Finally, work begins on Askernish Old, Tom Morris's long lost links. The question is, can modern builders actually reconstruct a course that has no irrigation, no pesticides, no drainage and natural application of fertilizer?
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This is the natural environment for golf," Martin Ebert says, watching a flock of seagulls glide and hover over piles of tangled kelp on the beach. "This is a living museum of how golf got started."
It's a dreary afternoon in January with nary a sunbeam squeezing through the stack of clouds hanging over the Atlantic. But to Ebert, who will never forget the first time he stood atop this pinnacle dune, the 7th tee at Askernish Old is golf's equivalent of the glass-pyramid entrance to the Louvre. Looking down the shoreline to the south, he sees a canyon fairway snaking up through monster dunes to a distant green that plugs the end of the corridor.
April 24, 2011
If Ebert's smile seems a little broader than that of your average tour guide, it's because five years ago he stood on this very spot and saw the long, pinch-waisted fairway and the bowsprit green—before they existed.
That's because this old course, which we habitually refer to as "an Old Tom Morris links, vintage 1891," was not here in March 2006. This course was conceived, in a mere two days, by the Scottish links consultant Gordon Irvine, working with Ebert, who is a partner at Mackenzie & Ebert Ltd. of Chichester, England, the firm entrusted with the remodeling of Turnberry for the 2009 British Open. Gordon received a lifetime membership for his work on Askernish, while Ebert, after protracted negotiations with club chairman Ralph Thompson, agreed to be paid 10 shillings a hole, the same as Old Tom was paid. "It was very cheeky, but Martin agreed," Thompson recalls, "and we had a large check made out to Mackenzie & Ebert for ¬£9."
Neither payment nor design credit are issues for Ebert because, as his "living museum" comment implies, Askernish is first-generation golfing ground. Thanks to its early abandonment, the new course more closely resembles a links of Morris's time than does, say, present-day Muirfield, which the best players of the 1890s mocked as a "pitch and putt." Askernish has never had a Donald Trump charge in with bulldozers, railroad ties and artificial rocks. Askernish has never had a pipe threaded through its flesh or had ball washers installed on its tees.
"You can't get more sustainable than Askernish," says Ebert, extolling its environmental virtues. "No irrigation. No pesticides. Natural application of fertilizer. Zero drainage. It couldn't have been constructed for less or be less intrusive on the site."
We should explain that Ebert is paying a quick visit to South Uist to collaborate on some design tweaks with Renaissance Golf's Eric Iverson, who is somewhere out in the dunes at the controls of a small excavator. Ebert has been kind enough, during a stroll through the opening holes, to answer a few questions about the machair, the fabric from which his course has been woven. In the 3rd fairway, for example, he invited us to squat and examine the closely mowed turf. Doing so, we discovered that its vaguely green hue was actually a blend of colored stalks—a sort of botanical pointillism.
"There's no pursuit of pure strains here," Ebert said, drawing a contrast with modern courses that advertise zoysia fairways, bluegrass rough and bentgrass greens. A square meter of genuine linksland, it turns out, can yield up to 45 species—a riotous mix of fescue, red clover, daisies, buttercups, barley, eyebright, cotton grass, wild carrot, bird's foot trefoil and orchids.
"You look at the colors on the greens, it's just the same," said chairman Thompson. "They're simply nibbled closer."
The 4th hole brought a further revelation. A solitary golfer, hitting from the fairway, launched a shoe-sized divot that tumbled through the air, landing soil side up. Noting the surprise on a visitor's face, Ebert said, "It's loamy."
The soil, that is. It turns out that links courses, famous for their sandy underpinnings, do not all share precisely the same DNA. You have mineral-based sand on east coast links and shell-based sand on west coast links. The Old Course at St. Andrews can play as firm and fast as an artificial-turf infield, while Kingsbarns, six miles to the south, has a bit of spring to it.
Still awake? Sand grains from the Carne Banks in northwest Ireland, viewed through a microscope, are tiny round balls, which drain freely; a driver pounded on the turf produces a nice, resonant thump. A heathland course, on the other hand, might have a mix of round-grain sand and irregular, gap-filling sand; walk on that turf after a rain, and water will squirt from under your soles.
Askernish doesn't have a microscope, but you don't need one to figure out how this crazy-quilt machair got its blanket of rich topsoil. (Hint: Askernish was a farm.) Cattle and sheep have grazed upon these dunes for centuries, leaving manure as their gift to golf. The sea grasses and wildflowers, meanwhile, have flourished and wilted to rhythms of their own, bequeathing a nine-inch layer of decayed organic matter that retains enough moisture to sustain the plants during dry periods. Beneath this loamy layer is porous, high-shell-content sand, all the way down to bedrock.
If you didn't grasp it before, you should get it now. The men of Askernish have been reluctant to dig up the machair because it is a perfect parfait, pun intended, of linksy minerals. They worry that Iverson, at the controls of his lurching excavator, will dig too deep, damaging the strata and changing the playing characteristics of the course.
"Whatever we do has to be sustainable," says Thompson, watching Ebert wield an aerosol paint can on the 7th green. Instantly, a yellow dotted line indicates where the bowlike front of the green needs to be softened so that well-played run-up shots will no longer carom to the right. The dotted line resembles surgical site marks on a patient's skin.
"With a budget of zero, we built a golf course," Thompson says. "We built a clubhouse. We hired two staff members. And we've never borrowed a penny."
He's a garrulous man, but he falls silent now. The only sounds are the rumbling and the clanking of the excavator on the other side of the dunes.
The suspense is terrible," said Oscar Wilde. "I hope it will last."
It's Day 3 of the Askernish renovation, a Wednesday. Overnight rains have left no puddles on the machair, but clouds come and go, and a cold wind darts about the dunes. The front half of the 7th green has been stripped of its sod by the turf-cutting team, and Iverson, in the cab of a five-ton excavator, is scraping up the topsoil and depositing it in three discreet piles. Judging from his intense expression, it is compelling work. But it is not compelling theater—not when it dawns on you that Iverson is moving dirt from one pile to the next so he can mine the topsoil under the first pile. He is, so to speak, sorting laundry.
"The excavator is basically a rake and a shovel," Iverson says during a sandwich break. "It's far less invasive than a rotavator or power tiller." Still chewing, he climbs back into the cab.
On Thursday morning we start to see the artistry. Like a painter blending colors on a palette, Iverson has scraped up about three inches of sand and mixed it into the topsoil. "It's like top-dressing," he explains. "It helps with drainage."
But he's not a painter, he's a sculptor. He drags his dirt this way and that, leveling here, digging there, manipulating his joysticks like a seasoned gamer. Over hours the prow of the green expands; it will henceforth be spacious enough for a front-left hole location. The bank in front, while still running diagonally away to the right, is perhaps a foot lower, the slope less severe. And somehow Iverson has tied the bank into the surrounding contours.
Come mid-afternoon, Iverson parks the excavator to the side and takes to the green with a wooden rake. He's practically a cosmetician at this stage, erasing blemishes, restoring subtle contours, stepping back to see how things look from the fairway. He's aided by a late-afternoon sun, which turns the flanking dune into a curtain of gold.
Finally, after minutes spent leaning on his rake, Iverson says, "I think we're finished here." Immediately greenkeeper Alan MacDonald and his crew begin the tedious process of resodding, kneeling on boards to press the grass slabs back into place, trimming with turf knives when necessary. They work through a sunset that turns the clouds pink, they work into the ice-blue gloaming under a crescent moon ... and they finish in sunshine on Friday morning.
"It's brilliant," says club president Donald MacInnes, pulling off his grimy work gloves. "When the grass heals, nobody will know we touched this green. But it's a better hole now. It's an absolutely stunning par-4."
Iverson has driven the excavator to the 11th green, so he doesn't get to hear this. But the clubmen make up for it that evening when they gather for a few pints at the Borrodale Hotel. After a series of toasts—Well done, Eric! Cheers!—Alan MacDonald sits down to share something with Iverson. "I never thought using the excavator was a problem," the Askernish greenkeeper says. "It was a question of finding the right operator. Because if you don't have the experience...."
Iverson, understanding completely, flashes his best grin. "You simply didn't want a cowboy out there."
MacDonald nods sheepishly.
In the next installment of This Old Course we'll examine the Irvine-Ebert routing to see how closely it conforms to Old Tom's ghost course. And if we can hear him over the wind, we'll catch Iverson opining that Askernish "doesn't have to be the hardest course in Scotland."
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Read the first installment of This Old Course and more at GOLF.com/garrity
IVERSON'S NOT A PAINTER; HE'S A SCULPTOR. HE DRAGS DIRT THIS WAY AND THAT, LEVELING HERE, DIGGING THERE.
"IT'S BRILLIANT," SAYS MACINNES. "NOBODY WILL KNOW THAT WE TOUCHED THIS GREEN."
CATTLE AND SHEEP HAVE GRAZED ON THE DUNES FOR CENTURIES, LEAVING THEIR GIFT TO GOLF.
ASKERNISH: A TIME LINE
1891 Old Tom Morris, the world's most famous golfer, lays out an 18-hole links course on the Hebridean isle of South Uist, Scotland.
1891--1921 At the pleasure of Lady Gordon Cathcart, wealthy sportsmen golf in the dunes. The course is maintained by scythe-wielding farmworkers doubling as caddies.
1922 The Scottish Land Settlement Act transfers grazing rights to 11 Askernish crofters. Old Tom's neglected course begins its slow decline.
1932 Cathcart dies. Ownership of the South Uist estate passes to the next of several absentee landlords. Old Tom's course vanishes in the mist, like Brigadoon.
1936 A stretch of the machair north of the ghost course becomes a commercial airstrip. Annual visitor Derek MacMenemy lays out a 12-hole links alongside the grass runway.
1956 Dr. Kenneth Robertson, an avid golfer, drums up enthusiasm for golf. Askernish Golf Club moves into a port-a-cabin clubhouse. Soldiers and construction workers from the up-island missile-testing range flock to the dunes.
1970s Robertson lays out a nine-hole course with 18 tees to replace the MacMenemy 12-holer. Regular competitions are held.
1980s The army base downsizes, and Robertson retires to Edinburgh. Golf participation plummets. Winter storms wreck the clubhouse and its contents.
1990 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer John Garrity plays five imaginary holes in the dunes south of the Robertson nine, finishing on a grassy shelf dangling over the beach. He calls his improvised course Askernish Old in the Nov. 18, 1991, issue of SI.
1990s A motion to dissolve the Askernish Golf Club is debated, but a handful of diehards votes nay. Golf staggers on without tee markers, flagsticks or a greenkeeper.
2005 Scottish links consultant Gordon Irvine climbs the gateway dune in the rain, looks south, and immediately recognizes the Askernish banks as the site of the long-lost Morris links.
2006 Irvine returns with British course designer Martin Ebert. Working pro bono, the two men lay out seven new holes around the old runway and reimagine 11 of Old Tom's holes in the dunes. They call their 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 Construction begins on a two-room clubhouse.
2008 Scottish soccer legend Kenny Dalglish smacks the ceremonial first tee shot; Askernish Old opens for play.
2009 Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser plays Askernish Old with course chairman Ralph Thompson and pledges funds and manpower for course improvements.
2009 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 visits the site and makes recommendations; he promises to protect the natural character of the dunes.
2011 Doak design associate Eric Iverson flies in from Denver, takes the controls of a small excavator and starts digging. It's a new day for This Old Course.
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CHAIRMAN AND "LIAR IN CHIEF"
Meet Ralph Thompson, the big man who does a little bit of everything at Askernish
Asked how he became chairman and "liar in chief" of Askernish Golf Club, Ralph Thompson answers with alacrity. "Self-appointed," he says. "I was the biggest guy, see?"
At 6'5" and 21 stone (294 pounds), Thompson is, indeed, the biggest guy at most gatherings. He's the biggest talker and biggest rascal, as well. So it should surprise no one that he has become the biggest reason that links enthusiasts have heard about the ghost course in the Western Isles.
It was Thompson who lured consultant Gordon Irvine to South Uist to see the mighty dunes. It was Thompson who, as one of the Gang of Five, helped secure community ownership of the island's machair lands. It was Thompson who peddled the first overseas lifetime memberships ... who got Scottish football icon Kenny Dalglish to hit the ceremonial first drive ... who cold e-mailed Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser, now the club's overseas angel.
"Ralph's not afraid to speak up and approach people," says Donald MacInnes, the club's captain. "He belongs to the can't-hurt-to-ask school."
Thompson, 55, lived in Aberdeen between the ages of 16 and 32, but he returned to South Uist upon the death of his father, in 1988, taking a job at a community co-op. He runs Aird Ruaraidh Consultancy Services, which, he's the first to admit, doesn't tell you much. "Most people in Uist probably wonder what I do every day," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "Difficult to explain easily, so here is last week's work diary:
Monday Biosecurity analyst
Wednesday Agricultural chemical adviser and supplier
Thursday Mussel farm manager
Friday Company secretary
Saturday Waste management consultant
"My evenings and a lot of daytime," he added, "are spent working in my voluntary role as Askernish Golf Club community interest company chairman. Any other spare time is spent as a crofter, and, oh, I nearly forgot, I have a wife and two children."
Thompson, a 14 handicapper with untapped power, played a lot of golf in his 20s before "drifting away from it." He took up the game again 10 years ago while investigating the received wisdom that an Old Tom Morris course was hidden somewhere in the Askernish dunes. Says Thompson, "I'm probably more interested in the history and culture of golf than I am in playing it."
He's lying, of course.