For years I told anybody who would listen that Askernish Old was the world’s greatest golf course. “Hard to get to,” I’d say, “because it’s on an island off the North Atlantic coast of Scotland. But it’s brilliant. Spectacular. A links course on land that time forgot.” To bolster my case, I pointed out that Askernish was designed in 1891 by four-time British Open champion Old Tom Morris, golf’s pioneer course builder and greenkeeper. “Played it in 1990,” I’d say. “Had the course to myself.”
Sometimes I left out the fact that I was the only person on the planet who knew that the course even existed.
I was startled, therefore, to receive an e-mail last summer from one Ralph Thompson, who claimed to be chairman of the Askernish Golf Club: “Happy that you ranked us number one in your Golf.com Top 50 Golf Course Ratings. Any chance of your coming back to play again?” Puzzled, I clicked on the provided link and got the club’s website. That’s how I learned that the course Old Tom designed in 1891—most of which had been abandoned before World War II and had gone unplayed until I walked it eighteen years ago—was under construction (I should say reconstruction) and scheduled to open in 2008. The gist was, Lost Golf Course Rediscovered: Old Tom Morris Gem to Be Restored.
“How many times can you lose a bloody golf course?” I asked my wife. “Should I have drawn them a map?”
The truth is, last September I needed a map myself to find my way back to Askernish, hidden as it is on a small island in the Outer Hebrides. From Edinburgh I drove north into the Scottish Highlands, hitting the Skye Bridge by mid-afternoon and crossing that scenic island to the ferry port of Uig, which is pronounced as if you’ve just taken a blow to the stomach (“OOO-ig”). I caught the six o’clock car ferry to North Uist, dined on steak-and-kidney pie during the crossing, and rolled off the ramp at Lochmaddy at 7:45. That left just an hour’s drive down three treeless, boulder-strewn islands to South Uist. The one-track road, which has passing turnouts every few hundred yards, skirts small lochs and rocky hills covered with grass and heather.
It was dark when I checked into the Borrodale Hotel, a cozy inn just outside the sea village of Lochboisdale. I was immediately pounced upon by Thompson, a big shambling fellow with short brown hair and a jester’s disposition. “I’m the head liar,” he said by way of introduction. “Self-appointed.” Thompson led me to the hotel’s function room, where a passel of wealthy Brits had gathered for a slide show and lecture by Gordon Irvine, links-golf consultant and 1986 Scottish greenkeeper of the year. I found a seat as the lights dimmed.
Irvine, a still-youthful man with a brush haircut and a strong Ayrshire accent, opened with a story. He said he had first visited South Uist on a fishing trip in December 2005. At the urging of a friend, he had also checked out the island’s nine-hole golf course. “The lads here were convinced they were playing an Old Tom Morris course,” he said. “But when Ralph took me out, I had to say, ‘No, you’re wrong.’” The Askernish course was flat and featureless, the kind of layout a farmer might mow out of any similar sea meadow.
But then, Irvine explained further, he went for a stroll with Thompson. They walked across the course toward a beach that catches the Atlantic’s occasional wrath. They scampered up a dune that overlooks the sea. And there, stretching before them, was a swath of pristine linksland to make a Scotsman blubber. “I’m thinking of Cruden Bay,” Irvine said, referring to the venerable links course on Scotland’s eastern shore. “I could think of no site more dramatic.”