This Old Course

More than two decades ago, the author rediscovered a long-abandoned gem designed by Old Tom Morris on a wild, remote Scottish island. Today, with an assist from American friends, Old Tom's Ghost Course is coming back to life. This is the first of a five-part series chronicling its resurrection
February 21, 2011

The American smiles as he approaches the little yellow excavator, parked on the grass between the cattle guard and the 1st tee. The cab windows, streaked with raindrops, catch glimmers of silver from a sunset lurking behind offshore clouds.

"Is it bigger than you're used to?" asks the club captain, his eyes full of mischief.

"It's wee," says the American. "It's a wee digger."

Still smiling, he walks around the rented machine, inspecting the metal tracks and the reinforced bucket. Peering into the cab, the American lets his smile turn sardonic. He has two weeks to work his miracles, but two weeks with this machine might not be enough.

Then again, that could be the jet lag talking. In the 24 hours since his wife dropped him off at Denver International Airport, the American has changed planes in Newark, crossed the Atlantic under a crescent moon, cleared customs at Glasgow International, boarded a 34-seater for the one-hour flight to the Hebridean island of Benbecula, driven his rental car southward another 30 minutes on a single-lane road—threading through bogs and lochs and across a stone causeway onto a 22-mile-long island with a mountainous eastern coast and a sandy Atlantic shore, its boulder-strewn grasslands punctuated by whitewashed farm houses and grazing sheep—before turning in, finally, at the gabled Borrodale Hotel in the village of Daliburgh. Now, after a desperate nap and a hurried sandwich, he stands at the edge of a pasture that stretches a flat quarter-mile before rising 20 or 30 feet to meet the sky above a seaweed-mottled beach.

The locals have a word for these low-lying fertile plains: machair (pronounced MOCKer). Among the rarest landscapes in Europe, they are found in the north and west of the United Kingdom and Ireland, and nowhere more extensively than in the Western Isles of Scotland.

Golfers know them by another name: linksland.

Welcome to another season of This Old Course, the series that gives you a builder's-eye view of a complete golf course renovation. This year's project is Askernish Old, a 120-year-old links course on the isle of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. First imagined in 1891 by the pioneering course designer Old Tom Morris, Askernish Old is the home links of the 18-member Askernish Golf Club.

We'll meet the club's larger-than-life chairman in a later installment, but the men watching the American inspect the excavator are Askernish's captain, Donald MacInnes, and its greenkeeper, Allan MacDonald. It's January, so the clubmen have wool caps pulled down over their ears. MacInnes wears a hooded, fleece-lined jacket and jeans. MacDonald has on a quilted pullover and twill work pants. Golf garb.

The American sports a blue wool cap, a pale blue windbreaker with a PACIFIC DUNES logo, navy-colored rain pants and rubber shoes. His name is Eric Iverson, and he's a design associate for Renaissance Golf Design of Traverse City, Mich. He's the pro from Dover.

It's a role Iverson seems loath to play. Walking with the clubmen across the closely mowed pasture, he picks up threads of conversation from the previous March, when he had accompanied his boss, Tom Doak, on a tour of the property. To a question about the new tees he is to construct, he says, "We try to find places where the cut matches the fill and disturbs as little as possible." Quizzed about a schedule for top-dressing the greens with native sand, he glances over his shoulder at what passes for a maintenance shed—two padlocked shipping containers parked near the two-room clubhouse. "Do you have a little buggy of some sort to track some sand in?"

The clubmen snort. "We had a Cushman, but it died," says MacDonald. "Frost damage."

The fertilizer delivery system is more dependable, judging by the cows grazing on a dune above the 18th fairway, the sheep scattered across the holes on the sea meadow, and the ubiquitous rabbit dung. The greens are surrounded by white posts connected by a single strand of polywire attached to a nine-volt Paddock Master energizer; or, in the case of the 18th green, not attached. "They're not hooked up at the moment, but it doesn't matter," says MacInnes, stepping over a sagging strand. "The cows think they are!"

Scaling a trampled dune south of the 6th green, the three men step carefully around the cow pies and note the hoof damage. "More sheep, less cattle," Iverson says for the benefit of the clubmen. "Rabbit-eating sheep would be ideal."

But when they crest the tallest of the dunes, Iverson falls mute, taking in the southern view with a smile of recognition. Far below, running parallel to the sullen sea, a fairway squeezes through a grassy gorge and climbs up and up to a sheltered shelf in the high dunes, upon which a red flag is planted. Numbered 7 on the scorecard and nicknamed Cabinet Minister, it is the first hole of a 10-hole stretch as spectacular and challenging as any in the British Isles. Walking these dunes in 1891, Old Tom Morris had captured them in a single word: "Staggering."

Now it's Iverson. And it could be our imagination, but captain MacInnes and greenkeeper MacDonald seem the least bit edgy as they watch their visitor stare at the distant green. That's because in a couple of days, if things go as planned, their American friend will rumble onto the 7th green in his wee machine, lower the bucket, maneuver the joysticks . . . and dig.

Did we mention that this is not your typical renovation? The Morris course at Askernish Farm was abandoned in the 1920s, leaving only hints of its character in the rugged dunes. Several of Old Tom's holes were almost certainly lost to coastal erosion, brutal storms being a feature of the Hebridean winter. The physiognomy of the rest is a matter for speculation, because virtually no documentation survives. The current course, Askernish Old, is the pro bono work of Scottish links consultant Gordon Irvine and English golf architect Martin Ebert, who in 2007 produced a routing based on topographical clues and their knowledge of 19th-century greenkeeping practices.

Their course, while only an approximation of the original links, is "authentic" in that the holes remain as Irvine and Ebert found them. The tees, fairways and greens were simply mowed out by volunteers and have since been maintained without recourse to irrigation, artificial fertilizers or pesticides. Askernish bills itself as "the most natural golf course in the world."

"It kind of goes to the equipment thing," Iverson says over beers at the Borrodale Hotel. "Because while Old Tom's course would have been built largely by hand, he would have had dozens of laborers to carry out his instructions. Courses of this type were built by royalty or wealthy people. Resources were not an issue."

Resources are an issue for a 21st-century, community-owned golf club. Askernish has an annual greenkeeping budget of between $55,000 and $70,000, most of which goes to MacDonald and his guitar-playing assistant, Donald (Nollie) MacKinnon. To transplant turf or fill in rabbit warrens, MacDonald can call on part-timers MacInnes and Derek Yates, who are paid with a grant from Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser. But to rebuild greens, he needs a lot more. He needs the kind of muscle that chugs and bucks and spews hydrocarbons from a tailpipe.

"It was never a conscious decision that we wouldn't ever use an excavator," MacDonald says, but his lowered voice suggests that some might disagree.

The bigger question is whether some greens need to be reshaped. The mini-contours, the subtle dips and knobs that make putting an adventure, are popular with visitors and club members alike, but the underlying slopes are so severe that whole sections of the "natural" greens aren't viable for pin placements. And it will only get worse, experts tell the clubmen, as the greens get firmer and faster over time.

Iverson, like a hospital resident reassuring the parents of an injured child, promises to leave no scars. "We take a great deal of pride in covering our tracks," he says, speaking for Renaissance Golf. "We try to make it look like we've never been there."

Liking the sound of that, the clubmen raise their beers to Iverson, who smiles and lifts his own for the traditional clinking of glasses.

"Cheers," says captain MacInnes.

"Cheers," says Iverson.

The work begins, then, on a bright, frosty morning. Fulfilling his promise to go slowly, Iverson maneuvers the rented excavator onto the brow of a dune overlooking the 7th and 16th greens, where a new 8th tee is supposed to go. Three men and two dogs watch from an even higher dune as he drops the bucket and takes his first bite of marram grass.

The gallery disperses after only a few minutes. With the dogs following, the three men walk to a four-wheeler and trailer parked on the leeward slope of the dune. They unload a machine resembling a lawnmower with handlebars and roll it uphill to an exposed spot at the edge of a cavernous pit. This is the location they have picked for a shared tee bigger than any they have ever built—a back tee for the par-4 8th and a members' tee for the par-3 17th.

The machine coughs to life and yields to the forceful push of greenkeeper MacDonald, who guides it along the ground to no clear effect—until captain MacInnes steps in and begins rolling up a foot-wide strip of turf, exposing a stretch of dark topsoil as straight and trim as a carpet runner. MacDonald, meanwhile, stops at a predetermined spot, makes a U-turn, and leans into his sputtering machine on a course parallel to the first path.

Only when you walk 100 yards or so along the high ground and look back can you fairly measure the scale of the Askernish renovation. The wee digger, with Iverson in the cab, looks no bigger than an insect against the blue backdrop of the Atlantic. The turf cutters, meanwhile, are far outnumbered by the sheep on the sea meadow.

It's doubtful that Old Tom is spinning in his grave.

In the next installment of This Old Course we'll meet chairman Ralph Thompson, the self-described "liar-in-chief" of the Askernish Golf Club. We'll also watch with bated breath as Iverson lowers the boom on the 7th green.

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The course was abandoned in the 1920s, leaving only hints of its character.

"We try to find places where the cut matches the fill," says Iverson.

Askernish Golf: A Timeline

1800

South Uist (population 5,000) is controlled by the Gaelic-speaking, nongolfing MacDonalds of Clanranald.

1838

Colonel John Gordon of Cluny acquires South Uist and launches brutal land reforms that favor sheep over people. Depopulated, the island becomes a sporting estate for British aristocrats.

1878

Lady Emily Gordon inherits the island upon the death of her husband, John, the Colonel's son.

1880

Lady Gordon marries Sir Reginald Cathcart. As Lady Cathcart she rules her Hebridean properties from Aberdeen, visiting the islands only once in 52 years.

1891

Old Tom Morris (left), traveling with two-time British Amateur champion Horace Hutchinson, visits South Uist at the request of Lady Cathcart to find a suitable golf site on the machair lands. Over four days, the world's most famous golfer lays out 18 holes in the dunes at Askernish Farm.

1891--1921

The Askernish course is maintained by scythe-wielding farm workers, who double as caddies. Islanders don't play; house guests do.

1922

The Scottish Land Settlement Act guarantees grazing rights to 11 tenant farmers ("crofters"), but Lady Cathcart retains the right to play golf on the machair.

1932

Lady Cathcart dies. Ownership of South Uist Estate is assumed by a string of absentee landlords. The golf course vanishes in the mist, like Brigadoon.

1936

A stretch of the machair north of the ghost course becomes a commercial airstrip (below). Amateur Simon MacKenzie lays out a 12-hole course alongside the grass runway.

1956

Dr. Kenneth Robertson, a surgeon, moves to the island. An enthusiastic golfer, Robertson promotes the golf club, mends the portacabin clubhouse and encourages the island youth to play.

1970s

Robertson lays out a nine-hole course with 18 tees to replace the MacKenzie 12-holer.

1980s

The army base downsizes, and Robertson retires to Edinburgh. Golf participation plummets. Winter storms wreck the clubhouse and its contents. Rabbits reclaim the machair.

1990

SI senior writer John Garrity climbs the beachside dune south of the Robertson nine and beholds a heaving landscape reminiscent of Ireland's Ballybunion. Garrity plays six imaginary holes in the dunes, finishing on a grassy shelf dangling over the beach. He calls his improvised course Askernish Old.

1990s

The dozen or so remaining members vote to keep Askernish Golf Club alive, but a campaign to build a clubhouse falls short. The volunteer greenkeeper position can't be filled. Tee markers and flagsticks go missing. Diehard members propose selling Overseas Life Memberships to raise money.

2002

New resident Colin McGregor, a retired policeman, starts daily routine of grass cutting on the nine-hole course. Interest in golf is rekindled.

2005

Visiting greenkeeper Gordon Irvine, on a fishing trip to the Western Isles, climbs the gateway dune in a pelting rain. He looks south and immediately recognizes the banks as the site of the original Morris links. Awed by the sight, Irvine pledges to help the islanders restore their ghost course.

2006

Irvine returns with British course designer Martin Ebert. Working pro bono, the two men lay out seven new holes near the abandoned runway and then reimagine 11 of Old Tom's holes in the dunes. Lacking funds and equipment, club members simply mow out the greens, tees and fairways. They call the course Askernish Old.

2006

As part of Scotland's biggest community land buyout, South Uist residents assume ownership of their island—including the linksland at Askernish Farm.

2007

Englishman Malcolm Peakes, a proselytizer for sustainable golf practices, flies in a dozen or so friends for a tournament on 16 completed holes.

2008

Scottish soccer icon Kenny Dalglish (left) smacks the first drive at the official opening of Askernish Old.

2009

Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser (below) plays Askernish Old with course chairman Ralph Thompson, offers funds and expertise to help refine and maintain the course.

2009

The Scottish Land Court rules against Askernish crofters in a land-use lawsuit, confirming the community's right to operate a golf course on the machair.

2010

American course designer Tom Doak (Pacific Dunes, Cape Kidnappers) tours Askernish and recommends steps to improve playability while protecting the dunes.

2011

Doak design associate Eric Iverson hops onto an excavator and drops its shovel into marram grass behind the 8th tee of Askernish Old. So begins the current edition of This Old Course.

MAPPhotograph by THOMAS LOVELOCKPRIME LINKSLAND In 1891, when Morris first walked this machair on the Atlantic side of the Hebridean island of South Uist, he needed only one word to describe it: "Staggering." PHOTOINTERNATIONAL MAPPING PHOTOROSS KINNAIRD/GETTY IMAGES PHOTOJEFF BARNARD/AP PHOTOCHRIS WARE/KEYSTONE FEATURES/GETTY IMAGESHELPING HANDS Paid with a grant from Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser, workers cut and transplant turf. PHOTOUSGA ARCHIVES MAP PHOTOPhotograph by THOMAS LOVELOCKEXPERT EYE Iverson, on loan from Tom Doak's Renaissance Golf Design and using a "wee digger," got right to work building new tee boxes. PHOTOPhotograph by THOMAS LOVELOCKALMOST REAL The fairways and greens of the current course were mowed by volunteers to create an approximation of the original.
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)