The Outer Hebrides, commonly known as the Western Isles, are a group of Scottish islands situated on the extreme north west frontier of Europe. Iceland and the Faroe Islands are the only other land masses left in this furthest corner of the continent.
In the late 1800s, Old Tom Morris staked out a golf course near Askernish, a bustling village of 150 people on the island of South Uist. Around the same time, he was laying out a new links on the west coast of Ireland in the slightly larger and more popular holiday town of Lahinch in Country Clare. Of course, both of these locations would have been hoping for their respective new courses to be highly successful and attract many new visitors. Lahinch won the bragging rights here: it’s highly ranked in various top 100 lists and draws bundles of overseas visitors to the area. This year it will even host the Irish Open. By contrast, far-flung Askernish will do well to see a fourball of visitors a week, even in high season.
Many of the ranking panellists and visitors would not even add Askernish to the top 100 at all due to its – let’s call it – ‘rugged’ condition. Nowadays golfers prefer – or even expect – golf courses more akin to Augusta or Wentworth, rather than something rough around the edges like Askernish. I, however, reside firmly in the other camp: the one that relishes the naturalness. After all, links golf is, and always will be, elemental. At least that’s how it should be, in its truest form. Overly manicured and tampered-with links are not the real deal. An example for this is the Old Course of St Andrews, another Old Tom classic which I do love to bits. However, it has been preened and refined endlessly in an attempt to reach the level of perfection that the modern golfer demands.
If you’re seeking the truth, a glimpse back towards the genesis of golf, you must search for the holy grail that is Askernish. Here, where cows and sheep tend to the grass more frequently than man and mower, you will find some of the most exposed land in golf. Rabbits charge in and out of hidden warrens in bunkers and if you’re lucky you may hear the rasping bird song of a corncrake, hiding somewhere in the fertile machair.
While I’m sure Jesus never had the pleasure of drinking in the delights of Askernish, Old Tom certainly did. His masterpiece in the dunes and machair of this faraway land was lost for many years and only recently rediscovered and carefully nurtured back to life. Golf at Askernish is not golf as you know it. It’s golf as Old Tom knew it. You feel connected to the course and one with nature. The golf course itself is cradled by the peaks of the mountains Beinn Mhòr (2,431 ft) and Hecla (4,892 ft), to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Upon arrival there is usually no other human in sight, or indeed on site. The small pebble-dash ‘clubhouse’ is often closed, with a sign asking golfers kindly to post the modest green fee through the letter box. The opening hole is, somewhat cunningly, the most featureless-looking hole on the property – perhaps even in all of golf. I wonder how many people have turned up here, parked their car in the three-space gravel car park, peered into the dark, locked up clubhouse and stood on that first tee wondering what all that Askernish fuss was about – and then promptly left.
Once you get up to that first green the course and its subtle beauty slowly begin to emerge. If Askernish’s charm still hasn’t captivated you by this point, things become more apparent by the second hole: an innocuous looking short par 3 with a wickedly undulating green. Once you reach the sixth green you will have played a par 5, a par 3 and four par 4s. Shots to all points of the compass will have been played, just like a driveable par 4. A dogleg left, a dogleg right. Bowl greens, upturned greens, a flat green, a green on top of a large dune plateau. There is more variety, fun, challenge and beauty in this first third of the round than most courses manage as a whole.
The weather is as unpredictable as the golf course itself. Storms frequently blow in from that wild sea and ravage the links with wind, rain and hail – even in summer. Usually, this only lasts for the time it takes to play a short par 4 and there are plenty of dips and hollows in the dunes that provide cover. You may even share your shelter with a sheep or a cautious rabbit.
It won’t take long, though, for the sun to return and paint the links and machair in even more vibrant colours than before.
The 7th tee of Askernish could be one of the finest spots in golf. It also marks the start of an incredible run of holes right along the beach, better yet than the previous ones. From now on, you will find yourself in the dunes: in and out, up and down. Take in the far-reaching views, incredible white sands and more peaks to the south when you’re up on the high dunes. Down in the valleys the views momentarily fade away, as do the rough elements. Spend a moment to drink in that calm, that feeling of what seems to be utter silence and solace. Does this feel like the Holy Grail of golf yet? But there is no time to ponder – the back nine awaits, with its tumultuous dunes and more humps and bumps. Askernish is golf architecture in its finest, most natural moment, incomparable to anything you have seen before.
Perhaps rather sneakily, as with the first hole, the drama recedes slightly on the last one, as you return to the flatter, more farmland-looking terrain and the tiny clubhouse. Looking around, all that’s visible is the flat opening hole and similarly bland finishing hole. Was it all just a dream? All the action of the back nine is hidden away behind a dune and now, standing in the car park, you begin to wonder if it exists at all. There is only one way to find out: step back on that first tee and do it all over again.
If this story calls to your golfing soul, don’t wait, and go there soon. Who knows how long it takes before the visitors start to flock there in large numbers? How long before the lone greenkeeper becomes two, or more, and the livestock are withdrawn to make way for a fleet of high-tech mowing machines that are a lot more efficient at chewing the grass than the cows? Suddenly, Askernish won’t be the visceral and sensuous experience it is now, and there will be no more golf epiphanies. Go now, before it’s too late, and discover the truth.
Ben Sargent is a PGA professional and retail manager at The Wisley. He contributes to Golf World and National Club Golfer magazine, specifically their Top 100 course ranking lists. He is passionate about all things golf, especially its history, course architecture and golf travel within the British Isles.