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What Lies Beneath the Machair

A spontaneous pilgrimage to the long-lost course of Askernish—the forgotten Tom Morris design that came back from the dead
Askernish. Photo by Jamie Gibson

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Listen to a reading of this feature by the author, DJ Piehowski

When you get to No. 7, they say, the whole thing will make sense.

Somewhere around the fourth tee box, we still had serious doubts. After all, it had not been easy to get here. And what we were met with on the island of South Uist was an empty clubhouse, greens slower and bumpier than most American fairways and a cold wind that continued to slap us in the face with an open hand. We pressed on—through the second, the third, the fourth—wondering to each other if our ambition from the night before had been playing tricks on us.

Twelve hours earlier, our crew was sitting in a Thai restaurant in Edinburgh, Scotland, celebrating the successful capture of two more episodes of our web series, “Adventures in Golf.” And now we were out here. Way the hell out here, where your cell phone balks if you ask it to do anything but tell time or take your picture.

But when we put the flagstick back into the sixth green and climbed the narrow sheep trail to the seventh tee, we looked out on the natural magnificence of a once-lost par 4 and the doubt melted away. They were right. This place made sense. As if on cue, the wind started to slow and the sun burned through the depressing and beautiful Scottish clouds. We looked out on a perfect par 4, the fairway sunken between two untouched dunes edged by the Atlantic Ocean. Suddenly the unkempt conditions were a time-traveling device. The endless gray solitude turned to quiet nobility. 

“Surely you guys have heard of Askernish?”

Surely we hadn’t. Simon Holt, our Scottish tour guide/friend/golf partner, leaned in over his Thai food and his voice got noticeably quieter. We had just finished telling him about “Adventures in Golf,” our series in which our host, Erik Anders Lang, scours the globe to find the strange and interesting people who play golf (and the strange and interesting ways and places they do it). Simon started to tell us the story, or at least the part-fact, part-legend, part-guess version that had been passed to him. Simon runs Connoisseur Golf, a Scottish travel agency that specializes in fulfilling clients’ wildest golf dreams. Even he wasn’t sure of the full story.

Askernish. Photo by DJ Piehowski
Quirky, rugged and hard to get to. Askernish is a golfing Eden; it’s a test of your ability, your patience and your travel agent’s resourcefulness.

Here’s the quick—and facts-only—version.

In 1891, Old Tom Morris, then and now one of the world’s most famous golf course architects, arrived on South Uist, a remote island 50 miles off the west coast of Scotland. He had been commissioned to build a golf course on the Askernish Farm. Getting to the island was no small feat in 1891 (not much has changed in the interim), but the thought was that a world-class golf course by a world-class architect would overcome that fact. Askernish would put South Uist on the map, even if it meant extending the map a few inches.

When Old Tom arrived on the island, which sits in a chain called the Outer Hebrides, he found linksland (or “machair”) that he described as “staggering.” When he was finished, Morris, the genius behind many of Scotland’s most famous courses, proclaimed that the layout of Askernish was “second to none.”

Did Scottish golfers of the late 19th century flock to see Askernish for themselves? Well, not exactly. From the writings of the time, the clientele was limited mainly to the island’s clergy, doctors and teachers. A lack of consistent play led to a lack of consistent maintenance, and the course started its slow crawl into abandonment. By the time World War II rolled around, the sixth fairway was being used as a landing strip for military airplanes. On the scorecard today, the sixth is still named “Runway.”

Eventually, the Morris masterpiece atrophied into a nine-hole, self-maintained course just east of its original site. The scraggly course was used sparingly by the few people in South Uist with any interest in playing golf. This was how Gordon Irvine found Askernish when he first visited the property in 2005.

Irvine, a golf course consultant, was in South Uist on a fishing trip when he offered to trade his greenskeeping advice for the right to fish the waters near Askernish Farm. When Irvine was informed by a handful of locals that Askernish had once been the site of an Old Tom Morris masterpiece, he was, understandably, skeptical. But the locals persisted, explaining how the course had fallen into disrepair and pointing out where the original layout had existed. He decided to take a look.

Askernish, Isle of South Uist. Photo by Scottish ViewPoint/Alamy Stock Photo
Askernish Golf Club at Askernish, Isle of South Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

Here’s how David Owen described the aha moment in his beautiful piece for The New Yorker, “The Ghost Course.”

When Irvine climbed to the top and looked toward the Atlantic he saw a stretch of undulating linksland running along the ocean, between the beach and the existing holes. For Irvine, the experience was like lifting the corner of a yard-sale velvet painting and discovering a Rembrandt. There were no surviving signs of golf holes in the waving marram grass, but the terrain, which had been shaped by the wind into valleys, hollows, and meandering ridges, looked so spectacularly suited to the game that he no longer doubted the Morris connection. Despite the rain, Irvine could easily imagine greens and fairways among the dunes, and he told [club chairman Ralph Thompson] that, if the club’s members would agree to work with him, he would donate his time and expertise, and help them restore their lost masterpiece. A resurrected Askernish, he said, would provide a unique window on the birth of the modern game.

In that moment, it all made sense. 

The following March, Irvine returned to that spot with architect Martin Ebert and a small crew of club members, volunteers and interested parties. Together, they trudged through the linksland, using Morris’ design sensibilities as a guide to try retracing his original 18 holes.

As plans for restoration were set in place, Irvine, Ebert and Thompson received pushback from local crofters, who believed the club would drive out grazing animals. In fact, the opposite was true. In an attempt to remain true to the way Askernish existed in 1891, it was mandated that no artificial herbicides or fertilizers would be used on the course, which would rely on simple mowing (and grazing) for its maintenance.

The once-lost golf course officially reopened on August 22, 2008.

*

Isle of South Uist, Scotland. Photo by Thomas Lovelock /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
Aerial scenic view of the village of Askernish in the Outer Hebrides. The village lent its name to a golf course, originally designed by Old Tom Morris in 1891 and abandoned in the 1930s, which is being reconstructed and restored with American assistance. Isle of South Uist, Scotland. Photo by Thomas Lovelock /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

When Simon finished telling us his version of the story, our small crew looked around at each other. David and Guillermo, our camera ops, were fascinated. Erik was already mentally booking a flight. Mia, our producer in charge of budgets, was already terrified at where tomorrow was headed.

We all whipped out our cell phones and started scouring the internet for information, some working on finding flights (or even airports), some working on digging up the rest of the Askernish story. Simon was explaining to his wife and children why he’d need to head to someplace called South Uist in the morning. It was the same feeling of endless possibilities you get when a snow day is made official the night before.

By 2 a.m., we had a game plan. Well, maybe not a complete game plan, but we had airline tickets. We figured we would work out the small details—transportation, food, lodging and whether the golf course still existed and was open for business—when we got there. 

Our crew arrived on the island of North Uist the next morning. We stormed Benbecula Airport without so much as a place to sleep, chasing a golf legend we’d heard the previous night. Benbecula was the region’s ritzy airport (by that, I mean it had a concession stand). The other option, Barra, did not have a runway. Planes land on the beach and the high tide ruled out a morning landing.

When we arrived at Benbecula, we were delighted to hear that “the rental car” was available. We immediately piled our six-person crew and gear into the tiny car and set off toward Askernish, stopping a handful of times for impromptu sheep crossings and the harrowing experience of letting another car pass on the speedy single-lane road that connects the two islands. As we drove, we gazed out the windows and watched the landscape float past, most of it looking like it had been untouched for centuries. When you’d finally pass a house, you couldn’t help but consider the logistics necessary to even make it possible. The lumber, the electricity, the plumbing, the welcome mat—everything is imported to this desolate, treeless, rocky island, and it’s a process that can’t be easy. 

The only thing on the island that stuck out like a sore thumb was a very official, science-fiction-looking building, fenced off on all sides and perched at the top of one of the island’s largest hills. If you’ve ever wondered where the British government puts things like missile launch ranges and radar housing, there’s your answer. That’s how remote it is.

When we reached our destination, the next step was to find a place to stay. This was not a place to compare hotel reviews on TripAdvisor. There was one near the golf course, which somehow happened to be sold out. Since that was also the only place to get food, we decided to post up at the Borrodale Hotel and game plan. Simon had unwavering confidence that everything would work out fine and he continued to perform small logistical miracles. He made a few well-placed phone calls and managed to get in touch with someone who knew someone who had a friend on South Uist. One of the wonderful throwback elements to the island is that, with so little industry, most homes double as bed-and-breakfasts. We found one that could accommodate all six of us just a mile from the golf course.

Our hosts at the bed-and-breakfast—who had moved from Glasgow to find a slower, more peaceful life—were the most lovely, welcoming people we met on the island. Among the rest of the locals, there seemed to be a quiet skepticism of outsiders. We saw so few others on the island that any new arrivals certainly must be jarring. Entertainment options—and even sunlight for half the year—are limited. Conversation is limited. Jobs are limited. Alcohol isn’t. Posted in some of the bathrooms are flyers for depression hotlines. 

Run through his dark sense of humor, Erik put it best: “This is one of those places they’d shoot a horror movie if it wasn’t so remote.”

When it was time to make our way to the golf course, we arrived to find a handful of highland cows and not many other signs of life. The tiny white golf shop was locked, so we took a walk to the adjacent green metal barn—call it the agronomy department—that houses the odds and ends that keep the course maintained. Inside, we met the course’s lone grounds worker, who informed us that everything we needed to play was sitting outside the golf shop. Near a mail slot in the locked door was a stack of envelopes. A sign asked how many holes you wished to play (six, nine, 12, 18—whatever you had time for) and informed you of the corresponding amount of money you should push through the door. We paid our green fees and set off.

*

After Ebert and Irvine finished their restoration work and reopened Askernish, word spread in architecture circles about the Old Tom Morris course, its stunning ocean views and its incredible layout. Askernish got the attention of Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser, who made a visit and informed one of his go-to architects, Tom Doak, of its potential.

The local wildlife serves as both the gallery and the maintenance equipment. Based on the state of the tee boxes, it’s clear they’re learning on the job.  Photo by DJ Piehowski
The local wildlife serves as both the gallery and the maintenance equipment. Based on the state of the tee boxes, it’s clear they’re learning on the job.

As one of the world’s foremost minimalist designers, the appeal of Askernish was obvious to Doak. He loved the idea of building a course simply by mowing. 

Doak described Askernish as having a “raw simplicity,” and there was one other thing he loved about the project.

“It wasn’t built for commercial gain at all,” he said. “It was only done because it ought to happen. Just to provide recreation and maybe a job or two for the locals. That makes it easy to want to help.”

Fitting, then, that Doak refused to take any kind of fee for the work he did with his associate and shaper, Eric Iverson. 

“We also want to be sure not to take anything away from Martin Ebert and Gordon Irvine, who brought the course back from the dead and deserve the lion’s share of credit for what visitors today get to enjoy,” Doak said.

Although much of the pull of a place like Askernish is in the untouched history of it, there are a few realities that must be faced in order to attract the players who will keep the course alive.

“In modern construction, even the most minimalist of designers like myself make lots of tiny improvements to the ground for the sake of playability and interest,” Doak said. “It is tough to find the right balance between the story of Askernish and the goal of making it as good as it can be.”

In that spirit, Doak and Iverson worked simply to clean up some of the inconsistencies on the course, starting with the star attraction, No. 7. The ground in front of the green was too rugged for the long, running shot required into it. They also created new greens at the sixth and the 17th. Like the original design of the course, however, most of that work was done through mowing and topdressing, not with big equipment. The protective club members have convinced Doak to hold off on larger changes to the 16th green, which he felt looked too severe for an Old Tom Morris green.

One thing that will not change is the layout of the restored course. As Doak explained, the deep valley between the dunes and the ocean’s edge is not unique, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more dramatic example in Great Britain or Ireland. Doak said the midsection of the course, Nos. 7 through 12, are as exhilarating as any stretch of holes in the U.K.

Photo by DJ Piejowski
The locals on Askernish are extraordinarily welcoming. There just aren’t many of them.

“I thought we should shift the focus from the story of building the course—after all, there are a lot of Old Tom Morris designs in the U.K.—to the quality of course that has resulted,” he said. “The views of the ocean from some of those holes are especially appealing. In this age of marketing, that makes Askernish more appealing to the overseas visitor than many other links. It’s a needed counterweight to the difficulties of getting there.”

When asked if working on Askernish influenced any of his future projects, Doak explained that he’s discussing a project in Ireland that may take a similar approach to construction: Just mow the course through the dunes to eschew fairway irrigation entirely. The approach would cost significantly less money and make links development a more affordable proposition.

“The bad news is, by reducing the scope of work to the bare minimum, we are in danger of destroying our own fee structure,” he said.

“But I suppose Old Tom Morris never imagined that golf course architects would become either rich or famous just for laying out a course for golfers to enjoy themselves.”

*

In the time that’s passed since our trip to Askernish, one memory still hangs around, more potent than the recollections of the people or the course. What stuck with us was that feeling of standing on the seventh tee. Erik summed it up best.

“It might be the most magic I’ve felt on a golf course before hitting a tee shot,” he said. “After traveling such a long way with so many unknowns…” He paused for a laugh. “It was like the acid started to kick in and everything became colorful.”That’s what sticks with you when you finally make 

That’s what sticks with you when you finally make it to the most Askernish part of Askernish. It’s the feeling of being on the inside of one of golf’s best-kept secrets. It’s hard to think of a tougher place to take your next golf trip. But I also have trouble thinking of another place that allows you to time-travel the way Askernish does, to take a step into a golf world that has somehow resisted the trappings of the modern game. There are no stay-and-play packages. There’s no teaching academy or five-and-a-half-hour rounds. 

At Askernish, you walk. You get the course conditions and green speeds that the weather decides it wants to give you that day. You trip on rabbit holes and sidestep sheep shit. You think about what it takes to build a masterpiece golf course with nothing but a few mowers. You shoot 100 and you have the time of your life.

“I find myself talking about it like Bigfoot,” Erik said. “No one believes me except my playing partners, and on that note, if you’re going to make the trip, bring witnesses. Having the memory of that place exclusively in your own mind would be like making a hole-in-one that no one else sees.” 

Askernish re-emerged from some of the greatest natural linksland on Earth. Problem is, you have to go to its ends to play it. Phto by DJ Piehowski
Askernish re-emerged from some of the greatest natural linksland on Earth. But you have to go to its ends to play it.