Askernish Golf Club - as nature intended!

Kevin Marksin Golf

It's sometimes wet; it's sometimes wild, but it's also stunningly beautiful ... the 'lost' course of Askernish. Situated on the Outer Hebridean isle of South Uist, Askernish Golf Club has an amazing history. Originally designed by Old Tom Morris in 1891, it fell into disrepair and was finally reclaimed by the shifting sands. In 2005, a chance conversation led to a visit by Gordon Irvine and the restoration of the course began.

Kevin Marks visited the Outer Hebrides early last year to meet Head Greenkeeper, Allan MacDonald. It takes an effort to get there, but for any golfer who has an innate love of the game, a visit to Askernish, the most natural golf course in the world, is a must

In June 1891, Old Tom Morris, accompanied by his companion Horace Hutchinson, travelled from St Andrews to South Uist at the request of the wealthy landowner, Lady Emily Gordon Cathcart, the widow of Captain John Gordon, to inspect the machair lands with a view to laying out a new course. He eventually laid out the eighteen holes on the rolling dunes of Askernish farm, although he declared at the time that the choice of links land in that particular area was staggering.

To the uninitiated, machair is a Gaelic word meaning a fertile low-lying grassy plain, which occurs primarily on the exposed western coasts of Scotland and Ireland and, in particular, the Outer Hebrides. Here, sand, largely made up of crushed shells, is regularly blown ashore by the fierce Atlantic gales. Over time, the calcium rich shell sand and traditional Outer Hebrides crofting land practices have led to the development of a mosaic of fertile Scottish grassland habitats renowned for its outstanding wildflowers, birds and insect life.

During its early years, the course would have been used as a vehicle to entice visitors to the island, to be enjoyed along with the traditional pursuits of fishing and shooting. Some of the island's 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 in the traditional way back then, using scythes and other handheld implements.

In 1922, the Scottish Land Settlement Act ceded the grazing rights of Askernish farm to eleven crofters and a lack of consistent maintenance led to the course's general decline. Then, in 1932, Lady Cathcart died and ownership of the South Uist estate passed into the hands of absentee landlords. The course was gradually reclaimed by nature and eventually disappeared into the shifting sands of the dunes.

Northern and Scottish Airways began a regular air service from Renfrew to Askernish in 1936. The manager of the Lochboisdale Hotel was in charge of the aircraft bookings and commissioned a resident of the hotel, Derek MacReadie, a notable amateur golfer and avid fisherman, to lay out a 12-hole course using a flatter area of the machair alongside the grass airstrip.

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 worked tirelessly in reviving the membership and encouraging the youth of the island to adopt the sport.

A military rocket range had 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 to the course, where a portacabin was being used for a clubhouse. In 1970, Dr Robertson designed a new layout which consisted of nine holes and eighteen tees. By this time, the Old Tom Morris course had been totally consumed by nature and virtually forgotten.

Dr Robertson left the island in 1982 to retire to Edinburgh and, with the downsizing of the military base, the nine-hole course once again fell into decline. The 1990s 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, but that collapsed as no grant funding could be found.

The situation was so bad that, at one point, a vote was taken on whether or not to disband the club, but a handful of diehards soldiered on, without flags, tee markers or a greenkeeper.

2005 was the remarkable turning point in the history of Askernish. Gordon Irvine, a golf course consultant and keen fisherman, contacted an estate in his native Ayrshire to enquire about fishing rights. The gentleman he spoke to also happened to be the former Factor (estate manager) of South Uist Estates and mentioned, during their conversation, that there was an Old Tom Morris course on the island. Gordon was disbelieving and contacted the club's Chairman, Ralph Thompson, for confirmation, who promptly confirmed that, indeed, there was a connection and invited Gordon over to inspect the links. At this time, the nine-hole course had a few dozen members and the greens were mowed with rusting gang mowers and an old tractor.

Gordon visited the course in December 2005 and, although the weather conditions were atrocious, he immediately commented on the superb quality of the turf and, when he saw the dune system from where the original course started, he exclaimed that he had found 'The Holy Grail'.
Now, Gordon is something of a links specialist, having worked at Turnberry throughout the 1980s and returning in 1994 to help prepare the course for The Open. He has also undertaken consultancy work at Royal Cinque Ports in Kent, Hunstanton Golf Club and Royal West Norfolk Golf Club, both in Norfolk.

What he saw has now passed into folklore; at the top of the dune he gazed down on what was obviously a stretch of rolling links running alongside the beach. Although there was little or no sign of the position of the former greens, it was obvious that the spectacular piece of land could have been the site of Old Tom's creation. Convinced he had stumbled on a lost masterpiece he suggested that, if the club could muster a group of volunteers, he would donate his time and expertise to help resurrect Askernish.

So, in March 2006, he returned to the island having assembled a small group of like-minded enthusiasts - golf course architect, Mike Ebert; a greenkeeping colleague, Chris Haspall, and Adam Lawrence, the editor Golf Course Architecture magazine.

With no plans of the course in existence, their first task was to try and identify eighteen possible locations for the greens. So, using their combined knowledge of Old Tom's design principles, they walked through the machair plotting possible options. That evening, Ebert produced a plan on his laptop, and this provided the basis for the restoration work. This original plan has been slightly modified since, but the basic area and layout remains much the same as plotted that day.

All the necessary planning permissions were in place by December 2007, although not without some resistance from a few local crofters who believed the club were trying to eliminate livestock from the machair. Over time, this has been proved not to be true, as the course has remained as authentic to its 1891 principles as possible. Cattle and sheep still graze the land during the winter months and the use of all artificial fertilisers and herbicides is prohibited. This has led to Askernish being known as 'the most natural golf course in the world'.

By the end of winter 2007, all eighteen holes were laid out and seventeen fairways were in place; the remaining fairway, the 12th, was under construction and featured a spectacular double fairway. The course was completed by the end of May 2008 with the official opening scheduled for late August.

On 22nd August, over 100 competitors plus the local, national and international media, locals and well-wishers flocked to the club for the official opening, presided over by club Chairman Ralph Thompson and Honorary President Kenny Dalglish. On the first tee, and fittingly dressed in a kilt, Club Captain, Donald MacInnes, hit the opening tee-shot on Old Tom's restored Askernish course with a finely-struck hickory iron.

The ongoing development of the course continued in 2009, again with Martin Ebert and Gordon Irvine MG, but now including fresh support from Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keizer and American architect Tom Doak. The 'fine-tuning' included the re-siting of the 6th and 17th greens.

Obviously, a golf course requires a minimum of maintenance equipment to keep it playable and this is where Ransomes Jacobsen became involved in the project. Then Managing Director, David Withers, now President of Jacobsen, is a golf enthusiast and, through his industry contacts, became aware of the Askernish story. Realising they would need mowing equipment, he contacted the club and offered to support them with a donation of equipment.

And so it was that the first delivery of equipment was shipped from the local ferry port to the club; although not new, it had been refurbished at the company's Ipswich manufacturing plant and was gratefully received by head greenkeeper Allan MacDonald.

The small fleet of Jacobsen equipment consisted of a Greens King IV triplex greens mower, an AR250 contour rotary mower, a Fairway 250 and a Cushman Turf Truckster; enough equipment to maintain the course in its 'natural' state.

Allan MacDonald has been the full time head greenkeeper since 2006, although he has over twenty years association with the club. Through research into his family history, he is a descendant of Flora MacDonald, the Jacobean heroine who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after the Scots' defeat at the Battle of Culloden.

The owner of a general store on the island until 2004, he gained a limited knowledge of greenkeeping through his volunteer work, which also included spells as secretary and captain. To further his education, he undertook web-based courses on the Elmwood College turf management programme, attaining Level 2, and recently completed the HNC module in Golf Course Management. He is assisted by Nollie Mackinnon from May to October, when the cattle and sheep are prohibited from the machair and the course enters high season.

In glorious weather, Allan was the host for my course tour and it was fascinating to see how the course had been restored. The first six holes form a loop which includes two par 5s and provide a gentle start with undulating greens and reasonable changes in elevation. But nothing prepares you for the sight when you reach the 7th tee, where you are greeted by the Atlantic Ocean with views of Barra and some of the most stunning dune systems in golf.

Walking the course it is difficult to see if, by some chance, the combined efforts of Irvine, Ebert, Haspall and, latterly, Malcolm Peake, have placed a green or tee in a location out of character with Old Tom's original layout. No one will ever know but, as you walk each hole, if they have been unfaithful, it has only enhanced the golfing experience.

A typical example is the short par 4, 8th hole. For big hitters it is comfortably reached in one, but is guarded by fearsome drop offs to the right of the hole and back of the green, so you need to be extremely brave to try for an eagle or birdie.

We arrive back at the clubhouse and sit down to some welcome refreshments prepared by the clubhouse manager, Mary Flora MacDonald, who just happens to be Allan's wife! Her homemade cakes and biscuits are superb and the clubhouse has a really homely feel; there's even a small Pro Shop to the side, also managed by Mary Flora.

Over tea and cake, I have the chance to interview Allan and get more background. He obviously loves his job and is hugely appreciative about the support he has received from many sources.

"We are extremely grateful to Malcolm Peake, who introduced David Withers to us in 2007; David's enthusiasm for this project cannot be underestimated," he said. "The equipment we received from Ransomes Jacobsen has enabled us to keep the course maintained throughout the year. We have over 200 acres of grass and it takes one and half days to cut the fairways. We keep it as natural as possible, overseeding the greens every year with a 50/50 mix of creeping red and chewings fescues from our seed supplier, Johnsons."

"In the initial reconstruction phase, we used the AR250 rotary mower to take down the indigenous grasses to recreate the fairways, which we now manage in the summer with a Fairway 305. Although a basic greens mower, the Greens King IV has been superb and the quality of cut is second to none."

"We cut at 6mm in the summer and increase the height to 7mm in the winter. We rope off the greens in the winter months to stop the animals grazing, and they look after the fairways for us!"

We were soon joined by Ralph Thompson, who recently relinquished the job as club chairman, but who is still heavily involved as a board member. Ralph, who was once light heartedly described in the US magazine Sports Illustrated as "chairman and liar-in-chief," is, without doubt, the main reason why the unearthing of Askernish has happened. A native of South Uist, he lived in Aberdeen from the age of 16 to 32, returning to the island in 1988 upon the death of his father.

"We now have over 200 members and thirty-four Life members", he says, with obvious pride. "We have around a 1,000 rounds a year and, at the end of August, we host the Askernish Open. This is the highlight of our year and, over three days, we enjoy a great golf course, friendship, hospitality and one of the best golf experiences available; but I'm biased. We entertain visitors from as far afield as mainland Europe, Scandinavia, the Americas and Africa; our half-way house has quickly made its way into Askernish folklore!"

"This year, we hosted the first Life Members competition with over twenty members attending from all over the globe. For some of the members it was their first trip to Askernish, even though they had made a monetary contribution to the restoration work years earlier."

"The weekend was a fantastic success and is now going to become a bi-annual event. Tom Doak, the world renowned golf course architect and his associate, Eric Iverson, were in attendance and Tom told me that he mentions Askernish in the latest edition of his Confidential Guide to UK Golf Courses as one of the three best courses in Scotland. That is some accolade for our humble course!"

My time on the island was coming to a close as I needed to get to the airport at Benbecula for the return flights to Glasgow via Stornaway. I bade my farewells and on the drive through the majestic landscape of South Uist had time to reflect on my visit.

That chance conversation between Gordon Irvine and Ralph Thompson was the beginning of a remarkable restoration project; probably one that will never again be experienced in the world of golf. Martin Ebert said that hole 8 at Askernish was the "most natural par 4 in the world" and it would take a brave man to disagree.

Q&A with Allan MacDonald

In a question and answer session, Askernish Head Greenkeeper, Allan MacDonald, further details the work that he carries out on the world's most natural golf course. It's a case of moving with the sands and from running the general store to running with an educational programme in greenkeeping

How long have you worked at Askernish Golf Club?

As a volunteer (secretary, treasurer etc.) since 1995 and, as an employed greenkeeper, since 2005.

How did you get into the industry and where did you work prior to your current position?

As part of the restoration of Askernish and, prior to that, I ran the family business of a general store, which was sold in 2002.

What training and education did you undertake?

Initially learned from course consultant Gordon Irvine MG during his visits whilst restoring the course. Also spending time with him at some of his clients, including Royal Cinque Ports. Then undertook SVQ level 2 block release with Elmwood college between 2008 and 2010, with financial assistance from the R&A. I've recently graduated from SRUC Elmwood with an HNC in Golf Course Management undertaken via distance learning over three years, again with financial help from the R&A.

Was there one person who inspired you?

Gordon Irvine MG.

Are you responsible for budgets or do you report to someone else - for example a greens chairman or committee?

Yes, I am responsible for the golf course budget and I am answerable to the Board of Directors of Askernish Golf Club CIC (Community Interest Company) Ltd.

What additional staff do you have?

Donald "Nollie" MacKinnon has worked alongside me since the restoration began, initially on a full time basis but, unfortunately, now only on a part time basis. This season, Kevin Wilde has helped out during the main season on a part time basis also.

Is servicing and machinery maintenance carried out in-house or outsourced?

All done in-house as we are over 100 miles and a ferry journey away from our nearest dealer!

What additional help do you get?

Gordon provides all greenkeeping and agronomic advice, generally making two trips out per year.

How would you describe the soil profile generally?

Wind blown sand made up of 90% shell.

How were the greens and tees constructed?

Mown out from the native grasses, rabbit damage repaired, top dressed with locally sourced sand and seaweed mixture.

Do they require any special maintenance techniques?

As the greens are very contoured, including many micro-contours that are not found on modern golf courses, they are maintained at a higher height of cut than most courses.

Does the course suffer from any regular natural occurrences such as flooding, high winds, excessive snowfall/frosts, drought etc?

We are located in the wettest part of Western Europe but, on some occasions, have endured six week droughts during summer (2009 and 2012). Winters can be severe, with high winds and rain; snow and frost is uncommon.

How do you cope with these?

By promoting the native deep rooting drought and salt resistant fine fescue grasses which are naturally found on the machair.

Do you have a driving range/practice facility?

Yes. In mid July, it is also used to hold the local South Uist Highland Games.

Tell us about your weekly/monthly maintenance regimes - cutting heights, aeration, scarifying, weed and pest control, overseeding etc.?

Greens are mown 3-5 times per week during the summer at 6mm using Jacobsen GKIV triple mower. During winter, they are cut once a week at 7mm.

Fairways are mown from April to September as necessary, but typically once a week at 14mm using the Jacobsen Fairway 250. Due to time and manpower restrictions, tees are currently cut using this machine at the same height of cut.

1st cut rough during growing season once per week at 2", second cut once per fortnight at 4" in order to promote the machair wildflowers. Cut using a Jacobsen AR250.

All other areas are maintained by grazing sheep and cattle from October to May (greens are protected from animals with the use of electric fences).

Topdressing is carried out throughout the growing season using a mixture of locally sourced sand and dried milled seaweed.

Overseeding has been carried out on all greens over the last four to five years using an Iseki TH43 tractor and Charterhouse green seeder.

Winter work, currently, is the ongoing process of repairing rabbit damage to the fairways. This winter, Gordon and a group of volunteer greenkeepers from some of his other client courses are coming out to help construct some additional tees, as the ones built during the restoration are quite small.

Other tasks throughout winter are machinery maintenance, checking electric fences, cutting greens once per week and taking back all the lieu hours built up over the summer. This winter, we also hope to acquire a slitter in order to carry out some aeration to the greens.

What pests and diseases do you have to contend with?

The only major pest problem is rabbits, and the ongoing process of repairing eighty years of burrow damage to the course. Local gamekeepers help out with shooting to control numbers.

All maintenance practices listed are aimed at promoting the native fescues which are drought and disease tolerant and care is taken not to over-stress these grasses by mowing too tightly, overfeeding or watering which could increase risk of disease. Indeed, we have never had a disease outbreak, despite fungicides or insecticides never being applied.

How important do you consider the local flora and fauna?

Vital. As you might expect in such an environmentally sensitive area, we have an extensive Biodiversity Management Plan in place. This was prepared for us in 2011 by Dr Keith Duff B.Sc., Ph.D., D.Sc., C. Geol., FGS and consists of ten pages of solid text!

The fundamental aim of Links greenkeeping is to mirror nature to ensure the long-term health and stability of the fixed dune grasses, namely the native fine fescues and bent grasses which predominate on the Machair land.

Links courses have their origins on the coastal land such as the machair on South Uist. This land would originally have been colonised and secured by the pioneering coastal grasses, such as Marram and lyme which, as the land form matured, would become stabilised by the fine fescues and bent grasses.

Traditionally, these grasses were grazed by animals such as rabbits, sheep and cattle. It was this grazing that managed the links land in such a way that the game of golf was able to be played on it.

At Askernish we want to encourage grazing in a controlled way as part of our integrated grass management programme. The extreme contours will prevent grass cutting in most areas so, in order to maintain the important vegetative character of the machair land, we need the grazing on these large expanses.

The minimal amount of rough cutting will be carried out at a height of cut similar to that of grazing cattle, which will not be detrimental to the stability of the natural fauna of the machair and will only be necessary at times of excessive natural growth.

The fairways, which make up the largest area of grass cutting, will be at the same height of cut as grazing sheep. This will prevent any damage from erosion as the natural grasses will be encouraged to create a strong turf colonised by native wildflowers.

The greens, however, which make up 2% percent of the total managed area of the golf course, give no opportunity for grazing to any animals other than rabbits. These will be fenced off to protect the putting surfaces from damaging foot printing from the animals.

However, the greens will still receive the same principled programme of maintenance to ensure the stability of the native grasses such as minimum fertiliser from organic sources only - seaweed, dried blood, hoof and horn. The improvement of the putting surfaces will be from a native sand source, again imitating the natural process of topdressing from wind blown sand.

The above principles of traditional Links maintenance will protect the machair land in the long-term, ensuring it retains the very unique but diverse fauna and flora

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