Norma McNeill is not happy. Out for a brisk walk among the dunes with her dog, she contemplates the small collection of vehicles about her, bristles and addresses big Allan Macdonald stood beside me. "Ach, you no changin' the landscape agin are ye?" she asks rhetorically.
Macdonald, one of just three full-time greenkeepers at the Askernish Golf Course on the island of South Uist off Scotland's West Coast, regards her with a mix of incredulity and amusement, but mostly disdain. He waits for her to go 20 yards or so before muttering under his breath; "No, we're no changin' the landscape yer daft old…." At this point his voice trails off and he goes back to repairing a wheel on an ancient, blue tractor at which the course's inventory of heavy maintenance machinery starts and ends.
Upset at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar's (The Western Isles Council - WIC) August 2006 decision allowing Askernish GC to extend its existing nine holes to the full 18, Ms. McNeill hasn't left anyone involved in the project unclear on exactly how she feels about it. "And her husband's the same," says Macdonald. "He's all in a tizz about the safety of a species of bumble bee that lives in the sand."
He needn't worry. Colletes floralis, a mining bee that makes its home in bare dunes along the west coast of the Outer Hebrides, from Barra to North Uist, is perfectly safe, as is every other animal and plant that calls this isolated, unspoilt, and at times bleak, island home.
You see, by displacing less than 100 cubic feet of earth, applying all-natural seaweed fertilizer if and when it's needed, relying on rainwater for irrigation (35 inches or more a year), and taking that old blue tractor for the occasional spin round the links with a mower attached, Askernish is surely one of the most environmentally sound golf courses on the planet.
It has existed in one form or another since 1891 when Old Tom Morris took the ferry from Glasgow to Lochboisdale with his good friend and two-time winner of the British Amateur Championship, Horace Hutchinson and, at the behest of Sir Reginald and Lady Cathcart who owned the island, laid out 18 holes on a stretch of coastline that he described as "second to none in the various elements that make up a really good golf course.
]" Old Tom, a four-time Open champion (his son, Young Tom, also won four Opens), was 70 at the time and established as the leading golf architect of the day following his acclaimed work on the Old Course at St. Andrews, Royal Dornoch, Prestwick and Muirfield - home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which also opened in 1891.
In 1936, the Royal Air Force (RAF) took over part of Askernish, the sixth fairway becoming a landing strip. Only nine holes remained, but what was left became overgrown and largely forgotten. It is not known if any of Morris' originals survived, though locals suspect the fourth might be as Old Tom intended.
These locals played over what had become a flattish and largely uninspiring layout for 60 years, occasionally dreaming up plans for its restoration. "There were several false dawns," says Donald MacInnes, the club's captain. "We always knew how special it was and were aware of its potential. But we just never had the cash."
A significant development occurred in December 2005, however, when golf course consultant and Master Greenkeeper (a title awarded by the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association), Gordon Irvine, was invited to the island for a spot of fishing by the then-factor (controller) of the South Uist Estates, Tim Atkinson.
(The estates, originally owned by the Clan Ranald and subsequently governed by a syndicate made up of eight families, were taken on in May 2006 by Storàs Uibhist - storàs is Gaelic for "store of wealth," Uibhist the Gaelic word for Uist - a company that operates much like any other commercial entity but which plows its profits back into the company and the island. It purchased 93,000 acres for 4.5 million pound Sterling with the objective of ensuring the sustainable economic revival of the islands by reversing decline and depopulation, and reducing dependency on the Scottish mainland and elsewhere.)
"I met Tim Atkinson when I was trying to book a few days' salmon fishing on a river he managed in Ayrshire," says Irvine. "I told him what I did for a living and he suggested that if I were to give some advice on the little nine-hole course at Askernish, he would sort me out some fishing."
Irvine accepted Atkinson's offer and visited the course in January 2006. "We walked the nine holes and one of the locals told me the original course was designed by Old Tom Morris," he says. "I thought that was highly unlikely but after a few more hours' chat and, after reading a newspaper article from 1892 that detailed Morris' trip to South Uist, I realized the original holes had long been abandoned following the RAF's intervention. I was then shown the area believed to be where Morris had laid out his course and was instantly spellbound. It quite simply had to be the finest piece of native Scottish linksland I had ever seen."
In an episode of the BBC documentary "Coast," archaeologist Neil Oliver likens the rediscovery of Askernish GC to his digging up of a chamber pot dropped by Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879. Irvine, meanwhile, says it is golf's Holy Grail and adds, "This is the one we've been looking for."
After talking the islanders into allowing him to bring as much of the old course back into play as possible, Irvine returned in March '06 when he walked the site for hours in some extremely wild weather and became convinced he had found much of the old course. "But I needed to map the layout," he says. "I was refurbishing Royal Cinque Ports in Deal, Kent, with course architect Martin Ebert at the time and I approached him asking if he would volunteer his time, like the rest of us, to help us find the old course. He agreed and came out with me to Askernish at the end of March when we pegged out the old holes and mapped them with GPS."
Ebert, who worked with Donald Steel on the award-winning Highland Course at Primland in Virginia and who has also been involved with the renovation of several Open Championship venues, was a little reluctant to work free of charge initially, having left Steel's employ and setting up his own firm with Tom Mackenzie just a few months previously.
"When Gordon first contacted me, he asked if we did any work for charity," Ebert remembers. "Having been in business for less than a year, the prospect of working without pay and even meeting our own expenses was not the most attractive prospect. However, his description of the sand dunes, coast line and classic linksland filled me with intrigue and excitement, and how glad I am that we became involved."
Ebert's first impression was not entirely positive, however. "The nine holes that were in play were not the most exciting," he says. "But it was obvious they were not the original Morris holes."
The decision was soon made that if the restoration was to be successful, the existing nine would need to be forsaken, and 18 new holes utilizing the superb dune system at the southern end of the property - where Ebert and Irvine believed much of the original course was positioned - would need to be created. "The excitement really grew when we headed off into the dunes looking for the original greens and holes to cover the terrain," says Ebert.
"Stringing them together just seemed to fall into place.
We headed back to the hotel and schemed something up overnight and the next day pegged out all the back tees, doglegs and greens and recorded their positions with GPS. We can't be entirely certain because there is so little evidence of where his holes were, but I think our layout could be very similar to Old Tom's, and I think a strong case could be made in support of our theory that the eighth, ninth, 10th and 14th greens are the originals. Regardless, those two days of discovery were probably the most fulfilling of my career, so far."
With Irvine and Ebert working for nothing (actually Ralph Thompson, the club chairman and the man behind much of what's going on, sent Ebert a check for 9 pounds - the amount Morris is believed to have been paid), a posse of visiting greenkeepers also here just for the experience, minimal restoration and operating costs - 35,000 pounds have been spent on course this year, and operating costs are estimated at just 70,000 pounds a year - a grant from the R&A, sponsorship from sister clubs Goodwood and Angus Glen in Ontario, Canada, and overseas membership sales going well (lifetime memberships cost 2,500 pounds), Askernish GC at last has the cash and expertise MacInnes says it always lacked.
But despite its improving financial state, the pool of talent that had gathered and everyone's genuine excitement, the WIC was still to grant permission for the course to be extended. "The dunes are certainly sensitive, but the fact golf had been played on them before supported the planning application," says Ebert. "Also, just mowing the course out rather than moving any earth allayed their fears. But it was still a relief when permission came through in August '06."
Storms last winter created considerable a sand-blow across the course, which forced Thompson and Irvine to create three new holes that Ebert refined last May. The new 11th, 12th and 13th, actually three of the most fun and exhilarating holes out there, are every bit as natural and organic as any other hole and visitors will not be able to distinguish new from old. But even though Ebert has incorporated them into his layout, planning permission for them is still to be given. "During my last conversation with Ralph, he suggested the plan is to mow them out and get them in play," says Ebert. "We will then wait to see if we are asked to apply for permission. I don't foresee any problems though."
Most islanders couldn't wait for the new Askernish GC to open. Ron MacLennan, owner of the Balivanich Co-op grocery store on the neighboring island of Benbecula said it gives the Western Isles the shot in the arm they've needed for decades, ever since the 1820s in fact when landowners began packing the Hebridean population off to Canada to make way for sheep farming. MacLennan, clearly an astute businessman who recognizes the need for investment and development, couldn't believe Aberdeenshire Council's original decision to reject Donald Trump's plan for a golf resort on the outskirts of the Granite City. "What a bunch of idiots they are," he says.
John Gray, who operates the Burnside Filling Station (gas station) and Chip Shop in Daliburgh on South Uist, hopes more visitors will be stopping by for a bag of haggis and chips, and Rosemary Robinson who runs the Ard-Na-Mara (Gaelic for "House near the Sea") Bed and Breakfast in Kilpheder, just two miles from Askernish, expects to fill her rooms throughout the summer. Indeed, she took a booking from three Americans in January for May 24th when the course had a "soft opening" to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Old Tom's death (the official opening took place in August 2008).
Of course, the McNeills will continue to resist the changes, and they won't be alone. Scottish Natural Heritage has expressed serious concerns for the wildlife, and the local crofting association, which accused Storàs Uibhist and Askernish GC of breaching crofting laws in June '06, has said plans to refurbish the course would destroy areas of the machair (pronounced "macker"), a stretch of grassland that borders the course to the east on which livestock grazes. Ebert, Irvine and Thompson have had several conversations with the crofters and done much to appease all the doubters, but they know they will never please everybody.
And perhaps not every golfer that makes his or her way to the Outer Hebrides will return home happy either. Askernish is strictly for the foolhardy aficionado who will do whatever it takes, and go wherever he has to, in order to satisfy his appetite for authenticity. Askernish redefines "charming," certainly. But rest assured this is raw, unrefined, undiluted, even crude golf, as close to what it was like in Old Tom's day.
If you took the game up in your 30s as a way of advancing your career, or after watching the Masters and thinking, "I love all the water and the pretty flowers," then you just won't get it here. You will stand on the first tee, look out over the desolate terrain before you wonder what possessed you to travel all that way.
But if you really love the game, appreciate its history and know that playing an unearthed work of art beats knocking it 'round yet another overcrowded, over-watered and over-marketed resort course, then you will stand on that same tee and think you made it into heaven early.
You may even catch a glimpse of Scottish soccer legend Kenny Dalglish, who was appointed the club's honorary president in December '07. And you will strike the ball off turf so pure it moved Irvine to remark that anyone who couldn't play off it, must be useless.
Impressed by Morris' work at St Andrews, Alister Mackenzie once wrote that "The chief object of every golf architect or greenkeeper worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself." Askernish is so wholesome and uncorrupted, and resembles nature so closely it makes St. Andrews look positively contrived.
Mackenzie, and indeed Old Tom, would heartily approve. And who knows; one day Norma McNeill might too.
1. 490 Clan Ranald
2. 139 Dr. Roberston
3. 270 Wicked Lady
4. 324 Flora
5. 349 Marloch
6. 575 Runway
7. 438 Cabinet Minister
8. 249 Kelpie
9. 324 Brochan
10. 392 Hallan
11. 191 Barra Sight
12. 582 Piobarachd (Gaelic term for pipe music)
13. 320 Goodwood
14. 141 St. Valery
15. 351 Balaclava
16. 359 Old Tom's Pulpit
17. 161 Corncrake
18. 509 Slainte Mhath (Good Health in Gaelic)
Total: 6,164 yards
Green fees: 30 pounds (about $55).
The Course that Time Forgot
By: Tony Dear
Pictures courtesy of Aidan Bradley