In search of Old Tom Morris (pt. 2)
The second day of our trip to the Outer Hebrides saw us take the short ferry ride from Barra, northwest to Eriskay and then on to the acclaimed Asrkernish Golf Club.
Overnight the winds had actually intensified to gusts of well over 60mph but we were all safely tucked up with the fire on in the fantastic Number Nine Cottage. By morning the weather had abated thankfully and we set off early for the ferry to Eriskay, and to discover a classic links course with an illustrious pedigree. Eriskay is about 6 miles from Barra and it is here that the SS Politician famously ran aground in 1941 whilst laden with a large cargo of untaxed malt whisky bound for Jamaica and the USA. The subsequent ‘salvaging’ and illicit consumption of the cargo by the locals forms the basis for the book and film, Whisky Galore. About a fifteen minutes drive north of the causeway that links Eriskay to South Uist our taxi driver, and impromptu guide Sandy, turned off the main road on to a small lane signposted Aisgernis, or Askernish in English. We had arrived.
Askernish Golf Club
The story of Askernish Golf Club and the recent resurrection of its original layout is both fascinating and romantic. In 1891 Old Tom Morris was engaged by the estate owner, Lady Emily Cathcart, to layout a golf course on the fertile ‘machair’ land adjacent to sea. The creator of such golfing wonders as Muirfield, Prestwick and Macrihanish dutifully traveled to this remote island, along with his companion Horace Hutchinson, and set about weaving his magic across the dunes, plotting out 18 holes. Despite the quality and reputation of it’s creators the course slowly fell in to disrepair over the years as interest in golf dwindled, until the brainchild of Old Tom and Hutchinson was almost entirely reclaimed by nature. The years that followed saw the original design forsaken in favour of a more easily maintained plan with even the addition of a grass airstrip! Sadly for Bravo Whisky Golf there is no longer a landing area there but it does provide the club with a challenging par 5, appropriately named ‘Runway’.
Fast forward to 2005 and a chance conversation between the factor on the Askernish estate and a golf course consultant, Gordon Irvine. Whilst discussing plans for a fishing trip the subject of golf came up and how Old Tom had laid out a course on South Uist some 114 years before. Despite the initial skepticism the discussion progressed until eventually a site meeting was arranged on the island. On first inspection the modern course did not bear the any of the hallmarks of a links designed by the great Morris snr but exploring the dunes slightly to the south yielded an altogether different result. There, stretching along the Atlantic coast were a treasure trove of ‘lost’ holes which Irving likened to finding the Holy Grail.
Today you can follow these footsteps for yourself. As you make your way from the 6th Green on to the 7th tee the old course unfolds before you revealing all the swales and intrigue you’d expect to find on a links course of this caliber. The restoration work here has been incredibly sympathetic with the holes following the landscape rather than imposing themselves. Playing here you really do get the feeling that you are stepping back in time, to when this sport and its arenas were being pioneered.
You are never meant to express which is your favourite child or grandchild and reflecting on the holes at Askernish feels similar in a way. They all have their qualities and quirks but it seems slightly disloyal to pick one over the other. The starting 6 holes are a good test of golf but the southern loop in the dunes is really special and well worth making a special journey for, taboo broken!
The very survival of this club over the years, and its modern day revival, is a tale of dogged human endeavour and passion. On the day we visited we were warmly greeted and hosted by Jennifer and Allan for the club. Their natural generosity and kindness of spirit make it plain why such a project was even possible here.
If you are looking for manicured, aesthetic perfection here you won’t find it. What you will find is an unadulterated classic links golf course of great character and a welcome second to none. Journeying this far to hit a little white ball around requires effort and a little faith but you will be richly rewarded if you venture in the footsteps of Old Tom.
To find more details on the story of the club, the course and its history they can be found on the club’s website. Also, Tom Coyne has dedicated an entire chapter to this special place in his highly entertaining book A Course Called Scotland.