Survival Course On Gigha, a tiny island in the birthplace of golf, the game appears headed for a bad end

July 25, 1999

The recent grudge match between Alistair Brown of Scotland and
Graham Miller of Northern Ireland had its moments of drama. On
the 4th hole of the Gigha Golf Club, a nine-hole track
improbably located on a pinprick of an island off Scotland's
west coast, Miller couldn't find his ball in the rough along a
one-lane road, prompting Brown to shout, "Tick...tick...tick," a
clear allusion to the five-minute search allowed by the Rules of
Golf before a penalty shot is assessed. On the 6th fairway
Miller's ball went hiding again, camouflaged by a carpet of
daisies, buttercups and clover blossoms. "Tick...tick...tick,"
yelled Brown. "The alarm's going off!"

The match turned on the 231-yard par-4 7th, where Brown yanked
his tee ball into the 8th fairway. It was Miller's turn to go
"tick...tick...tick," as Brown, two caddies and an American
tourist tramped through ankle-deep grass looking for the ball.
Miller, a retired businessman and yachtsman who bears a certain
resemblance to Mark O'Meara, save for his 18 handicap, grinned
and said, "I would hate to win a match on a lost ball."

Brown would've been forgiven had he muttered an oath or two and
questioned the ancestry of the greenkeeper. The fairway grass
was three inches deep and covered with a layer of matted
clippings. The rough was a mix of dense turf and wispy stalks
topped by brown seed heads. The really deep stuff, behind the
greens and along the course boundaries, was waist-high and
impenetrable.

But the greenkeeper at Gigha is none other than Brown himself,
and there he was, the week before the Open at Carnoustie,
contemplating the almost unthinkable: the death of a golf course
in the birthplace of golf. "Sometimes I don't want to say I'm a
part of this," he said after the match while having a drink with
Miller and some friends at a picnic table outside the Gigha
Hotel. "I see somebody playin' the course, and I want to go and
hide."

That drew derisive snorts from his friends. Brown, 56, can be
called garrulous, devilish or mischievous, but never shy. He is,
in fact, as visible as a piece of the landscape on tiny (seven
miles long and two miles wide) Gigha (pronounced GEE-ah), the
southernmost isle of the Inner Hebrides chain, off Scotland's
Kintyre peninsula. If you are one of Gigha's 120 full-time
residents, you call on Brown to fix your loo (he's a plumber by
trade), mend the underwater cable (he works for the
hydroelectric company) or check the water mains (he works for
the West of Scotland Water Board). Brown also maintains the
graveyard at the Kilchattan church ruins and takes care of the
course, which he and gamekeeper John Wight laid out in a sheep
meadow 13 years ago. "Aye, I'm now down to about five jobs,"
Brown says. "I don't know what to do with my time."

On Gigha, time is as plentiful as full-time jobs are scarce. The
only commercial properties are the 13-room hotel with its
restaurant and bar; the J&M McSporran general store with its
post office; and a knitwear shop in a cottage, a mile from the
hotel. Sheep roam the hills, and cattle graze in the lowland
crofts. In good weather tourists straggle off the car ferry from
Tayinloan, on the peninsula, 2 1/2 miles away, to stroll the
Achamore Gardens, the island's main attraction. They do not, as
a rule, come to play the shaggy par-33 Gigha course--not with
the glorious links of Machrihanish a mere 21 miles farther down
the peninsula.

Brown knows about Machrihanish. He has been a member there since
1957 and regards it as "a rare beauty and as tough a test as you
will get anywhere." Old Tom Morris, upon viewing the original
12-hole course, allegedly said that Machrihanish was "specially
designed by the Almighty for playing golf." The flattery got him
the contract to build the final six holes, which were completed
in 1879. "They say the 1st at Machrihanish is the best 1st hole
in the world," Brown says. "You have to hit it clear across the
bay with your first shot."

If Brown sounds enchanted with Machrihanish, it's because he's
disenchanted with his own course. The club's main mower broke in
the spring, forcing him to cut the fairways with a rotary-bladed
grassland topper designed for cow pastures. The topper's lowest
cut is about 2 1/2 inches, and it had been used to mow the
rough. It still is, according to the few bewildered tourists who
have played the course this summer. "I lost 12 balls today,"
said Craig Henderson, a young mainlander who came to Gigha on a
golfing double date. "That's the most balls I've lost in my
life." The club secretary, John Bannatyne, said the grass got so
long recently that some other holiday golfers went to the
farmhouse across the road to demand a refund of the [pound]10
greens fees they had put in the club's honor box. "The man had
to hide in his house and lock the door till they left on the
ferry," he said.

The villain in this melodrama is the club's Huxley TR84
hydraulic reel mower, which changed overnight from a mowing
machine to a chopping and gouging machine. "It's either that the
main pump's gone or the wee pumps are bad," says William Howden,
staring warily at the three-cylinder apparatus outside the
hotel's work shed. "It just stops cutting, and there's no manual
to help with repairs."

Howden, who manages the privately owned island for Holt Leisure
Parks, Ltd., and his wife, Sandra, care enough about the course,
which Holt Leisure Parks leases to the club for [pound]1 a year,
to volunteer to spend long hours in a tractor cab cutting
daisies with their pathetic grass topper. "It's a good excuse to
get out of the office and enjoy the sunshine," says Howden.

Upon hearing of the Gigha golf quandary, the visitor is inclined
to raise a skeptical eyebrow. This is Scotland, after all. The
mythology of the game has the first courses emerging with
virtually no help from man. Wind and rain, we are told, designed
the Old Course at St. Andrews. Grazing sheep provided the daily
maintenance.

But on Gigha an odd combination of factors makes golf difficult.
The island has no linksland, the sandy soil that supports wispy
turf grasses, a few hardy shrubs and little else. Instead, Brown
and Wight built their course on rich, black loam. "It's an old
farm, and unfortunately the ground's very fertile," says
Bannatyne.

Then there's the economics of the place. The Gigha Golf Club has
only 16 resident members, mostly lobstermen, scallop fishermen
and farmers. They pay annual dues of [pound]60 ($94). Another
dozen "country members," most of them from Glasgow and
Edinburgh, pay [pound]55 a year. The remaining revenue comes
mostly from hotel guests and visiting yachtsmen like Miller, who
anchor off Gigha. With an annual income of about [pound]5,000,
the club can meet its fixed expenses, but there is no money for
the unforeseen. Last winter, a storm on Boxing Day (Dec. 26)
felled 150 trees at the Gardens, blew the roofs off several
houses and flattened the course's clubhouse, which was little
more than a shed to begin with. Brown built a new shelter using
scrap lumber, but it is essentially a crate with a window.

Fixing the hydraulic mower is a more daunting and expensive
task. Last year it cost the club [pound]600 just to have its
blades sharpened. A complete overhaul will bust the budget, and
Brown isn't sure it's a sound investment. "What we really need
is a set of gang mowers," he says, referring to the
nonhydraulic, independently suspended cylinder mowers that most
courses use to cut fairways efficiently. Unfortunately, a new
gang mower costs up to [pound]10,000, a used one half that--"for
some secondhand, cast-off rubbish that probably won't work
anyway," says Brown.

Have the islanders considered cutting the grass the
old-fashioned way, with sheep? Yes, they have. In the winter,
when the weather is too unpleasant for golf, a mainland farmer
brings his flock over to dine on Gigha's fairways. But if sheep
were kept year-round, the club would, by law, lose its right to
the land--never mind what sheep would do to the greens. Says
Brown, "If we don't find an answer soon, there'll be sheep for
certain. It'll be golfers off."

With prospects so bleak, you might expect the islanders to fold
their hand. Instead, they treat the failing course as they would
an invalid parent, praying for a miracle cure. Bannatyne, whose
day job is skipper of the car ferry, spent [pound]200 of his own
money for two old hand mowers. Straight off the job at 6 p.m.,
he's on the course, either to play or to mow. Sandra Howden
drives the tractor for hours on end, convinced that Gigha golf
offers the kind of pastoral experience the founding shepherds
envisioned. "Nobody here bothers you if you're not dressed right
or you want to share a set of clubs," she says. "It's a great
way to learn the game without feeling that you're being watched."

On a recent weekend the Howdens mowed for hours, and by Sunday
evening the first three holes were practically deflowered. The
fairways, although still bushy by golf standards, stretched out
green and pure, enticing a lone tourist to play. Bannatyne and a
friend were out mowing the greens after dinner, enjoying the
translucent light of the Hebridean sunset, which in July lasts
for three hours. The bleating of sheep carried from surrounding
crofts, and a cool breeze made the red flags flutter atop the
flagsticks.

"The daisies are gone," said the tourist.

"Aye, but they'll be back tomorrow," said a resigned Bannatyne.

Down at the hotel, Brown had parked his red Peugeot and was
resting on a bench, enjoying the sun on the back of his neck.
For a man with five jobs he seemed remarkably unhurried, but his
labors tend to be episodic. "The day my daughter got married, I
got an emergency call in the middle of the reception. No water!
The main supply was off. So there I was, in full tartan regalia,
off to man the pumps." He laughed at the memory, which testified
to his ability to handle everyday crises.

But now he had an every-day crisis, and he wasn't sure how to
proceed. "The future of golf here is zero," he said. "The little
boys and girls are keen to play, but it's not a place to teach
'em, not with two feet of grass. They keep losin' balls till
they give up." Asked if he knew who held the course record at
Gigha, he shrugged. "We don't have records of that," he said.
"We just keep records of how fast the grass grows."

Brown didn't come right out and say, Tick...tick...tick, but
unless there's a miracle on Gigha Island, he'll soon be down to
four jobs.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATTHEW HARRIS Field day For the want of a proper mower, Gigha's course is suited for grazing, not golf. COLOR MAP: MATTEO PERICOLI Next-door neighbor Only 21 miles down the Kintyre peninsula, magical Machrihanish is a world apart from Gigha. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATTHEW HARRIS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATTHEW HARRIS Busy body Greenkeeper Brown, who holds four other jobs, is the first to say the course needs work.

The islanders treat the failing golf course as they would an
invalid parent, praying for a miracle cure.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)