the mainland. But now the restoration led by consultant Gordon Irvine and architect Martin Ebert, is well underway. The story has been well documented, but suffice to say the restoration is inspired by the methods available to Old Tom Morris and his design principles. Where there appeared to have an old, shaped green among the dunes it has been incorporated into the design.

Askernish will not be for the golfer who wants manicured fairways, lightening fast greens, everything neat and tidy, and green and lush. Askernish will be enjoyed by the aficionados of golf, the golfer who appreciate the original form of golf played as much along the ground as in the air, who enjoy a challenge, who accepts that golf was never meant to be fair.

In September 2007 I took a motley crew of friends to play Askernish in its infancy. Some of our group were life members on their first visit to South Uist. There was a scientist/ecologist, a golf professional, members of the golfing press, and David Withers, MD of Ransomes Jacobsen, who generously supported the project by loaning machinery. None really had any idea of what to expect: the holes had only been cut some six months before our visit, and the golf course would not open until August 2008.

Askernish will take the golfer back in time to the world of golf, as played in the early part of the twentieth century. At the moment there is no clubhouse, no spike bar, and certainly no locker rooms. You park your car near the first tee, change your shoes and off you go: golf as it used to be played.

The layout is an eclectic mix of holes including short par three, two driveable par fours, and a couple of monster par fives. It starts with a 490 yard par five. This part of the links is quite flat, reminiscent of Westwood Ho, and belies the treasures to come. It does not look a difficult hole, but it is a tricky drive to an angled fairway. Once you are on the wonderful fescue fairway you have solved the problem, and the hole becomes comparatively easy.

The third is a classic risk and reward hole, aptly named Wicked Lady. The fairway turns left almost at right angles, and a safe drive leaves an awkward chip to a rolling green. The direct route is a 240 yard carry right over the tufted machair.

But the view from the seventh tee is what Askernish is all about. Think Ballybunion, Royal County Down, or Carnoustie. This 438 yard par four has everything, towering dunes, the crash of foaming waves, the white shell beach, the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean. The hole creeps through a valley of giant dunes to a small green, which seems miles away and is angled across the fairway. A par here will be remembered always.

The eighth is a tricky short par four of 249 yards. A good drive will be rewarded with a delightful pitch to the bowl shaped green. The hole is named Kelpie, after a malevolent Scottish water-spirit: if your pitch is long or thinned Kelpie will accept your ball in the Atlantic forty feet below!

A double fairway on the monster 582 yard twelfth gives the golfer confusing options. Taking the high risk left fairway does give a chance of reaching the green in two, but woe betide you if it does not come off. Yet the safer option is by no means easy, as the second shot has to be placed on an island fairway before the green is in range.

A short par three of 141 yards beckons at the 14th with trouble short and right. This is one of Old Tom’s original greens, and you can almost feel the ghosts of ancient golfers ‘with implements ill suited for the purpose.’ Not that modern equipment makes it that easy!

The fifteenth had some mobile dunes developing at the time of my visit; this will be a characteristic of Askernish, because of the fine shell sand, the nearness of the beach, and the strength of the wind. There are currently no bunkers on the course, but all around are examples of natural scrapes whether due to the wind, sheep, or golfers. You can just imagine Old Tom deciding that this or that bare area would make a great bunker, and Gordon will follow this principle!

The experience of playing Askernish is the nearest thing to what our golfing forefathers experience in those early days of the game. I am not sure if all our party totally understood or appreciated Askernish, but the last word must go to my friend Philip Sparks, the proprietor of Manston Golf Centre, who certainly did appreciate this special experience. Philip wrote: “Like some of the very best experiences in life, it is only when you have moments of reflection that you really start to appreciate what a life changing experience a game at Askernish can be. I am looking forward to returning on a regular basis to see how the project progresses. I wish all those involved in raising the funds and putting in the work to make this dream a reality the best of luck in their endeavours, as it is truly a worthy cause.”

Malcolm Peake is the author of Confessions of a Chairman of Green and A Natural Course for Golf.

This article first appeared in issue 11 of Golf Course Architecture, published in January 2008.