Monday, October 16, 2017

Return to Scotland, A Trip of a Lifetime, September 1-21, 2017, Part III--Dornoch and Brora

Return to Scotland, A Trip of a Lifetime, September 1-21, 2017, Part III
After a wonderful meal at Royal Golf Hotel, it was off to bed and a chance to sleep late, as our tee time with John and Cathy was at 3:10pm.  So we had a relaxing morning on Saturday and I even took a short walk around town…taking the photo shown below:

Me thinks this is the only Left turn I shall ever make

Royal Dornoch Golf Club, September 9, 2017:  Records exist evidencing the playing of the game of golf in Dornoch as far back as 1616…even before I picked up the game.  The course was originally designed by Old Tom Morris starting with his visit in 1886.  John Sutherland served as Secretary of the club from 1893 to 1953 and was intimately involved with the evolution of the course during this time span.  And as a player, Sutherland was no slouch, having defeated Open Champion Harold Hilton at the 1909 Amateur Championship contested at Muirfield.  The course was changed in the late 1940’s by dropping 6 holes near the clubhouse and adding replacement holes at the north end.

Donald Ross and his brother Alec were born and raised in Dornoch and many (including I) believe Ross’ use of raised “turtle back” greens (think Pinehurst #2) was a result of playing what is now Royal Dornoch during his first 25 years before moving to St. Andrews and then emigrating to the United States.  Alec won the US Open at Philadelphia Cricket Club (St. Martin’s Course) in 1907.

My sense is that Royal Dornoch (the club was granted the “Royal” designation in 1906 by King Edward the Seventh) first became know in the USA as a result of one of Herb Warren Wind’s epistles in The New Yorker in the mid-late 1970’s.  I first played Royal Dornoch in early July 1981…when Americans were few and far between.  The charm, peacefulness, pure delight of the course, club and entire area, and the subtle but devilishness of the design features (e.g. the turtleback greens that Ross learned so much from) have caused me to rate it #2 worldwide (2nd to Cypress Point) on my personal Worldwide Top 100.  And don’t ask…I ain’t putting on this blog a personal Top 100 (or in an email…so don’t bother, or you will be punished by never being able to unsubscribe from this blog).  I can get through 1-4, then I have a “tie” between 7 others as to places 5-11.  Not really a tie…just that I find my decision on these spots moves from day to day and mood to mood.

In fact, my rating of Royal Dornoch as #2 is higher than other lists…its highest rating ever according to “the world’s greatest spreadsheet” was #5 (Golf Digest 2016 and Planet Golf 2009), and it was included on 41 or 43 lists to date not included on Golf Magazine 1979 Top 50 or the MacWood 1939 Spoof List).  Overall, in the last few years it generally has been rated around #7-#15 or so.

As you must know, Royal Dornoch has never hosted an Open Championship but it hosted an Amateur Championship in 1985 that as I recall drew a huge number of applications.

The weather continued to be mixed…intermittent squalls had to be dealt with.  I played poorly to start but started hitting the ball very well after the course turned back southward on #9.  Birdied #12 (par 5) and #16 (uphill par 4 and hit another superb 3-wood...if I do say so myself)…but got several tough breaks coming in on the back.  Ended up with a 47-41 = 88, but was very pleased with my ball striking for the last 10 holes.

Two of the most memorable sights when playing this course come on the front nine.  After the par 3 2nd hole, there is a walk of about 50 yards through gorse bushes to the third tee.  As you emerge onto the 3rd tee, the rest of the course to the north is open in front of you and the sight is something to behold.  It is like someone opened a curtain.  Then after the 6th green there is a walk up a hill to the 7th which sits on a plateau above the rest of the track.  The view down from #7 to holes 10 and 11 down along the beach is unforgettable…and about to be enhanced.  The club is planning to remove the large hedge that currently lines the right side of #7 and move the 7th green right about 20 yards, which should (1) enhance the view from #7 considerably, and (2) definitely bring the downslope on the right side of the 7th into play and, I think, improve an already fine hole.

5th green viewed from 12th tee

Par 3 13th hole with pin tucked left


On Sunday morning, we were up early and I drove Pat down to Inverness to catch a train to Edinburgh.  We would reunite Friday evening at Gleneagles as she makes her was through her beloved castles and gardens.

Brora Golf Club, September 10, 2017:  For years I had heard about this club sitting about 20 miles north of Dornoch, and all almost everyone talked about was the flocks of sheep and herds of cows (is a group of cows a herd?) that are kept off the greens by electrified fences.  Dumb old me (as well as dumb young me 30-35 years ago) assumed the course was nothing special (to be fair…there was also another factor…when you are around a course as great as Dornoch, it can be hard to do 20 miles away to play elsewhere).

So in planning this trip I made up my mind to give it a look-see.   I was simply blown away by how good it is.  Yes it is relatively short (6211 yards) but IMO this is a gem.  The views are as good as Dornoch’s, the course is in equal condition and the holes of outstanding character…especially the stretch from 13-18.  I loved it from the first hole on…and thought the first might have been a template hole for Bandon Dunes’ first hole (any takers on that theory?).  The “fences” around the greens were just two wires that were easy to step over, even for an old man like moi.  I never did trip over them and would suggest that “happiness at Brora is never having to step over the wires more than 2x/hole.”

This is a classic links Out/In designed by James Baird and opened in 1891.  One interesting aspect is that the four par 3’s all point about 90° from each other...and are four different and superb holes with yardages of 190, 162, 125, and a sharply uphill 201 yarder to conclude the round…and my scores on them were just as varied (1 birdie, 2 pars, and a double bogey on the 125 yarder). 

In terms of top 100’s, it had never been on any of the lists I have found, and I now think this is a serious oversight. Perhaps focus should be on the brilliance of the course as opposed to the sheep and cows that occupy part of the property.  BTW, neither was sighted until hole #16.
Best holes to my mind are:
            #6---190 par 3 slightly uphill and headed west…just a classic links par 3 protected by three deep bunkers in front that must be avoided and a green with a false front on the right side strong breaks off of mounds left and back right;
#13---I spent to much time in left front bunker---partially hidden
            #13---125 yard par 3 headed east…and just a devil of a hole protected by four surrounding bunkers…gave me fits just as I was starting to play well;


            #16---maybe the best of all…only 345 yards but very uphill and turning left off the tee and right to an infinity green…and the biggest cows I ever saw to the right of the fairway.
Off of 16th fairway

Cows on 16th and flag at top of hill...just visible in center of pic



I ended up with a 48-44 = 82.  It was late when I returned to Dornoch fro dinner with Cathy and John.  We had some traveling to do the next couple of days.  More to come…
Rainbow in distance from 15th green

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Return to Scotland, A Trip of a Lifetime, Sept.h 1-21, 2017, Part II (Ardfin & Askernish)

Return to Scotland, A Trip of a Lifetime, September 1-21, 2017, Part II
The following 72 hours would prove to be fun and exciting (if you are a golf nut…less normal people might disagree).

Our flight to the island of Islay (if you are checking a map…look about 75 miles directly west of Glasgow) was as flights should be…dull and uneventful.  Then things got a little wild.  We had to rent a car, then drive about 15 miles northeast on Islay to catch a ferry across a channel about 800-1000 yards wide separating Islay from the island of Jura, and then drive another 10 miles or so to the hamlet of Craighouse and our hotel.  When I was registering with the car rental agent he asked where we were staying and I replied “the Jura Hotel”.  His response was “the last ferry leaves at 6:30” and I asked what time it was and how long was the drive…he said “5:50 and 30 minutes” and our mad dash commenced.  First I had to stuff our two golf bags into our tiny (and only available rental car), then we were off on our drive at 5:58 or so.  I, of course, did not exceed any speed limits but still wonder why Pat crawled under the dashboard.  In any case, we arrived at the ferry at 6:25…and made it with time to spare. 

Crossing the channel we could see some of the stark beauty of Jura Island and, in a more relaxed mood, started to get excited about what we were scheduled to see the next day.

We arrived at Craighouse and the Jura Hotel around 7:15.  Jura had 196 permanent residents in the 2011 census (on an island 142 square miles in size) and this is the largest hamlet on the island…and home of Jura Distillery.  The hotel probably has about 20 rooms many of which were occupied by people working on Ardfin (about 2 miles away) and our group.

When I entered the hotel’s bar, I saw a group of four gentlemen who also spotted me and said “Paul?”.  The group consisted of:
            Jim McCann, who runs GB&I for www.top100golfcourses.com,
            Martin Jordan, photographer for www.top100golfcourses.com,
            Brian Ward, Secretary of the British Golf Society,
            Chris Campbell, newly hired GM for Ardfin, and, joining us later for dinner,
            Esie O’Mahoney, SOL Golf construction manager for the building of Ardfin.

The seven of us had drinks and a wonderful dinner and told all sorts of golf course stories (at least 3.2% of which had no exaggeration) about Ardfin and other venues around the world.

Ardfin Golf Club, September 6, 2017:  Ardfin is the name of a large (11,595 acres or 18.1 sq. miles with some 10 miles of coastline) estate located on the southeastern corner of Jura Island.  It was purchased in 2010 by a London based, Australian hedge fund manager named Greg Coffey.  The Ardfin estate is one of seven large estates on the island.  Apparently, Coffey had visited Jura and wad captivated by the beauty of the place…and it is easy to see how.  He and his wife have 4 young children and initially rebuilt the manor house on the estate and his original plan was to use the property for fishing and hunting with visiting friends (not surprisingly, this is not intended to be a year round home).  Estimates of Coffey’s wealth vary but generally are in the $500 million-$1 billion range.

At some point Coffey, who had played a little golf before, got bitten and decided to build a course on the property.  He retained Bob Harrison (formerly Greg Norman’s lead architect) to design the course.  I had previously played two courses designed by Harrison, Nirwana Bali (located on the island of Bali in Indonesia) in January 2016, and Ellerston (the Packer family estate course…recently sold to Crown Casino…located about 150-200 miles north of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia) in April 2016.  IMO Ellerston belongs in any World Top 100 course listing, probably in the 51-75 range.
Building Ardfin had to have been a gigantic and arduous undertaking.  First of all, there is no sand on Jura Island.  All of the sand, grass, and other materials used to build the course (not to mention the machinery) had to be brought in by barge.

Without question Ardfin is the most spectacular golf course site I have ever seen.  It also has perhaps the largest collection of spectacular, dramatic golf holes I have seen on one course.  The par 3’s are simply something to behold:

o   #2, a 203 yarder, slightly uphill and over a deep deep gorge to a green sloping sharply right to left and playing (this day) into a strong wind;


#2---dramatic enough for you?

Now look at this view of #2...with seaside cliff to right of green!


o   #10, 177 yards all carry over a deep cliff down to the sea, with a bail out area to the right of the green; and

177 yard #10...all carry but unseen in this pic is large bailout area to right

o   #12, 187 yards playing at sea level with a carry of about 165 yards over a rocky beach to a very difficult green angled from front right to back left (but sloping from back left to front right), and impossible rough lying about 15 yards right of the green (and the rocky beach to the left).

The par 5’s are far from slouches as well.  The 4th is a dogleg right 547 yarder uphill most of the way and with a stone wall crossing the fairway about 150 yards short of the green (the “shape” of this hole reminds me of #7 at Friar’s Head on NY’s Long Island).   
Second shot on par 4 4th and you need to carry a historic stone wall

The 16th may be the best hole on the course, a 507 yard par 5 doglegging right after your drive and heading to the distant water and a strong 530 yard uphill finishing hole.  The par 4’s offer great variety and outstanding features and range from 296 yards (#9) to 462 yards (#7). 

The course’s routing takes the golfer from atop massive cliffs on the first few holes, down to the sea on #11-14 and the back up to the top of the cliffs the rest of the way…and it is a tough walk.  But the scenery is simply jaw dropping, and the course design offers tons of width an almost all the fairways.

Looking back at #`1 from behind green

How this this view...from being #1 green looking at Islay to the west


Tee shot on #3

Pat walking to her approach shot on #3

#6...409 yards with lots of options and superb use of historic wall to right off tee

392 yard #11 with lunch awaiting at fabulously restored Boat House

Green at 408 yard #14
 
Sooo, given all of the above, is this a World Top 50, Top 25, or what??  I have concluded (based on my one day and one round there and the conditions on that day), that at present is not a World Top 100, and that its ratings in future years are hard to predict.  My reasons are as follows:

1.     As explained above, Jura Island had approximately zero sand on it and sand had to be transported by barge from Ireland…this is expensive, and arduous to say the least, especially given the lack of logistical facilities (e.g. roads) on Jura.  As a result, it was not feasible to bring in enough sand to “cap” the fairway areas (an even if it could have been transported, it most likely would have blown away before plantings could stabilize it), so soil was used instead.  As of September 6, the fairways were very soft.  The plan is to top dress with lots of sand, a process that usually takes years to have a major affect.  It seemed to me that this area of Scotland receives a lot of precipitation.  Maybe the top dressing will quickly deliver firm and fast conditions, but frankly, I need to “see” rather than “assume” results.  Of the 19 Scottish courses I played on this trip, these were by far the softest …to be fair, they were also the newest.  Net net, this is an open question in my mind at this time.

2.     The architectural features of the individual holes are impressive to say the least, but most of the walks from green to tee are quite long.  The walk from 8 to 9 is especially long, one long walk is certainly understandable…it is the pervasiveness of the long walks that I noticed, and frankly, I have the same sense about Ellerston in Australia (also designed by Harrison).  To my mind, a golf course is more that just the sum of 18 individual holes…it is a full package and long green to tee walks interrupt the “flow” of a round.  A round of golf is not an all day affair in most countries and certainly not in Scotland.

3.     The course has an unusually high number of forced carries off the tee and into greens. I think this was to deal with wetland issues and still provide difficult, demanding holes (e.g. green #11).  There are some holes that may be unplayable for people with handicaps of 15 or higher (and most women) depending on wind direction. 

4.     There are three sets of tees on each hole, with total yardages of 6800, 6445, and 5523 yards.  I cannot think of a world class course (hence Pikewood National in WV is not an exception to the following statement) with no tees between 6445 and 5523 yards…and remember, this course is built in a very windy region and I am told the wind shifts direction regularly (so a 150 yard shot can play more like 110 yards one day and 210 yards the next).  This arrangement may work for Coffey and his mates (and I emphasize the world “may”) but is not the tee box alternatives one would expect in a truly world class track.  The good news here is that this should be an easy inexpensive fix…but if it does not get fixed, it may mean there is a fifth problem, named Greg Coffey.

We played Ardfin before all of the finishing touches had been completed.  Construction is ongoing (especially on the long walk between 8 and 9).  This course is not “finished”, and truth of the matter is that almost all new tracks go through alterations in their first couple of years.  Additionally, every course has some “flaw” in the eyes of certain observers.  So the proper evaluation here I firmly believe must wait until construction is completed and the course has show that it can regularly play fast and firm.  Regarding the four issues I cite above, to my mind, the most serious one is #1.  If the course is not firm and fast on a regular basis, I cannot imagine how it could be included in a World 100.

Weather conditions the day we played it were not favorable, and my play reflected those conditions.  I had a “smooth” 48 on the front and stopped keeping score after a bogey on 10.  It was windy, cool and rainsqualls came thorough several times during the 18 holes.  As a result my photography was even worse than usual and worse than my play…sorry about that!

During the round, we were visited by Willie MacDonald, who serves as Estate Manager of Ardfin. Willie has worked on the estate for decades and served in his present capacity for the previous owners as well, and is a true gentleman.  Given the construction and logistical issues he has faced, it is simply remarkable how well it has turned out.  I do hope the final stages bring the course to the point where is can be legitimately considered as a World 100.  The site and many of the architectural features are deserving of this status.

Pat had the honor of being only the second woman to play Ardfin…and we believe broke the woman’s course record.  She also had the head greenskeeper, Simon Crawford serving as her caddy.  I used a battery driven push cart…and we were both pretty beat after 18 holes.  This place was a tough walk with the elevation changes, walks to tees, and the weather that day.

After we completed play, Pat and I quickly left to catch the 4pm ferry to Islay and a flight back to Glasgow at 6:25pm, and some rest…another trip to the outer islands was scheduled for the next day.
Oh...one final note on Jura Island.  I will quote from Wikipedia:

In his later life, George Orwell moved to Barnhill, on Jura, living there intermittently from 1946, while critically ill with tuberculosis, until his death in January 1950. He was known to the residents of Jura by his real name, Eric Blair. It was at Barnhill that Orwell finished Nineteen Eighty-Four, during 1947–48; he sent the final typescript to his publishers, Secker and Warburg, on 4 December 1948, and they published the book on 8 June 1949. Despite its isolation, Barnhill has in recent years become something of a shrine for his readers.

Maybe on my next visit I will visit Barnhill…might even run into Bernie Sanders!!

Askernish Golf Club, September 7/8, 2017:  I first learned of Askernish three years ago.  In 2012 we meet two young New Zealanders who had travelled the world together playing a different course every day (and raised $$ for The First Tee in doing so).  One of them, Jamie Patton, was getting married in 2015 and they were planning a wedding party trip to Scotland including a few days at Askernish as a pre-wedding bachelor party.  After that journey, both Jamie and his 365 day partner Michael Goldstein, described it in glowing terms, saying it was the wildest, most natural course they had ever played or seen.

That planted a seed in my mind, and as I started to plan this trip, I did some research on Askernish and decided it had to be part of the trip.

This is a course originally laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1891.  The club essentially ceased to operate in the 1920’s or 1930’s, and was brought back to life and then restored to what architects Martin Ebert and Tom Doak believe to be the original design, with financing provided by a number of enthusiasts including Mike Keiser.  The story is much better told on the Askernish GC’s website:

History

Foundation

In June 1891 "Old" Tom Morris accompanied by his companion Horace Hutchinson travelled to South Uist at the request of the landowners to inspect the machair lands with a view to laying out a new course. "Old" Tom eventually laid out eighteen holes on the rolling dunes of Askernish Farm, although he declared that the choice of links land available was "staggering." Horace mentioned the trip in a magazine called "Golf", the forerunner of "Golf Illustrated", for which he was to contribute regularily over the next thirty years.
The pair continued their journey, moving north to Stornoway to inspect a new course which had been completed the year before.
During its early years the course would have been used to entice visitors to the island, as a form of sport to be enjoyed along with the traditional persuits of fishing and shooting. We know from Frederick Rea's book "A School in South Uist" that some of the residents were regular players but these would have been mostly confined to the local clergy, doctors and teachers. It was maintained by local farm workers using scythes - they were also seconded as caddies for the visiting gentry.
Askernish farm was adopted into crofting tenure in 1922 and a lack of consistent maintenance led to the course's general decline until Scottish and Northern Airways started a regular air service from Renfrew to Askernish in 1936.

Changing Fortunes

Simon MacKenzie of Lochboisdale Hotel was in charge of the aircraft bookings and he commissioned a resident of the hotel named Derek MacReadie to lay out a 12 hole course using the flatter area of the machair which incorporated the landing area for the aircraft - this area was maintained easily by the grasscutting machinery used to keep the runway in trim. Derek MacReadie was a notable amateur golfer and avid fisherman who made the annual pilgrimage to Lochboisdale Hotel for the excellent sport on offer.
The air service continued until 1938, by which time Benbecula had become the main airport for the islands - Askernish was used only "on demand" or for landings by the newly formed Air Ambulance service. Post World War Two the course was used regularily by visitors, although the condition declined due, once again, to lack of regular maintenance.
The next significant development was the arrival of Dr Kenneth Robertson to South Uist in 1956. He was an enthusiastic and excellent golfer who immediately saw the potential of the course and, ably assisted by his wife Asp, worked tirelessly in reviving the membership and encouraging the youth of the island to adopt the sport. A rocket range had recently opened in the northern part of the island and this brought an abundance of army personnel and construction workers who had a passion for golf. A portacabin was used for a clubhouse and a new layout was designed and adopted in 1970 which had nine holes and eighteen tees. The seventies were the glory years of the club with large numbers of players and fiercely fought competitions which revolved around an excellent social scene. Dr Robertson left the island in 1982 and with the decrease in construction work and the numbers of resident army personnel the course once again fell into decline.

The Modern Era

The nineties were a decade of mixed fortunes for the club. The course only remained playable due to the determination and endeavour of a few locals until the idea of building a new clubhouse sparked some life into the club. The idea collapsed as no grant funding could be found: the club had no title deeds to the proposed site. The situation was so bad that at one point a vote was taken on whether or not to disband the club. Michael MacPhee, Donald MacInnes, Allan (A.C) MacDonald, Iain Francis MacPhee, Peter Steele and Neil Elliot are all to be commended for their efforts in keeping the club alive during this period.
In 2002 a retired policeman, Colin MacGregor, arrived in Uist. An enthusiastic golfer with plenty time on his hands, he started a daily routine of grasscutting and eventually managed to create an excellent playing surface throughout the nine holes. This generated enthusiasm, and a healthy nucleus of players were participating in competitions until an eventful phonecall in September 2005 brought about the "Restoration Project"

Restoration & Development

Introduction

An estate office in Girvan, September 2005 - Gordon Irvine (Golf course consultant) was trying to organise a sporting trip for himself and friends. Discussing his plans with factor, Tim Atkinson, it was mentioned a golf course lies upon the South Uist estate - apparently designed by a very famous architect, and though much modified over the years, still with much potential. Having never heard of this course, or even of South Uist, Gordon was sceptical of the story. However, urged by the factor, Gordon phoned the chairman of the club, Ralph Thompson. When Ralph told him the club had been designed in 1891 by golfing legend "Old" Tom Morris, Gordon was unbelieving! But Ralph was insistent, and after providing proof of "Old" Tom's visit, persuaded Gordon to visit the island to survey the course at Askernish.
Gordon came to Uist on the 5th of December, and although the weather was atrociously wet, he couldn't believe the quality of the land and turf, exclaiming he had found "the holy grail". Ralph, Gordon, and greenkeeper Colin MacGregor investigated the area the original course was believed to have lain. Gordon declared that he had never seen better land for a links course and suggested that if a group of volunteers could be assembled the course could be restored back to its original state. The club enthusiastically accepted his idea and began discussing how to raise finance for the project.

Work Begins

The following March, Gordon returned to the island with Martin Ebert (Architect), Chris Haspell (Greenkeeper) and Adam Lawrence (Editor, Golf Course Architecture). Aided by a group of club members the team plotted their way through the machair area, using "Old" Tom's design principles to retrace what they believed to be the original eighteen holes. That evening Martin produced a plan on his laptop, and this provided the basis for restoration work to start! The day after the party left a group of members played the complete original course - with no fairways or greens cut - they did not have to use great imagination to realise what a fantastic course was possible. Martin's original plan has been slightly modified since, but the basic area and layout remains much the same as plotted out over eight hours that lovely March day.
Colin was at this point the club's only greenkeeper, and over the summer spent every spare moment developing the 'new' fairways and greens, while simultaneously maintaining the existing course. The members very quickly decided they preferred to play the restored layout, even with basic fairways and unputtable greens - so it was decided to abandon the modified layout (Drafted by club dignitary Dr Robertson) and concentrate entirely on "Old" Tom's original work.

Continuing Development

By December 2007 the club had received planning permission for all works on the course, although not without some resistance from a few local crofters who believed the club were trying eliminate livestock from the machairland. This was entirely untrue, being as the club's aim is for the course to remain as authentic to its 1891 condition as possible. This includes allowing cattle and sheep to graze the land during the winter months. It also includes the prohibition of all artificial fertilisers or herbicides. This move received great plaudits from environmental bodies who have branded Askernish "the most natural golf course in the world".
Winter of 2007 saw eighteen holes and seventeen fairways in place, with work ready to start on the 12th a dramatic double fairway. The course was fully complete by the end of May the next year, and the official opening was scheduled for August 22nd 2008. This time allowed the new greens to properly mature, but visitors were encouraged to use the course during the summer anyway.
The Opening day saw over 100 competitors and dozens of press, media, locals and well-wishers flock to the club where, under blue skys, they were greeted by club Chairman Ralph Thompson, and Honorary President Kenny Dalglish. On the first tee dressed in a kilt, Club Captain Donald MacInnes hit the opening tee-shot of the restored Askernish course. A finely-struck hickory iron.
To fund the ongoing works, which at one point were employing as many as five men, the club enlisted the help of Malcolm Peake, a links golf enthusiast and friend of Gordon Irvine. With his contacts he managed to produce a leaflet which was distributed worldwide with the aim of selling life memberships to fund the ongoing work. Malcolm has worked tirelessly for Askernish, and his contribution shall always be remembered. He, Gordon Irvine and Martin Ebert were installed as the first ever Honorary Life Members of Askernish Golf Club, as a recognition of the great deal of voluntary work they have done. Angus Glen Golf Club in Toronto, Canada, and Ransomes Jacobsens Machinery have both provided sponsorship and the club thanks Gordon Stollery and David Withers for their support.
The ongoing development of the course at Askernish continued in 2009, with the continued support of our Architect Martin Ebert, and Course Consultant Gordon Irvine MG, along with fresh support from Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keizer and American Architect Tom Doak, the ‘fine-tuning’ of the restored course continued with the re-siting of our 6th and 17th greens. 

Post on 14th tee noting Mike Keiser's support

After landing at Benbecula Airport (a one hour flight on a small prop aircraft), you drive southbound to the Isle of South Uist (connected by a causeway) a mere 23 miles to arrive at the course.  Some of the articles you will find by Googling Askernich Golf Club talk about the trip being a journey “requiring determination”…I say balderdash (translated to today’s language: bullshit).  The road is one lane about 2/3’s of the way with short somewhat wider passing spaces built every few hundred yards to allow cars coming in opposite directions to proceed safely…the drive can be safely made in about 40-45 minutes (and trust me, there is no rush hour on South Uist). 

Pat and I made a short visit to the clubhouse, and spoke with Steve in the clubhouse who was most helpful.  We also did some shopping…certainly wanting to commemorate our visit with sweaters and rain jackets emblazoned with the logo of Askernish Golf Club (which I trust will allow me to “one up” my good friend John Dempsey when we return to Pinehurst…as we ended with a “tie” during our last such episode almost 20 years ago…very long story but if you know John be sure to ask him about that episode).

We then drove about 2 miles south to the very nice Barrodale Hotel.  Pat being very tired from yesterday’s round at Ardfin decided to rest up for tomorrow’s round at Askernish and sent me off to explore it.  When I arrived, Steve had left for the day and as promised had put aside a motorized push cart for my use.  I dropped 40GBP into the “honor box” for my greens fees (remember, golf is foremost a game of honor), and was off to the first tee, with the wind blowing at about 15-20mph and the threat of rain squalls ever present.

The course starts with a dogleg right par 5 (480yd), then a 155 yard par 3, followed by a 272 yd par 4 (from back tees which total 6259 yards…I played from 6074 yards…with only 5 bunkers on the entire track).  As I stood on the 4th tee, I was even par with three pars and a mere 3 putts, having canned a 20 footer on #1 and chipped in on #2.  All dreams of a career round were washed away by a drive dead right on #4…but the sense of exploration and discovery remained strong.  I felt like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

As with many great courses, the first few holes warm you up for what is to come.  The beach is close by but hidden by a large dune to the west.  Golfwise, I thought the course really started on #4…and visually it begins as you approach the green on #6 with the Atlantic Ocean in the background and some of the finest natural links land in the world laid out in front of you.  On almost every hole the greens here slope sharply in every direction and are slow (probably about a 6 or 7 on the stimp).  Interestingly, though they are bumpy, the ball holds its line on a well struck putt…in fact a good putting stroke is much more necessary here than the greens you are I are generally used to.
From holes #6 and on, the course is simply a feast for your eyes and senses. 
574 par 5 6th...Cape driving hole turns right toward Atlantic

With holes #6-11 stretching southbound along the Atlantic coast.  At the brilliant split fairway 542 yard par 5 12th, the course heads southeast before turning back north for #13-18.  Best holes to my mind are:

            #7--410 yards downhill and straight through a deep valley (that almost envelopes the hole and players)…at about 190 yards the fairways falls off to its lower level through a narrow passageway between two large dunes; approach shot is to a raised, deep but narrow green;


Two views of #7 (410 yds) from tee taken on both days...simply brilliant use of dunes and valley

            #11—197 yard par 3 from one dune-top to another, with the latter being a visually imposing infinity green with the Atlantic in the distance as a backdrop…when I played it the wind was ferocious and directly in my face and I managed to clear the carry with as good a 3-wood as I can manage to about 20’ for a par;
187 yard #11 into strong wind..oh what a 3 wood!!

            #12—559 yard par 5 with the split fairway…tee sits high on dune with Atlantic behind and below; fairway left is narrow and requires a carry of  about 240-245 to make (and stay on without falling back off hill) but affords a clear opening to the green (protected by one of the five bunkers…and this one is very deep);
Approach from about 150 yards on 559 yd #12...green sits on plateau above bunker in enter of pic...and slopes front to back

            #16—363 yard par 4 and maybe the best hole of all; doglegs right across a wildly undulating fairway and a good drive leaves player with an approach to a green that sits beyond a naturally plateaued dune than makes the second shot to a green that falls off in back…front dune and green sit in incredible setting with large dunes surrounding left, right, and behind.

There have been many many compliments showered onto Askernish including “world’s most natural golf course” and “the Holy Grail of golf”.  Regarding the first, the are no sprinklers on this course…not just none on the fairways, but none on the tees or greens as well…and no fertilizers or insecticides have ever been utilized.  The second is my personal favorite and is what made me feel like Indiana Jones!  This is a must see/play track.

The weather continued here very similar to what we had experienced to date…mostly overcast windy conditions interspersed with some periods of sunshine and several rain squalls.  My round was 40-44 = 84, and simply a shear joy!!

After the round, I drove back to the Barrodale Hotel for a wonderful dinner with Pat and to bore her to tears with my description of Askernish (giving me practice for this blog post), and we planned our next day on the course and following flight to Inverness.  We also had to figure out how Pat could play it.  Askernish is a very difficult walk (this is not a finely groomed track) with steep hills up and down and literally littered with large rabbit holes.  Pat has been dealing with arthritis in her Achilles tendon and I was very concerned that she would seriously damage it while dealing with a motorized push cart.  She thought of the right solution…we would put about 6 of her clubs in my bag and then she could walk it without the distraction of a push cart and I would also serve as her caddy.

We teed off the next morning around 9:15am with similar weather conditions.  She loved it as much as I did…the weather was similar to Thursday’s and after long walks up an down dunes on the par 3 11th and par 5 12th, I could see that she was not going to quit. After snap hooking my drive and then shanking an attempted 8 iron recovery on 15, I looked at her and said I was exhausted and had to stop…as I could no longer control the clubhead.  

Green on #15 from from left...sits in punchbowl and is wide and shallow
She felt the same way and we walked down 16-18 to our waiting car.  I packed the golf bags, while she spoke to some ladies at the small clubhouse, and we were off for the airport in Benbecula.


The flight to Inverness went well and included a short stop in Stornoway.  The drive from Inverness to the glorious town of Dornoch.  We were looking forward to dinner with our good friends John H. and Cathy C. of Toronto and Pinehurst who arrived the morning before (we met then for breakfast on September 7 at the Glasgow Airport and they transported some of our luggage up to Dornoch).  I would be spending the next 12 days with them, and Pat would be doing Dornoch, then her tour of Edinburgh castles & gardens, then rejoin us Friday evening.