Askernish: Golf’s Lost Course

Throughout the history of golf, courses have become grander. As the game grows and evolves, so do the courses. Today’s golf courses have been designed to cater to the modern game. Even the oldest courses in the world, such as St. Andrews and Carnoustie, have been revamped over the years.

However, Askernish Golf Club is not like other golf courses. Considered lost for almost over 70 years, it has stayed virtually the same since its creation.

In 1891, golf’s greatest designer, “Old” Tom Morris, travelled to South Uist, Scotland, to scout out new areas to put in courses. Morris was one of golf’s all-time legends, being considered the founding father of the modern game. He played in the first 36 British Opens, and he won four of the first eight. He would be the groundskeeper at the birthplace of golf, St. Andrews, from 1865 until his retirement in 1904. He designed over a dozen courses throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom during his lifetime, including Prestwick, Muirfield, and Royal County Down Golf Club.

Old Tom Morris / Kingdom Magazine

Morris wanted to continue designing, and when he approached the land where Askernish sits today, he loved it. News clippings at the time of the course’s original opening quoted Morris as saying the layout was “second to none.” He would put in an 18-hole course right there.

Morris’ original golf courses were true links courses. In golf, when a course is described as a links course, it refers to the soil and terrain of the course. True links courses are usually sandy and lacking moisture, leading to grass with short blades and long roots. Today, only 17 percent of the courses in Scotland are still considered true links courses. Askernish would not be considered any different.

It is unsure exactly when the course was abandoned, but it is guessed to be around the beginning of World War II. All that is known is that the course sat for a long period of time, eventually becoming grazing land for the cattle and sheep of the local farmers.

Askernish survived as a golf club, but the club moved away from the 18-hole golf course to a smaller 9-hole course farther away from the ocean shore.

In 2005, Scottish golf-course consultant Gordon Irvine visited South Uist on a fishing trip. He approached Askernish and offered to trade course maintenance tips in return for being allowed to fish off of the golf club’s land. The club members obliged, and they showed Irvine around the 9-hole course.

Irvine was underwhelmed with the nine holes. The dozen or so members themselves maintained the greens. Cow pastures surrounded the course. This is why it came to a surprise to Irvine when, during lunch, a member mentioned that “Old” Tom Morris designed the original Askernish course.

The members took Irvine to look at the old course, and his eyes lit up at the sight of it. Any holes that were previously there had long overgrown, but Irvine could understand why Morris thought of it being the perfect land for a links course. Irvine told the club members that, if they agreed to work with him, he would be willing to help restore “Old” Tom Morris’ original Askernish course.

Irvine called Askernish “the Holy Grail.” “Askernish was as ‘Old’ Tom left it,” Irvine said in an interview with The New Yorker. “Because the old holes were abandoned so early, there had been no real proactive maintenance done with machinery or chemicals, and it had never been revisited by other architects. The last time the old holes were played, the greens were probably cut with scythes.”

Beginning in 2006, Irvine contacted links golf architect Martin Ebert for help. There were no original plans left by Morris, so the two had to decide where the 18 greens most likely lied in the linksland. In addition, the two had to determine how each hole was designed without moving land. Back in the days of “Old” Tom Morris’ original course designs, construction and excavation weren’t options. Course designers had to work with the land as it was.

Irvine and Ebert used a mixture of new and old technology to determine the layout of Askernish. They would use satellite images to get a better view of the land, as well as to determine the size of greens and length of holes. They also had club members hitting golf balls at flags where they believed potential greens may be to see how the balls would react.

Blueprint of the Restored Askernish Golf Course. / Ballpark Blueprints

While this was occurring, local farmers and crofters were opposing the project. They had run of the land from when the golf course was abandoned to its recreation. They were afraid of being bought out and pushed out, and fought to keep what they believed to be theirs. In an attempt at a peace treaty, the owners of Askernish promoted the farmers and crofters to have their livestock graze on the golf course as a natural form of maintenance.

As the farmers and crofters still fought, construction on Askernish began in 2008. In order to keep with the methods used by Morris and other course designers of the time, Irvine and Ebert did nothing more than cut the grass and fill in rabbit holes as a form of maintenance. No pesticides or artificial fertilizers were used, either.

The restored Askernish opened on August 22, 2008. A few days after its opening, Scottish courts ruled that Askernish Golf Club had a right to build a course and clubhouse, but it still needed to allow the farmers and crofters to let their livestock graze on the course.

The restored Askernish is a par-72 course. It has four par 5s, 10 par 4s, and four par 3s. There is only one greesnkeeper maintaining the entire course. Pesticides or artificial fertilizers are still not used, keeping the maintenance as natural as possible.

The green fees to play Askernish are as follows: From October to April, 18 holes is 25 pounds (31 dollars). During May and September, the 18-hole rate is 40 pounds (50 dollars) and twilight rate (after 4 p.m.) is still 25 pounds. For June, July, and August, the 18-hole rate is 45 pounds (56 dollars) and twilight rate is 25 pounds (around 44 dollars). If the clubhouse is closed when golfers arrive, the club asks them to take a score card from a box underneath the greens fees sign, leave the money in an envelop, and drop the envelop into the mail slot on the front door.

Askernish is thought of very highly by the golf community, as it is considered one of the top 100 golf courses in Scotland.

Numerous videos have been produced about Askernish, showing the rolling linksland, including Erik Anders Lang of the YouTube channel Skratch:

Askernish isn’t the easiest golf course to get to, as it takes either a flight or a ferry to get to South Uist, then a few hours by car to get to the clubhouse. However, it is all worth it to go back in time and play a golf course born from the beginnings of modern golf.

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