The amazing, sheer quality of the golf has catapulted Askernish into the forefront of the international golf market.
“But is it worth the trip?” they say, “its an awful long way isn’t it?” they say. The questions I face every time on returning from Askernish, and with a 5 – 6 hour ferry ride from Oban, 2 hours from Uig on Skye or 45 minute flight from Glasgow or Inverness, these are not unreasonable questions to ask. Yet Paul Miller who wrote the first draft of this review, keeps going back.
Love of the game in its purist form is epitomised here. It is the most authentic golf course, the options are endless and are different, because of the elements, every time you play.
Askernish sits in, on and among the dunes – the machair – of South Uist. This outer Hebrides island known for its fishing and snipe shooting is now community owned. The home of Flora Macdonald who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to France after the crushing defeat of Culloden in 1745, the Catholic religion continues to prosper here.
Askernish is truly ‘golf on the edge’. Physically on the edge, it is a landscape shared with crofters, meaning every square metre of mown turf is a square metre less of winter grazing; but also in a more profound sense; the community owned club’s financial situation has always been precarious.
The tight budget (Allan Macdonald is the only greenkeeper, helped occasionally by an apprentice) and the unique ecology of the machair fit well – inorganic fertilisers, are not appropriate in crofting nor in natural greenkeeping.
And there’s the wind, the relentless, ever-present wind.
Malcolm Peake (an Honorary member here and on FineGolf’s Advisory Panel) has called it ” The greatest golfing experience you will ever have”. In the romance of the Askernish story there is no shortage of challenges.
Old Tom Morris, the keeper of the green at St Andrews, visited by steamship in 1891 to lay out a course for Lady Cathcart and her friends; golf has existed on the site since, though the Tom Morris layout was lost to living memory and in all likelihood to the ravages of sand blown from a tempestuous Atlantic.
However in 2005 Gordon Irvine MG (one of the UK’s leading Golf Course Consultants and another member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel) got to hear of Askernish and when visiting the island to fish, surveyed the then 9 hole course and, on encountering it, couldn’t believe the quality of the land and turf, the pure authentic ‘running-game’ links, the unique ambience, exclaiming that he had found “the holy grail” as Jim Arthur might have said.
The next year, Gordon returned to the island bringing with him Martin Ebert (Golf Course Architect), Chris Haspell (Greenkeeper of Castle Stuart’s fescue grasses) and Adam Lawrence (Editor, Golf Course Architecture).
Aided by a group of locals, the team plotted their way through the machair area, using Old Tom’s design principles to retrace what they believed could be the original eighteen hole course. Martin produced the plan on his laptop which provided the basis for the restoration work that started the following spring.
The result is a truly remarkable FineGolf running-game experience, certainly evoking the times of Tom Morris in its pre-modern nature, and providing a living link to a time when golf was mostly about interesting green complexes while played close to the ground and when ‘firm and fast’ functional quality was valued above the lush green, manicured, defined aesthetic of which we see so much today.
Deep, free-draining, shelly sand provides the perfect environment for native fescues and browntop bents, this coupled with low rounds per annum and low-input austere greenkeeping means a truly harmonious, low-stress relationship between the landscape, the grasses, turf quality, and imaginative golf. The result is a dry, crisp, firm yet springy fine turf that presents the ball beautifully for those oh-so-sweet fairway woods or perhaps to keep the ball under the wind, a one-iron for those who still carry one, while the greens receive the ball perfectly from a well struck shot. The fairways remind me of Brancaster of some years ago and it is not surprising that a number of Brancastrians are also members here.
The variable coloured putting surfaces, whilst not fast, are remarkably true and, once you adjust to the slower pace, are rewarding to well stroked putts.
Certainly designed and created in the spirit of Old Tom, the course simply ‘found’ in the landscape. It is the complicated though completely natural, green complexes that are so requiring of well thought through and crisply executed approaches that set Askernish so high up the ‘joy-to-be-alive’ FineGolf rankings.
Would the length and nature of some of today’s holes be recognisable by golfers of 125 years ago? They have been lengthened to take account of the modern ball but playing 36 holes with pre-1935 hickory shafted clubs, off the red more forward tees (5313 yards), the course actually gave me more enjoyment of finesse and less lost balls (!) than playing with the power of modern clubs off the back tees (6259 yards). Having broken 80 with hickories around Wick and Dornoch Struie the previous week, I only just managed to break 90 here. There are holes like the seventh, ninth and twelth that in three and a half rounds I still did not conquer, each with what can only be called wickedly protected fairways!
It has been said that the Club should not overplay the Old Tom connection in its marketing in case by doing so it underplays the sheer quality of the golf, nevertheless this links has a unique heritage characteristic and is arguably:
The first (Clanranald) is a gentle opening three-shot hole (480 yards) to a raised green sloping distinctly from left to right, so its all about the third shot – to fly it is a challenge, to run it is not the shot of choice for many modern golfers, who follow the professionals’ love of the wedge. Tricky and the more so as the apron turf being young is not as firm and predictable as it will be as it matures.
The second (Dr Robertson) named after an important past member, is a short one-shot (155 yards) to a gathering green site, within which nestles a green with so much undulation that the unique Askernish experience starts right there. It reveals an essential characteristic – greens with enough movement that a high stimpmeter reading would render many of them unplayable; thankfully the small humpiness within the wider large undulations also discourages close mowing, whilst greenkeeping resource prevent them being mown more than three times a week which for the odd day may give some variability in their speed. (they are cut at 6mm in the summer and 7mm in winter).
The third (Wicked Lady) is a brilliant short par four (272 yards) – a risky drive when with a favourable wind meets the green at a supporting angle – the alternative shot to the fairway on the right creates a dog-leg and an approach that confounds the aerial route, the green sloping right to left from here.
The fourth hole (Flora) (357 yards) would pass muster anywhere, requiring an iron or one of those ‘cheating’ rescue clubs to the left half of the fairway giving your second down the long axis of the green. An approach shot leaked right, left or long, creates the real possibility of playing back and forth across the green in the manner of the second at Royal Dornoch, although without the bunkers or the fifth at Royal Worlington.
The fifth (Marloch) (370 yards) is from an elevated tee playing to a relatively plain landing area, but then asking for distance judgement, which isn’t straightforward, to a receptively shaped green, commonly playing into the wind. Then the next (Runway) Paul’s least favorite hole, being a sloggy long three-shotter into the wind, (560 yards) frequently requiring four good blows to get close to a small and undulating infinity green on the crest of a hill. Played around an ever continuing right hand curve, many balls are lost in the tough rough on the corner. A very good 5 or even 6 if you can bag one here.
So far so good – five tremendous holes in the first six, yet it isn’t these for which you will remember Askernish; for many the ‘real’ course starts on the 7th tee (Cabinet Minister). However to not give these opening holes their place would be a travesty; they are very good golf holes in their own right, and make an engaging short loop if the ferry departure is imminent.
Ascending to the 7th tee is one of those rare, arresting experiences in modern golf. We are at this point introduced to South Uist’s pristine white beach, which has played such an important part in the kelp industry whose collapse contributed to the disturbances of 1848, the translucent blue waters of the Atlantic, and the neighbouring island of Barra to the South. It is worth pausing for photos, and to reflect on the ‘clearances’, when sheep were considered more profitable than tenants who could not pay their rent, bringing the mid 19th century forced emigration of many from these islands to Canada, lying some 3000 miles west over uninterrupted ocean, or further afield to where the Scots were so successful as sheep farmers in Australasia, including my own Macpherson ancestors from Skye.
This part of the golf course carries a unique sense of just where we are; it, and the anticipation of the waiting 7th, should be savoured.
To continue with play then, the 7th (377 yards) is a gloriously inviting drive which, if well executed, gains extra yards from a downslope and clears what might well be Betjeman’s ‘rutty track’ (if only he had written about Askernish rather than St Enodoc!) allowing a shy at the green with a mid to long iron. Anything tugged a little left off the tee remains in play, but blocks out the view and makes even finding the fairway proper a challenge with the next, all but removing the chance of a four.
The most wonderful small, relatively (!) flat triangular raised green, approached through a deflecting contour, reminiscent of the 12th at Brora, with some aspects of Dornoch’s Foxy completes this quite stunning golf hole.
The 8th (Kelpie) (257 yards) is simple in concept – drive over the gully jutting in from the right to open or maybe even reach the green, avoiding the pinch-in from the right; play left and safe and scratch your head about how to find the putting surface in two, over one of only two proper greenside bunkers on the course. As on the 6th, 11th and 13th don’t be long here as the rough and fall-off will likely lose your ball. This is profound single-issue design where decision-making isn’t difficult, but execution has to be spot on – impressive stuff.
This outstanding set of golf holes continues, the 9th (Brochan) (316 yards) requiring an accurate tee shot, possibly only with a long iron, to give sight of the green doglegged to the left. The shallow, plateau green requires exact ‘Target-Golf’ yardage to hit through the aerial route, and a running shot requires real imagination. Paul’s mind’s eye sees one running round the gathering contour from the right like a penny spiralling into the charity tub at the swimming baths. he admits to yet pulling that one off – the day he does will go down in history.
Continuing to the 10th (Hallan) (365 yards), a drive feeling like that on the 4th at Royal St Georges without the bunker, is a good start to a long uphill 2-shotter with a nestling green between two hills which, whilst lacking the drama of some, is no pushover. A good 4 if you can get it.
There is so much gorgeous duneland that another 18 holes could easily be incorporated and initially Gordon and co were going to extend the course northwards before deciding to create the outrageous eleventh and twelth. If one needs to reduce ones time out on the links, it is well worth cutting out 11 to 13 and playing to the 14th green from behind the 10th green. It gives the most delightful short pitch to a redan green from this angle.
And so to the 11th (Barra Sight), the closest to a penal hole as we’ll find at Askernish, requiring a strong tee shot (into the prevailing wind) to carry a deep gully for a green perched atop the dunes. The carry is only some 150 yards and there is bale-out room to the right, but it feels like the full 197 on the card of this one-shot hole – you certainly need to ‘keep the heid’ over your tee shot here to have any chance of a 3 or more likely 4/5(!) Surely one of the most ‘glorious’ and intimidating par threes anywhere in golf, while giving the higher handicapper a red tee of 142 yards from a right angle played along the top of the shoreline dune. At this breath-taking location you should pause to take in your last view of the beach, the sea and Barra, as we now return inland and towards the relative calm of the cultivated areas of the machair that run along the inland length of the course.
The twelfth (Piobaireachd – what a strange name and not one that will help visitors pronounce and remember it!) is, by any stretch, long (542 yards), controversial, and far from easy and can be seen to be running horizontally across the bottom of the aerial photo. On paper it evokes Alistair Mackenzie’s twin-fairway hole in ‘Country Life’ that is said to have launched his career in the Edwardian era; on grass it requires a strong tee shot to one of two different fairways each with a marker post. Most will take the right hand one but those of length and accuracy should try the left as once your ball is safely on short grass, this is the shorter route.
The second shot, whichever route is chosen, is blind, and with the twin-fairway arrangement, separated by thick rough which swallows up golf balls and can bring rare negativity about ‘fairness’ on this outstanding links. Presently from the right, with the slope down not mown, it is best to stay to the right, atop the plateau fairway leaving a mid iron to the green. From the left fairway a full second shot leaves a deceptive pitch over a beautiful, ragged, gaping bunker on the front bank to a large redan green where the bottom of the pin is hidden. A five isn’t impossible, but you’ll cherish it at this monster.
Depending on wind and severity of rough, the relatively easy 13th (Benji’s Burrow) (296 yards) presents options; playing for your four needs an accurate lay-up drive and short iron, whilst the aggressive play can bag you a birdie or a frustrating search for your ball. A bit of respite maybe, but don’t let your focus soften.
It’s at this point that I always feel we have begun the ‘home stretch’, another run of compelling golf holes where we can take nothing for granted. The 14th (St Valery) (144 yards) green site that is quite clearly a classic Old Tom original; a well struck iron from the tee will cling to the putting surface; anything short, long, left or right will need to be skilfully recovered even to yield a four!
Fifteen (Balaclava) (326 yards) is, by Askernish standards, a relatively straightforward drive, though it is easy to run-out of fairway if one fades the ball, allowing a mid iron to a green in a deep, wide though short, hollow – one which can be approached along the ground or through the air – that will have, along with the sixteenth, today’s ‘bulldozer/target-golf’ course architects shaking their heads. Present day, inland attitudes to design and construction methodology couldn’t do this; it is like no other green I’ve seen, (though Willie Park Jnr’s punchbowl at Temple does come to mind as a simpler manicured manifestation), but not unfair and not unplayable, (as proved by seeing Adam Lawrence’s ball on the photo of the green earlier in this review waiting for his birdie!) It simply enhances the amazing Askernish experience.
The sixteenth (Old Tom’s Pulpit) (363 yards) again requires a well-placed drive (like all the holes here there is a premium for keeping it on short grass, with a further premium for position) to a bumpy fairway and a clean mid to short iron to a green in a deep gully with the pin partially hidden behind a high mound. Remember to check out the pin position as you walk off the ninth tee. The concept of the design of Donald Steel’s fifteenth at Enniscrone or the third shot to Sutherland at Old Tom’s Royal Dornoch. has a vague similarity of pitching over a corner hazard but here it is much more severe. An element of good fortune is required, but two good shots will mean nothing worse than a five, with a good chance of four depending on your short game.
Seventeen (Corncrake) (161 yards) is a great wee par 3 that fills your heart with optimism – an easy one to work out, a gathering green, everything in front of you, a firm mid iron will see you putting for a 2. It lifts your spirits, especially if the course has been roughing you up a bit over the last couple of hours.
Which brings us to 18 (Slainte Mhath)– a wonderful 3 shot hole (504 yards) with a tee shot that simply encourages you to hit one of your best to a big, wide fairway, yet we are reminded of the shared and historic land-use by a semi-derelict cattle pen on the corner of the long dogleg left – to be avoided at all costs. A firm second will leave a simple third to an uncomplicated green. If you’re not an ‘along-the-ground’ golfer this is the perfect place (a bit late in the round maybe, but give it a go anyway!) to introduce yourself to the thrill of a bounding, running shot taking a contour from the left to the centre of a generous green. Two putts and you’re home, having experienced what can only be regarded as a unique experience in world golf.
What is there left to say? Well, the course in early autumn, with the rough having reached maturity for winter grazing, means that a ball missing any fairway is unlikely to be seen again; in spring or a dry summer that aspect is far more forgiving, but the nature of the challenge changes as things become firmer.
There is on some holes among the large dunes more distance from green to tee and with some steep climbs than would have been found in Old Tom’s day.
The rough in the summer is an abundance of wild flowers and orchids that is simply stunning though with a surprising amount of yellow Ragwort. Hen harriers, oyster catchers, Corncrake and many others are close at hand.
Limitations of many types, including many, some quite large, rabbit scrapes, mean the fairways are not conventionally ‘perfect’, populated with beautiful fine grasses certainly, but also daisies and plantains, yet they present the ball well. The greens however are clean and fair and like Billy Mitchell’s Perranporth greens are almost 100% fescue/browntop bent fine grasses.
But to concentrate on how this course compares to others is to miss the point; the landscape is like no-where else on the planet; the land-use, history and culture give it an extraordinary sense of place; most importantly (for us!) the golfing experience is varied, engaging, challenging, compelling and never without interest;
Gordon Irvine continues to return to fish each year and with a band of volunteer greenkeepers to help Allan MacDonald add projects like the short game practice green and it is quite clear that the amazing, sheer quality of the golf, that does not have a par four over 370 yards, has catapulted Askernish into the forefront of the international golf market.
Perhaps with Dr Robertson, Old Tom Morris, Flora Macdonald and the Wicked Lady having holes named after them, one might be found for he who led the renaissance of this very special creation.
My recommendation is to go, to commit to three or four days, play it several times and invite it to get under you skin. You’ll never forget it, and an answer to Paul’s opening question? A resounding ‘yes’, it is absolutely worth the trip.
Review drafted by Paul Miller 2014 while Lorne Smith takes full responsiblity for the 2015 final review.
I played Askernish about three years ago, in the autumn, in a very very strong wind which made me resort to only using irons off every tee. It was a wonderful experience. the ‘naturalness’; has to be experienced to be understood. The minimalism of the signage was delightful. Yes indeed, go and play – then also play Scarista on Harris.On December 28th, 2014 Scott Jensen Said:
Kudos to Paul for a wonderful review. Our group will revel in the magic of Askernish for the fourth year in a row this coming May. I have found it bizarre that so much has been written and strongly debated by so many on different sites about Askernish- by a majority who have never been to South Uist. Make the trip, play at least 4 rounds, post your review.
Otherwise, shut up, you’re completely clueless. Askernish, as Dan Jenkins would say, is its own self. This, coming from someone who has been traveling for golf to Scotland since 1977, played over 65 links courses, and is honored to be a member of one of the finest since 1993.
Oh yes, I don’t think Paul mentioned the odd rabbit scrape found about the course, or the incredible hospitality of the locals.
As a Canadian with Highland roots, I have been a Life Member of Askernish since 2010. I belong to two of the most outstanding courses in North America (Ontario & Arizona) and have played many other ‘bucket list’ courses but Askernish tops them all. It is totally unique, authentic and very very special. As Gordon Irvine said, it is the Holy Grail of Golf…….!