Ten years ago this spring I went on a journey. Not just any journey, but one I had been fantasising about for over a year and, more indirectly, my whole life. The destination was Askernish Golf Club on the Isle of South Uist in Scotland’s far-flung Outer Hebrides, the purpose multi-faceted. Sponsored by the R&A and available to its scholarship students at Elmwood and Myerscough Colleges, the trip contained a number of components, most of which were educational. The first was to develop a sense of sustainability in golf course greenkeeping and design. The second was to get a look into the real origins of the game. And the third was simply to experience an incredible golf course and faraway land, creating new friends and a lifetime of memories along the way.
For me, the trip exceeded all of those goals and then some. We began with a long and scenic ferry ride through the Sound of Mull and out to what seemed like the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Many go by plane to Benbecula, but I felt the ferry offered not only great scenery but also a sense of connection to the experiences of Old Tom Morris and his time, where he would have taken a similar sea route to the Isles.
The characteristics of Old Tom and his era would be a strong recurring theme throughout the week, and rightfully so. He is perhaps the most important and influential figure in our game’s history, his contributions to greenkeeping, clubmaking, playing, and golf course architecture all significant in their respective departments. Particularly though, we would be focusing on the greenkeeping and golf design elements of Old Tom’s skillset.
Old Tom’s relation to Askernish is direct. Documentation shows that he was present in 1891 to lay out a links in fantastic dunesland. He described the land as “second to none in the various elements that go to make a very good golf course,” and what you see today is exactly that. It wasn’t recently like that though. Some time in the 1930s, a large portion of the land near today’s clubhouse was flattened out to aid the war effort. The golf course also changed sometime around then, the holes in the dunes being abandoned and a very basic nine-hole course being configured over the newly simplified land.
It remained this way until the club chairman at the time, Ralph Thompson, got together with links turf specialist Gordon Irvine, who after hearing about the Old Tom Morris connection and seeing the wild dunes that did not have golf, jumped excitedly all over the prospect of trying to restore the course that Old Tom might have built. They enlisted the help of Martin Ebert of golf architecture firm Mackenzie & Ebert, as well as greenkeeper Chris Haspell and GCA editor Adam Lawrence. Working together over numerous walks upon the links, they sited greens, tees and fairways in a sequential 18-hole routing.
While perhaps not a true restoration (which would be total guesswork given the dearth of evidence of the original course), what was definitely true was the spirit of the methodology. They worked carefully to do things just the way that Old Tom would have and assumed the resources were just the same as his during the 1890s. This is precisely what we were here to do as well.
Our first exercise of the week was to put together a routing ourselves, nine holes located over the untouched linksland just south of the current twelfth hole. This too would be led by Martin, and we had a day to come up with our best nine holes playing by the design rules of the 1890s. This meant there would be no earthmoving or shaping, even in its lightest form. There would be no major alterations to the plant life to convert the ground to golf grass. You truly had to work with what was there, siting greens that not only were interesting in look and strategy but could also easily be converted by mowing and could stay so sustainably.
It was quite a learning experience to do things on this extreme a level. It is true minimalism, not the cosmetic departure from that word, where designers go to great lengths in construction to make something appear natural or minimal. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, and I have been guilty of some of it in my own shaping work. The core of true minimalism though takes a lot of restraint and discipline to execute given the technology available to alter the landscape. There was no such option though for guys like Morris or Braid, and that was much for the better. It is said there is no better architect and shaper than Mother Nature herself, so why fight against her creation, especially when the land is good? Routing a golf course like Old Tom teaches you to appreciate this, and it gets you even more in tune with what that land and those features really are.
Our other activities included an environmental management exercise and a bunker building activity with Gordon Irvine, also to be done using the methods of Old Tom Morris’s day. That was particularly fun as we played in the sand, formalising a wild, natural blowout into something ready for golf. Once again, we had to use the resources available at hand. Eroded sod chunks were used for revetting and stabilisation, edges were lowered using a careful collapsing technique, and marram grass was transplanted from nearby to help stabilise the corner where the sand had been mostly blowing out. Everything was very hands-on and in tune with the local micro-environment.
At the core of the whole experience though was a real look and understanding of the special natural landscape and links turf of the machair, the Gaelic word for the common linksland shared by grazing animals, hikers, and the Askernish golf course. This land is true golf. Seeing it, experiencing it, and playing over it is like jumping in a time machine to the 1800s or even earlier, especially when wandering the land further beyond the golf course during grazing season. It is on these virgin links further afield – nibbled down tightly by the sheep, cattle, and rabbits — that the lightbulb switches on. It is one thing to talk about and hear that golf is a natural game and came from the shepherds knocking rocks in their fields, but to actually see a puttable green sitting there – all alone – without the influence of man, changes your perception of golf, even if you were expecting that, as I was.
Growing up in the American Midwest during the construction boom of the 1990s, the idea of golf and its features being anything ‘natural’ or mimicking nature was always a bit laughable to me. Even when getting deeper into my architectural education and reading books by Donald Ross, Alister MacKenzie, and others, I still wondered what the heck they were really talking about when they discussed creating artificial features that appeared natural. Bunkers to me were always ‘constructed’. Greens were always constructed. Everything was constructed.
My experience and travels since then have allowed me to see how golf truly was once natural. Nowhere was this more acute than at Askernish. Seeing golf like this in its most raw (and frankly, delightful) form then raises the question about how far golf has come and where it may be going. Progress is generally considered to be better not just in golf but in all of society. In golf’s case though, it makes you wonder if we have gone a bit too far. Are all these advances in construction and maintenance technology worth the hefty price tag and complexity associated with them? Do we need such a high level of artificiality in the way a course is landscaped, constructed, or maintained?
I am by no means saying that golf courses all over the world can be built and maintained in the exact way as at Askernish. That is a specific type of ground in a specific type of climate that lends itself to such a natural and minimal approach. What golf courses all over the world can do though is ask themselves the same questions that Askernish did and does. Do we need to disturb and move this ground during construction? Do we create a new landscape when the natural one will do? Do we try and force a certain maintenance aesthetic as opposed to working more in tune with natural climate and soil conditions? Or do we work more closely with the existing land and select grasses that will be naturally hardier and require fewer artificial inputs?
Adhering to that last question could be the way of golf’s future, especially in the post-Covid world. Perhaps to some, this simplification may seem like a way of dumbing things down, going backwards, or being forced to change for the worse. This version of golf though is better for the environment (both locally and globally), more affordable, and truer to one of the main reasons we get out and play – experiencing nature. As Askernish also proves, the golf itself can still be compelling and enjoyable.
Good golf design does not necessarily cost more, and when you have a great piece of land like at Askernish or, for a more modern-day example, Sand Hills, it can actually cost you less. Simple moves – like adding one tiny central bunker at Woking – and simple ground – like the at-grade tilting greens at Garden City – can be highly effective and interesting while costing less and disturbing little of the native ground, maintaining a better sense of place and connection to the landscape.
Maybe sometimes you do need to do a little more shaping to add interest, or maybe going through the trouble of a variable depth USGA green is the most sensible thing for long-term maintenance intensity. The most important thing though is to evaluate every situation and ask ourselves: do we really need this? The beautiful simplicity and wild fun of the Askernish experience leads me to think that, more often than not, we probably do not.
Brett Hochstein is a California-based golf architect and shaper. Read more about his time at Askernish at www.hochsteindesign.com/blog
This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.