That was the pitch Irvine used in 2006 at the annual meeting of the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association, hoping to recruit volunteers to help the islanders restore their old course using nineteenth-century technology—i.e., shovels, rakes and hoes. “We identified the greens first,” Irvine said. “The fairway corridors were straightforward; they would obviously have played through the dune slacks.” (Irvine said he knew the course started and ended at the manor home of Lady Emily Gordon Cathcart, the estate’s erstwhile owner; he figured out where the first fairway was from there, then walked out the rest of the fairway corridors and started identifying green sites.) The teeing areas, on the other hand, are all new. “An 1890s course would not have had tees,” said Irvine. “You teed off a few yards away from the hole you just finished.”
The result?A par-seventy-two, 6,164-yard track right out of a time capsule. “Old Tom built a bunch of classic courses, like Muirfield and Prestwick, but he wouldn’t recognize any of them now,” Irvine said. “This one he’d recognize, and I think that’s exciting.” He shrugged. “Whether modern golfers will think it an oddity or museum course, I don’t know. It’s for purists.”
But one has to ask: How did the people of South Uist manage to misplace an eighteen-hole golf course?
“Askernish was a sporting estate,” Thompson told me back at the hotel. “Fishing, shooting and la-di-da golf for the lords and ladies on holiday.” Old Tom’s work presumably went missing, Thompson explained, after the death of Lady Cathcart in 1932. By 1936, a portion of the estate was given over to the grass airstrip, and though golf continued to be played on holes cut on and around the airfield, Old Tom’s handiwork had effectively disappeared. After World War II, by which time the airfield had fallen into disuse, a Dr. Kenneth Robertson attempted to keep the game alive on the island, and by 1970 he had mown a nine-hole course in the same area. But by the mid-eighties Robertson had departed the island and even his modest layout was threatened, as the Askernish Golf Club dwindled to a few disconsolate souls and what greens there were went to daisies. “There was no money,” said Donald MacInnes, the club’s current captain. “If you wanted to play, you had to jump on a fairway mower.”
Alan MacDonald, who after a year of Irvine’s tutelage on other projects recently accepted the position of head greenkeeper, was one of a handful of young men who worked to keep the club alive. “We had no flags, no poles and only a few members,” he recalled. “But a lot of people who didn’t even play golf joined, just to keep things going. Slowly, it started coming back.”
Hope for revitalization was raised by the Scottish Land Reform Act of 2003, which allowed a group of golf enthusiasts to eventually purchase the land outright from the estate’s heirs. But until Irvine showed up with his fishing rod, everything the islanders knew about Old Tom’s layout came from an article in an 1891 golf magazine documenting the visit by Morris (and two-time British Amateur champion Horace Hutchinson) during which he laid out the course. “We used to stand on the old seventh tee and look at what is now the seventh fairway,” MacDonald said. “We’d say ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great to play there?’ But we never actually took a ball and tried it.”
That job had been left to an American reporter: me.
Now that askernish has been re-found, the club has to get it ready for the official opening, set for late August. By then, Thompson promises, the rabbit holes will be filled, the rough trimmed and the greens rolled, though the course will never be “manicured.” (Indeed, as at many Highlands courses, local crofters will be allowed to use the course for grazing in the winter months.) Still, “four or five years from now,” Irvine predicted, “the greens at Askernish will measure up properly.” Just as critical is the club’s campaign to sign up founding members at $5,000 a pop, money that will come in handy as the final touches are put on the new clubhouse, scheduled to replace the honesty box by May.
The next day I went out to play by myself late in the afternoon, starting on number seven. By the time I got to sixteen, fierce squalls were crashing ashore to the north and south while pale sunlight flooded the valley floor, rendering it an archival brown. A lake of russet rough ran down the right to the pulpit green, which caught the sun perfectly, as if by someone’s design.
I mean, as if by Old Tom’s design.
Final note to members of the Askernish Golf Club: Your course is on the Atlantic shore, running south from the old landing strip to a point in the dunes a quarter mile south of the spot you locals call Taigh Calum Uilleam, just north of the graveyard. If for any reason it should go missing again, please contact me immediately.