Friday, November 23, 2007

Askernish on South Uist: A long-lost gem
fashioned by Old Tom Morris

Come with me, if you will, to paradise: to South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, with its 20 miles of white shell beach washed by the sometimes aquamarine, sometimes inky black waters of the Atlantic to the west and the ruggedly stunning peaks of Beinn Mhor and Hecla to the east.
Site of the only prehistoric mummies ever found in Britain and birthplace of Bonnie Prince Charlie's rescuer, Flora MacDonald, the island is also home to golden eagles and hen harriers, redshank and dunlin, lapwing and ringed plover, greylag geese and corncrakes, otters and seals, porpoises and basking sharks, plus over 200 species of flowering plant.
Binoculars, therefore, are a must, as are your golf clubs because Askernish GC – one of the lost wonders of the sporting world – has not only been found but is gradually being restored to its former glory.
A word of caution, however: should you be of the belief that golf courses come naturally equipped with manicured Augusta fairways and flawless Pebble Beach greens, then perhaps you should make alternative arrangements.
Askernish, by stark contrast, represents golf in the raw, as originally laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1891 when he described the terrain as being ''second to none in the various elements that go together to make a very good golf course".
According to Thames Valley resident and club life member Malcolm Peake, "The experience of playing Askernish is the nearest thing you will ever experience to what our golfing forefathers played in the early days when Old Tom Morris came up with the innovation of reducing St Andrews from 22 to 18 holes.
"It will be enjoyed by the golfer who appreciates the original form of golf, played as much along the ground as in the air, and by those who enjoy a challenge and accept that golf was never meant to be fair."
One such golfer is Kenny Dalglish who, in accepting the position of Honorary Life President, offered the prediction that "Askernish Golf Club will become a jewel in world golf."
Due to reopen officially next August, Askernish had been a hidden gem for seven decades, ever since the course was taken over by the RAF as an airfield, the sixth fairway being converted into the runway.
When the boys in blue subsequently moved to Benbecula, the abandoned Askernish became an unloved, neglected and largely forgotten nine-hole grazing pasture for sheep and cattle until golf course consultant Gordon Irvine heard tales of a buried treasure off the north-west coast of Scotland.
"It was," he says, "like finding the Holy Grail. I simply didn't believe it could be an Old Tom Morris course."
Little has changed since Old Tom, whose many masterpieces include Muirfield and Royal Dornoch, arrived on South Uist 116 years ago at the invitation of Lady Cathcart, having travelled from the mainland by donkey cart, train and steamer.
The golfing peeress did not require a clubhouse and so today's visitors must make the short stroll to the Borrodale Hotel. For the trifling sum of £10 (paid into an honesty box), 21st century golfers will be able to return to a 19th century world, a golf course fashioned by Old Tom, designed by God and lovingly transformed by enthusiastic volunteers.
Take the seventh hole, where the view from the tee is a panorama of unspoilt desert island sands and the ocean in its many moods beyond. Or the 191yd, par-311th, looking across the Sound of Barra to the most western outpost in the land.
"It plays much longer as it is generally into the teeth of a strong and gusty wind. The carry requires a tee shot of 180 yards across a deep gully to what looks like a tiny sliver of green. Club selection is the main problem here because it looks as though you are playing directly into the sea, whereas there is a sizeable landing area on the other side of the gully.
"I can just imagine Old Tom chuckling as generations of golfers reach for a seven-iron, say, only to put it back in the bag when the wind gets up and go for a five-iron instead."
There is more, so much more, like the par-5 12th, a 582yd monster offering double fairways. Take the high-risk left route and the green is reachable in two, but even low handicappers are far more likely to walk away having escaped with a double-bogey 7 than a birdie 4.
Old Tom's Pulpit is the name of the 16th and, as Peake, points out: "It does not take an almighty leap of the imagination to see Old Tom preaching to a congregation of avid golfers from his spectacular pulpit green.
''The sense of history when you play Askernish is overwhelming. To me it's the golfing equivalent of drinking the elixir of life. For, as you wander the magnificent dunes, Old Tom is undoubtedly at your shoulder. You can feel him there, watching every shot, sighing, smiling and shaking his head in amusement as you fight your way around this awakening giant."



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