In December 2005 course consultant Gordon Irvine made an unusual barter for a salmon-fishing trip to the island of South Uist, located off the western coast of Scotland. In exchange for fishing on a river managed by Tim Atkinson, Irvine agreed to look at an old nine-hole course called Askernish that had been part of an Old Tom Morris layout dating to 1891. After the Royal Air Force flattened several holes to build a landing strip in 1936, most of the course had been largely abandoned for decades.
“I was instantly spellbound,” says Irvine, who had previously restored Royal Cinque Ports in England. “It quite simply had to be the finest piece of native Scottish linksland I had ever seen.”
Feeling a bit like he had found a Vincent Van Gogh painting in his attic, Irvine then enlisted the help of course architect Martin Ebert and set about uncovering Askernish, an original Old Tom masterpiece mostly forgotten for 70 years.
“The excitement really grew when we headed off into the dunes looking for the original greens and holes,” says Ebert, who volunteered his services, as did Irvine and a posse of greenkeepers. (Truth be told, club chairman Ralph Thompson sent Ebert a check for £9—the amount Morris is believed to have been paid.) “Stringing them together just seemed to fall into place. We can’t be entirely certain because there is so little evidence of where his holes were, but I think our layout could be very similar to Old Tom’s.”
Askernish officially re-opened in August 2008, when the club unveiled some memorable, scenic holes routed through, around and over the dunes that make up natural linksland. Great examples of this routing include the 438-yard 7th, which runs alongside the sea and plays to a small, crumpled green sheltered by a ring of dunes, and the 359-yard 16th, which has a green perched on a high dune and is great fun to play.
But every hole truly is exhilarating, largely because the greens are impossibly small and uneven—they make the undulating putting surfaces of the Old Course at St. Andrews seem flat and boring.
Although restoration to a 19th century Old Tom Morris design is part of Askernish’s rebirth, what makes a visit to this outpost so memorable is that a round on the 6,164-yard layout is a true throwback. A staff of just three maintains the course not to modern, perfectly kept standards but to the wild, unpredictable whims of nature—and in the winter, sheep and cattle graze on the course and are the greenkeepers.
In short, Askernish is not for the unadventurous golfer who demands certain standards of maintenance and a regulation scorecard with a pre-determined number of 3s, 4s and 5s. Rather, Askernish is for golfers who love the unknown and are willing to try something different. This is raw, undiluted and even crude golf, just like it was in Old Tom’s day.