The greenkeeper knew at first glance what he was beholding: an abandoned golf course. A ghost course. “You stand there,” Irvine said, “and it’s just waiting to be played.”
His eyes searched the shadows behind the projector. Spotting me, he said, “Well, you know.”
I certainly did, because Irvine’s story was my story. In the spring of 1990, Sports Illustrated asked me to check out the rumor that there was a long-forgotten Old Tom Morris course in the Gaelic-speaking Outer Hebrides. With my wife at my side, I traveled to the island, played the simple nine-hole course, and reached the same conclusion Irvine did: Old Tom might have slept in town, but he hadn’t built a golf course there. After three uneventful days slapping balls around the gentle meadow, however, I climbed the looking-glass dune for a look around.
“I froze in my tracks,” I wrote. “The terrain was suddenly as violent as a storm-tossed sea. Canyons wound through grassy dunes carved by winter gales. Sand spilled down dune walls. Shadows collected in sinister pools. If this was not Ballybunion, on Ireland’s southwest shore, I was damned.”
There was no one to stop me that day, so I teed up a ball and drilled a two-iron shot to an imaginary fairway. I romped through the dunes for an hour or so, playing winter rules. I hit to natural green sites. When I spotted a hole or burrow, I tried to chip in, in the manner of the ancient Scots.
I christened my secret links Askernish Old.
On to the new. The morning after Irvine’s slide show, the lot of us shuttled out to Askernish to play. It was cool and windy, but spirits were high. Our host was Malcolm Peake, an Englishman with gray hair, a florid face and the bearing of a cabinet minister.
“Ralph and Gordon were terrified about my bringing a group here,” said Peake, a drumbeater for sustainable greenkeeping practices who had volunteered to promote Askernish. “They’re afraid the course will be unplayable in its raw state. But you walk down these holes and it’s unbelievable. It’s Ballybunion, Turnberry, Troon. If Askernish hadn’t been isolated in the Hebrides, it never would have been lost.”
Askernish was, in fact, unplayable—the part-time greenkeeping staff had not yet fully mown much of the course. As a consequence, any ball landing four inches or more off the fairway disappeared into knee-high fescue and wildflowers. The course was also littered with rabbit warrens—vast underground bunny condos that swallowed golf balls and made fairways look like World War I battlefields. The greens were somewhat lacking as well, with bumps, potholes and shaggy grass. My mental Stimpmeter produced readings of four or less.
Those quibbles aside, Askernish was as stunning as advertised. In March 2006, Irvine had returned with Martin Ebert, a Canadian course architect who trained with Donald Steel, and with help from local golfers unearthed eighteen Old Tom gems. Three holes in particular—the first, sixth and eighteenth—required the most imagination, as they had to be shaped out of the unimpressive nine-hole course. This area, apparently, actually had been part of the Old Tom Morris design, but in the 1930s it was flattened by hand and horse power to create a grass airfield. “It’s fair to say I’ve had to do some gentle redesign in the area of the runways,” acknowledged Irvine, “but I feel confident that these green sites are where Old Tom would have had them.”
The result is a course that begins and ends in understated fashion, in the manner of Turnberry. From seven through seventeen, however, the journey is mind-blowing. The par-four seventh runs south along the shore from a dune-top tee to a green sheltered by even taller dunes. The green at the eleventh, a long and spectacular par three playing directly into the sea wind, looks as if it could only be reached using ropes and crampons. And what can I say about sixteen?Dubbed Old Tom’s Pulpit, this unforgettable par four has a two-level green, the back half of which forms a punchbowl, which is where most approach shots end up, the pulpit being as hard to hold as a stone parapet.
Irvine, who worked for free, believes that based on his ability to distinguish natural landforms from man-made ones, he has correctly exposed and re-created the 1891 layout. (Only the eighteenth green had to be relocated; the original now serves as a practice green.) “We’ll never know for sure,” he told me. “We can’t bring Old Tom back. But this course is as close as you’ll get to an original Old Tom Morris layout.”