It is a matter of argument, among the few modern-day Hebrideans who give a damn, whether Old Tom Morris actually laid out the golf course at Askernish, on the island of South Uist, as has been claimed. Old Tom was 70 years old in 1891, when the course he designed at Muirfield, near Edinburgh, opened. A journey west to the Outer Hebrides from Morris's home in St. Andrews, on the eastern coast of Scotland, involved rail, donkey cart and ocean steamer and required three days in fair weather, considerably more in foul. As it took only a few hours in those days to design a golf course—it was mostly a matter of the expert pointing at this hummock or that swale and directing someone to drive stakes into the sandy soil where the holes should go—it strains credulity that a gray-beard golf professional would tax himself so for a nine-hole course on such a remote island.
"But if he were a fisherman," a craggy old Scot offers, "Old Tom could have come to the Outer Isles for the salmon and brown trout and delegated the golf course to a lad."
Right. A lad.
Standing on the 1st tee at Askernish in May of last year, with soft green grass curling over the kilties of my golf shoes, I saw no evidence that Old Tom—or anybody, for that matter—had laid out a golf course, in 1891 or since. There were no fairways, no greens, no discernible hazards—just a flat meadow covered with dandelions and tiny daisies. Ahead were some high dunes; beyond, presumably, was the beach. Behind me, on a wire fence, hung a score of dead crows, their black beaks open and gleaming in the late-morning sun. Bits of dirty fleece dotted the turf.
November 18, 1991
"Where are you aiming?" my wife, Pat, asked. She was studying a pencil-drawn course map that had come with the clubs we had borrowed at the estate office.
I wasn't aiming. My plan was to belt a drive in the general direction of North America, find the ball and then pick an attractive target for my second.
"Someone's coming," she said.
There was the sound of an engine from the rutted gravel road behind us. A small pickup bounced through the gate, passed in front of us and parked near a sheep pen. Two young men jumped out and began unloading material—golf flags, tee markers, a mower. One of the men, a slight fellow with short black hair, waved cheerily in our direction. We waved cheerily back.
Mentally, I was making notes for a tournament yearbook: "The first hole at Askernish is a par 4 of indeterminate length and inscrutable shape, with trouble behind in the form of the North Atlantic and Newfoundland. The prudent shot off the tee is a hole in one, since any ball landing either in fairway or rough is inevitably lost. The green, while not severely undulating, is invisible. This accounts for last year's average stroke total for the hole of 24.2...."
My drive split the middle of the meadow and disappeared in daisies. Pat elected not to hit at all until she was sure we were on a golf course, so we set out together, Pat dragging a pull cart, me with my light nylon bag slung over my shoulder. The men waved again, and we waved back. The mower sputtered and roared to life, spewing smoke.
We found my ball after a brief search. Pat stayed behind to guard it, while I walked ahead to find a green. I had gone some 150 yards when I noticed a subtle elevation of the turf, perhaps a foot high and 30 feet in diameter. I walked onto this terrace and searched among the daisies until I found what I was seeking: a crude burrow. You might call it a hole.
I dropped my tweed cap on the spot and strolled back.
"Maybe we should come back when those men are finished," Pat said.
I was having none of that. I said, "We'll never have a better opportunity to play golf as it was played a hundred years ago on genuine linksland." I took a seven-iron and turned to face my target. Or what I thought was my target.
"Where's my hat?"
Pat put her hand to her mouth and began to laugh.
I was between a snort and a chortle myself. I was tempted to go back to the hotel, get out the letter and read it again.
Every time I got the letter out, heather and mist spilled from the envelope. "Here's a story idea for your book," the letter, written to my editor, began. "What I envision is a pilgrimage to the last remaining links course in its original form in Scotland. It would be about an area that is true Scottish beauty—isolated, glacier-torn mountains and not the postcard-puff hillocks you see in Wales. The story would be about downing a few stiff ones with the local crofters, their sheepdogs parked diligently between their feet at the bar; about the salmon fishing that goes on in those parts, a subject that has left the locals little more than poachers on estates owned by huge tobacco [magnates] and guarded by thugs-for-hire from London's vicious East End. There is no shortage of stuff to write about on a trip to this early outpost of Scottish golf."
And then, a nice note of caution: "I would not expect the golf course per se to be a pristine links."
Poised with my seven-iron on the machair—the sandy land or "sea meadow" that comprises the west coast of South Uist—I had to agree. The only structure in sight, a ruin, really, was a glorified shed that had been battered into disuse by winter gales.
The words of young Peter Voy, the local factor for South Uist Estates, were clearer now. "One of the problems of the Askernish course is that it's on the machair, which is subject still to crofting and common grazing," he had said before sending us out. "There is a committee for the golf course and people who play golf, but there are no real enthusiasts. Last year the course about collapsed completely. The thing almost disappeared."
This conversation took place in Voy's office in a stone building a few hundred yards back toward the main road. Voy's unruly black hair contrasted nicely with his neat tweed jacket, checked shirt and tie. He had spent 18 months on the island working for South Uist Estates Limited, a family syndicate based in England.
The island and the estate, Voy explained, were one: a 21-mile-long, seven-mile-wide ribbon of machair, moorland, sea lochs and mountains. Ninety-nine percent of the land was subject to crofting tenure—crofter being the British term for tenant farmer.
"The landlord gets a rent of 20 to 30 pounds per croft per annum," he said, "but to all intents and purposes the crofters have most of the rights of occupier-owners." There was "sport" on South Uist, but golf was not the first thing that came to mind. "For fishing and shooting, it's paradise."
Askernish—which was spelled AISGERNIS in Gaelic on the sign by the main road—was not strictly a golf course. It had been a grassy airstrip from 1935 to '39. Currently, it served as the local site for the annual South Uist Highland Games. By and large, Voy said, the crofters were content to share the machair. Yes, there had been complaints about the "excess of enthusiasm" by some army golfers at a recent summer solstice tournament—Voy wouldn't elaborate—but the British Army no longer used the course. Yes, a few crofters grew agitated at the sight of mowers on the machair, fearing the loss of their winter's keep. And yes, there had been some conflict when the golfers put up electrified wire fences to keep the sheep off the greens.
"That was very controversial," Voy said. "The sheep kept getting caught in the wires."
If that were so, I offered, the crofters might not be that excited about the coming centennial.
Voy raised his eyebrows.
"The centennial," I said. "One hundred years of golf at Askernish, from 1891 to 1991."
Voy tipped his head back in understanding. "Ah! I was going to say, what centennial?"
So I struck with my seven-iron. Not against Voy; against all hope of hitting the green.
"Nice shot," Pat said. "I hope you find it."
We did find the ball, 20 yards from my hat. From long grass, I chipped to within 20 feet of the burrow, the ball rolling no more than a club's length on landing.
I was enthralled with the daisies, hundreds of tiny white blossoms no taller than my putter blade. The ground was rough and bumpy, and my first putt—hammered with the force of a croquet stroke—ripped through the flowers, changed direction twice and bounced over the hole before stopping abruptly. Pat was laughing again as I tapped in for a five.
All this time, the mower buzzed behind us like some lazy spring bug. Taking the ball from the hole, I looked back.
The daisies had retreated and a golf green had emerged, not 30 yards from where we had teed off. The putting area was nestled charmingly against some grassy dunes. A deep sand bunker yawned behind. A red flag lolled atop a pin planted firmly in the freshly mowed turf.
The captain of the Askernish Golf Club was Peter Steedman, an accountant. I found him in his office at Uist Builders [Construction] Limited, two miles north of Askernish. A professorial man with wispy white hair and a carefully knotted tie, Steedman had the sad air of a golfer in exile. He sat behind his desk and regarded me with disbelief. Outsiders rarely came asking about the golf course.
"Enthusiasm for golf here is not as it is on the mainland," he said, choosing his words carefully. "Fishing is the main attraction. We get help from local hotels, but basically it's a do-it-yourself course."
Pressed for details, he obliged. The membership numbered about 35. The annual fee was ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£30 male, ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£20 female and ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£5 junior. Hotel guests played for free.
When I asked for the daily greens fee, he took fully 10 seconds to answer. "Uh, five pounds, I think. Yes, they put it up this year."
Steedman's interest in the game dates from his childhood on the mainland in Scotland, where he had played regularly at the Falkirk Tryst Golf Club in Larbert, Stirlingshire. This Steedman admitted freely. Otherwise, he was a bit reticent. On the subject of the rowdy army golfers: "That's a bit of a sore point around here." On the pavilion (his and Voy's term for the ramshackle clubhouse, which has since been leveled): "It's in a state of refurbishment at the moment."
As for the legitimacy of the Old Tom Morris legend, he shrugged. "There's a certain difference of opinion on that."
There seemed to be a difference of opinion about everything related to Askernish's past, seeing as how there was no documentation. When I had asked Voy if he had any records concerning Old Tom and the building of the course, he shook his head.
"The only thing we have is this," Voy said, pulling a ledger from a row of ancient books behind his desk. He turned pages until he found what he wanted.
"This is a very strange piece of paper. It's an extract from a legal document dated 1922, and I think the best interpretation of this document is that, concerning golf, if there is sufficient goodwill, good and well. But if the crofters say no, it'll go to Land Court to be decided." He looked up. "I'm quite certain the court would hold that the common grazing would prevail over playing golf."
The paper he showed me was signed by Lady Gordon Cathcart, widow of John Gordon of Cluny, who bought the island in 1838.1 knew nothing about Lady Cathcart.
Of Old Tom Morris, I at least knew the basic biographical data: four-time British Open champion (1861, '62, '64, '67); father of Young Tom Morris (winner of four Opens himself by the age of 22, dead tragically at 25); professional and greens-keeper at Prestwick and St. Andrews; designer of Lahinch in Ireland and Royal County Down in Northern Ireland, Muir-field, the New Course at St. Andrews and a few dozen other layouts in the British Isles. But it was impossible to compare Askernish with, say, Muirfield, and conclude that they were the work of the same man. Nowhere on Askernish was there a bunker like that guarding Muirfield's 13th green—six feet deep with a vertical face. Nowhere on Askernish was there a green like that on Muirfield's par-3 16th—ringed by seven diabolical bunkers.
Later, I read in The Road to Mingulay, a book about the Outer Hebrides by the noted Scottish author, columnist and broadcaster Derek Cooper, that Lady Cathcart had ruled South Uist with "imperious disdain" until her death in 1935. It was a remarkable example, Cooper wrote, "of the tenacity of the wealthy."
Showing a certain tenacity of my own, I returned to Askernish the next afternoon. Pat dropped me off by the dead crows and took the car to look for seals somewhere south of Lochboisdale.
The machair was now dotted with flags. The daisies had been cut, giving the place the appearance of a small-town municipal course in America.
Another surprise: a golfer, preparing to strike his ball from the 1st tee.
He introduced himself as Steve Peteranna, general manager of the Dark Island Hotel on the island of Benbecula, 17 miles to the north. Peteranna, in his 30's with dark, curly hair and a mustache, wore jeans and a handsome wool sweater. He was descended, he said, from an Italian carpenter who had been shipwrecked on the island in the 18th century.
We played together for an hour or so—indolent, meandering golf under a high blue sky. Peteranna knew his way around the course and helped make sense of my scrawled course map. There were only nine greens, he said, but alternate tees offered various angles of attack to make up 18 holes. "There used to be another green out there." He pointed to some dunes along the beach. "Rabbits ruined it."
I had heard about the rabbits. They had so overrun the course in the 1960s that the desperate crofters had infected them with a virus called myxomatosis. "That just about made them extinct," Peteranna said of the rabbit virus, which promoted runaway skin tumors on the animals. "The rabbits died a long, slow death."
The rabbits were on the rebound, thanks to a belated ban on germ warfare. On the 4th green, Peteranna addressed his putt, glanced at the hole and then backed away. There were two holes, inches apart—one man-made and one the apparent result of tunneling under the machair. From a few feet away they were indistinguishable.
When Peteranna left to go back to work at the hotel, I had the course to myself. I played several balls, stopping occasionally to look back toward the mountains. I strolled along the edge of the machair and enjoyed the sea air. Along the beach, the dunes fell off as if cut with a knife, leaving low cliffs. Birds swooped and pecked at seaweed. Waves lapped gently at the sand.
Was this the machair as Morris had found it in 1891? I continued to be puzzled by the relative lack of features, the land's docility. A modern architect, looking at Askernish, would order up a half dozen bulldozers to give it that "genuine Scottish links" look.
There was also the mystery of the soil itself. Linksland, we are told, is hard and bumpy. At St. Andrews, instead of divots I left mere bruises on the fairway; at round's end, my wrists and elbows were sore. But here at Askernish, the ground was green and yielding. My pitching wedge cut the machair as cleanly as a turf knife and threw up Augusta National-like slabs of grass.
But the biggest mystery, as I told Pat at dinner a few hours later, was the missing 14th tee. "It's not there," I said. "I looked."
The dining room of the 20-room Lochboisdale Hotel, four miles southeast of Askernish, afforded a picture-window view of the sea loch, and at 9 p.m. on this late spring day, the rocky foothills and the ferry slip were still bathed in afternoon gold. It wouldn't get dark till around 11, so we lingered over coffee, enjoying the warmth of an open peat fire. The hotel menu, to our delight, was quite sophisticated—fresh salmon, local venison and other Hebridean specialties served with delicate sauces and fresh vegetables.
After dinner we moved to the cedar-paneled lounge, which was equally warm and cheery. Of the dozen or so people at the bar, perhaps half were from Lochboisdale, population 300, and only one—a 40ish man in a leather jacket—was a golfer. He was Charles Bruce, a local construction worker.
Bruce had a working-man's fatalism about golf and a long memory for indignities suffered at Askernish. "I've lost 50 balls there in the chickweed and buttercups," he said plaintively. "It's tame now, but in six weeks time, you hit it anywhere off the fairway and you won't find it. And the rabbits! They pick the ball up and sell it to the next guy!"
A waitress and a barmaid had joined our group. There was also a young man in a white tunic with the words HEAD CHEF embroidered on his toque.
Bruce said, "But if it's the golf course you've come for, it's Angus you'll want to talk to."
The chef straightened and nodded a bashful greeting.
That's when I recognized him. He was one of the young men who had driven onto the golf course with the flags and mowers.
Angus Johnstone was the greenskeeper at Askernish.
On the third day, Askernish touched me. I was practicing on the machair, hitting short irons into the 9th green, when I suddenly became aware of my solitude. With the warm sun at my back, I wandered over to the boundary fence and took in the surrounding crofts: the green meadows filled with grazing sheep, the stone cottages, the bare brown mountains beyond the main road.
Travelers to the Western Isles invariably remark on the special quality of the light, the depth and texture of the colors. It's as if the landscape were made by an artist laying on translucent glazes with a knife. The sounds—lambs bleating, a lark's song—seem similarly layered. The buzz of an insect catches the ear as surely as the sharp squeal of a seabird.
My eye was drawn to the wreckage of the pavilion, a few yards away. The sign was weathered, but still readable: ASKERNISH GOLF CLUB, EST. 1891. HONESTY BOX IN CLUBHOUSE DOOR.
The honesty box was long gone; the door itself, I saw upon closer inspection, dangled from broken hinges. Tentatively, because I didn't know what constituted trespass, I nudged the door open. The floor of the entry was mostly rotted away; what remained was covered with bird droppings. Beyond, in a room the size of a small house trailer, pieces of guano-splattered furniture were strewn about. On the near wall, a framed photograph of two old-time golfers caught my attention. There was a typed caption: "Two Founder Members of Askernish Golf Club: The Late Alec Macdonald & Alec Macintosh, Captain and Secretary."
To cross the treacherous floor I had to balance on the floor joists. I poked my head into a room no bigger than a closet. Light leaked through holes in the roof. I could make out a few rusty golf clubs propped against the wall. On the floor, in bird poop, lay a tarnished plaque: ASKERNISH CLUB CHAMPIONS. The champions were listed for 1980 through 1985, and no further. Also on the floor, and even more pitiable because it looked older, was a trophy engraved, THE WOODEN CLUB—NORTH V SOUTH, ASKERNISH GOLF CLUB.
I reflected on the words of Peter Voy: "They're doing a holding operation until some messiah comes along."
To restore my spirits, I withdrew from the pavilion and played a hole or two, stopping now and again to catalog the sweet smells and sights of Hebridean spring. The sun seemed hardly to have moved. (There is a saying in the Hebrides: "When God made time, he made plenty of it.") When I spotted two figures back on the 1st hole, walking toward me with bags slung over their shoulders, I went to meet them. I needed reassurance that Askernish was not haunted.
How do I describe Michael MacPhee? I remember him in jeans and sweater, in his 20's, a slightly built crofter with dark stubble and eyes shaded by a white tennis hat.
I watched him swing: a smooth and easy pass with the arms, but with insufficient weight shift and leg drive. The sort of swing one might take at a rock if one had only a shepherd's crook.
"Myself and Donald Macinnes there"—MacPhee nodded to his bespectacled companion, an insurance salesman—"we're about the only regulars now. The holidaymakers come out still, but the old members have lost interest because the course is in such a state. It's not been right since Dr. Robertson moved away to Edinburgh."
I learned more about Ken Robertson as I followed MacPhee and Macinnes around. The great man was MacPhee's doctor when he was young and needed a kidney transplant, and years later Robertson infected him with the golf bacillus. MacPhee painted Robertson as something of a Renaissance man, a dabbler in photography, painting and book illustrating. Robertson had adopted Askernish as his own—nurturing the greens, mending the pavilion, staging tournaments and introducing schoolchildren to the ancient game.
"He had this course beautiful," said MacPhee wistfully. "He had it really looking like a golf course should look."
Unfortunately, Robertson had retired and removed himself to Edinburgh. I didn't have to ask when this had happened; the event was recorded at the pavilion in language any archaeologist would understand.
The two young Scots continued their friendly game. The competition dated back 10 years and was still keen, judging from the occasional baleful look MacPhee directed heavenward. ("The language can get very bad, very blue," Macinnes said.) They favored match play almost exclusively, honoring the time-honored Scottish belief that no round of golf should be spoiled by one or two bad holes.
MacPhee added: "And he still can't beat me!"
They had answers for most of my questions about the machair: the rabbits, the horizontal rains of winter, the ancient cattle pens overgrown with springy grass. MacPhee explained the dead crows on the fence: The gamekeeper traditionally displays his trophies to show the lord of the manor he is doing his job.
On one hole, MacPhee was searching in the long grass for his ball when he exclaimed, "Oh, look!" He turned back the grass so I could see the tight brown nest I had almost stepped on. In the nest were three tiny blue eggs.
"Be starlings, "Macinnes said.
Of Old Tom Morris the two young men knew considerably less. The prehistory of Askernish—that dismal era preceding Robertson's Camelot—was to them the stuff of musty books and graveyards. If 1991 marked a centennial, though, they assured me there would be a celebration. "Just the two of us," MacPhee said, smiling at the thought. "This golf course is our pride and joy."
On we walked—the Scots playing their ancestral game, the American observing.
"There's a rumor that he's coming back," MacPhee said, preparing to hit off the 9th tee.
I was watching my wife drive through the gate, the windshield flashing gold in the falling sun. Swooping lapwings formed a crown above the car.
"Who's coming back?"
"Dr. Robertson," MacPhee said. "I heard that he may come back soon."
If Old Tom Morris designed Askernish, he may have designed the South Uist roads as well. The island's principal north-south highway is a one-lane road. Cars and lorries race toward each other at turnpike speeds before braking suddenly and pulling off at passing bays positioned every quarter mile or so.
I drove eight miles of this shared fairway after lunch on our last day. My destination was the hamlet of Bornish, where I was told I would find the Catholic Church of St. Mary's. Voy had offered its pastor, Canon Angus MacQueen, as the ultimate authority on the local links. "He's chairman of the historical society and a great local character," Voy said. "And he plays golf."
St. Mary's rectory, a stone house behind a picket fence, stood on a hillock 100 yards or so above the church. No one answered my ring, but I heard voices out back, and that's where I found Canon MacQueen. A gray-haired, barrel-chested man in his 60's, the canon was bent over a concrete walkway, tending a collection of purple and lavender seaweeds. He wore only shorts and sandals. A few feet away a young man in a bathing suit sat in a lawn chair, sunbathing.
"This is milk pudding," the canon explained, once we had gotten the introductions out of the way. He separated the ingredients for me—carrageen moss seaweed and water. It wasn't clear to me if this was a pud one ate or a pud one employed as a garden mulch. It's still not clear to me.
The canon's house guest was Peter Boyd from the nearby isle of Barra. "Just in to play some golf at Askernish," Boyd said cheerily. "It's a beautiful wee course."
The priest agreed. They had, in fact, just returned from a morning round.
When I asked if it was true about Old Tom Morris designing Askernish, Boyd jumped in: "Oh, yes, definitely." How did he know? "I saw it in writing in a golfing magazine."
Canon MacQueen shrugged. The historian in him plainly distrusted such a source. "I'll tell you what I know of its history," he began, "but it's not much, I'm afraid."
Alas, he spoke the truth. He told me some things I already knew—that Askernish was a landing strip for mail planes in the '30s, that the Highland Games pitched their tents there every July—and something I didn't know: "Barra used to have a very picturesque nine-hole course until the early 1950s, but it closed for lack of interest."
Boyd looked up. "Was there not a banker that looked after Askernish?"
The canon nodded, still bent over his pretty weeds. "The semicolonial types always looked after it—doctors, lawyers, bankers, that type." Robertson had been the last in this succession, and no doubt the best, but the privatization of recordkeeping had robbed the course of its past.
"He is coming back," the canon said, meaning Robertson, "but only on holiday."
I felt a pang of disappointment for the young crofter MacPhee. No messiah would restore Askernish this spring.
We chatted a while longer. Finally, the shirtless priest held out his arms in apology: He had nothing more to offer. The historical committee was preparing a history of the island, but they had not yet researched Askernish.
"No one can afford the time."
Nor could I—afford the time, that is. After thanking the canon and Boyd, I drove back to Askernish for one last round. Pat and I were taking the car ferry from Lochmaddy to the Isle of Skye at dawn the next day.
I had not given up looking for the lost 14th tee, and I finally discovered it, miraculously. My pencil-drawn map had it immediately adjacent to the 5th tee, but it was atop a wall of high dunes defining the golf course's southern boundary. When I reached the top of these dunes, puffing a bit from the weight of my clubs, I froze in my tracks. Behind me was the gentle meadow of Askernish; ahead, stretching south along the sea, was—to my astonishment—Ballybunion! The terrain was suddenly as violent as a storm-tossed sea. Canyons wound through grassy dunes carved by winter gales. Sand spilled down dune walls. Shadows collected in sinister pools. If this was not the closest thing to Ballybunion, on Ireland's southwest shore, I was damned.
There were no fences and no signs—and no witnesses—so I teed up and drilled a two-iron shot into the area I immediately dubbed Askernish Old. There was no guesswork about this shot, as there had been that first day with Pat. I saw a golf hole in the wilderness. I visualized a fairway on the valley floor leading to a natural greensite in the shelter of some dunes, 400 yards away. If Old Tom Morris once stood where I stood, I'm sure he saw the same hole, and I bet he sent his lad scampering down the valley with a wooden stake and a red ribbon.
For the next hour or so, as the sun settled over the sea, I enjoyed Askernish Old. I played winter rules, improving my lie on the imaginary fairways and taking two club lengths' relief when my ball rolled against a dead sheep. I assigned myself an automatic two putts on each imaginary green, except where I spotted a natural hole or burrow, in which case I tried to chip in. This, surely, was what golf was like in its formative stages—the salty wind, the sky, the mingled odors of wet wool and manure, the golfer creating his own course as he went along.
Amazingly enough, I lost no balls on Askernish Old. Coming in, I hooked one onto a sandy cliff above the beach, but I made a stance and blasted safely back to the machair for bogey. I mentally signed my scorecard for a course-record 23—for five holes.
When I got back to the 14th tee, I looked across the meadow and saw two figures atop a grassy ridge that served as the 3rd tee. I recognized the shapes as MacPhee and Macinnes. We waved at each other: two young Scots on one dune, one no-longer-young American on another dune, met by someone's century-old impulse that this linksland, this stretch of machair, should be a golf course.
Was that someone Old Tom Morris? I'd like to think so, but one might just as fairly credit the design to Angus Johnson or Robertson or Lady Cathcart or to myself—to the rabbits and sheep, for that matter. The lesson of Askernish is that a golf course is a brief compact between man and terrain, with terrain ultimately holding the upper hand.
I teed off, and my drive seemed to hang in the air forever.