Askernish rises to the occasion

Fiona MacPhee & Neil Rowland, Ladies' and Men's winners of the Askernish Open.
Fiona MacPhee & Neil Rowland, Ladies' and Men's winners of the Askernish Open.

The tall, rangy figure of American golf writer John Garrity has been a familiar sight over the past twenty-five years clambering through knee deep machair at Askernish Golf Course.

On his inaugural visit in 1990 for a feature in Sports Illustrated, John saw through his mind’s eye exactly what the legendary Old Tom Morris had seen a century earlier when he first laid out the links course amongst the dunes of Askernish.

Old Tom described the setting as the most natural links he had ever designed. By the time John first walked over the rolling dunes almost a century later, the original course had long been abandoned. Utterly captivated by the setting, John set about imagining his dream course, Askernish Old.

That and the happy coincidence that golf course consultant Gordon Irvine, course designer Martin Ebert and a team of local enthusiasts shared a passion for restoring the course to its former glory resulted in a stunning traditional links course rising, phoenix like, on the wild Atlantic coast of South Uist.

With a readership numbering many millions, articles in Sports Illustrated were instrumental in spreading the good news and once again, last weekend, a truly international field of close to 150 golfers contested the Askernish Open. The sun shone and, naturally, the wind blew and the course lived up to its reputation as a supreme test of skill.

From the electrifying beauty of the eleventh green perched on the edge of the ocean to the natural contours of Old Tom’s Pulpit, it is a test for the every level of golfer. And no one who plays there would wish to be anywhere else. This is no ordinary golf course. For John Garrity, who has reviewed the most famous courses on the planet, “there is no greater golfing experience than Askernish”. That experience includes an obligatory stop on the ninth tee at a make-shift café bar operated from the tailgate of a truck. The café is revisited after the sixteenth hole and golfers are often somewhat reluctant to leave.

Brutal rough will punish every wayward shot on the 6,300 yard course. Finding the ball is well-nigh impossible and, on the few occasions when it is found, moving it may require more than a golf club. As Marten James discovered amongst the machair flowers blooming alongside the sixteenth fairway, there must be a layer of lost golf balls carpeting the rough. Marten located his ball but, when he hit it, he also hit another, lodged deep in the grass. With the kind of luck usually associated with Askernish, the ball Marten did not intend to hit sailed down the fairway, while the one he did intend to hit flew for about thirty yards and disappeared forever in the undergrowth.

However, there were competitors who, while they may not have come close to taming the course, put in outstanding performances over the weekend. With much of the golf on the opening day played into a strong south-westerly breeze, Dave “Spider” Macleod, from Stornoway, posted an impressive 35 stableford points in winning the Mackenzie and Ebert Quaich by two points. The ladies’ stableford was won by the narrowest of margins. With the top three competitors all on 30 points, Karen Ravenscroft (Old Ranfurly) won the Quaich on countback by virtue of having scored one point more than the others on the inward half.

The main event, last Saturday, was played in almost idyllic conditions, with little wind and warm sunshine from dawn until dusk. In the ladies’ scratch competition, Fiona MacPhee overcame the pressure of playing as defending champion and a fierce challenge from the strong field to retain her Askernish Open title.

In the men’s scratch event, Neil Rowlands of Stornoway was one of the earlier starters and set the pace with an excellent round. A superb tee shot on the penultimate hole left him a putt of less than a foot for birdie and, with a solid par on the last, Neil posted gross 76. That total stood all day. The last group completed their rounds close to nine hours later and one of that group, Martin Ebert, came agonisingly close to matching the leading score.

In the end, Martin fell short by one stroke and had to settle for runner-up prize, while Neil returned to Lewis with the Askernish Open title.

Winners and losers were once again unanimous in their appreciation of the course, the event organisation, including sponsors The Roe Group, and the excellent hospitality.