Golf column - Askernish rises to the occasion

Old Tom's Pulpit at Askernish
Old Tom's Pulpit at Askernish

The tall, rangy figure of American golf writer John Garrity is now a familiar sight clambering through knee deep machair at Askernish Golf Course.

On his inaugural visit more than two decades ago for a feature in Sports Illustrated, John saw though 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 have been 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. Brutal rough punished every wayward shot.

The terrifying beauty of the eleventh green perched on the edge of the ocean framed by the hills of Barra did little to calm golfers trying to shape a 200 yard tee shot into the wind across a deep gully.

But no one who stood there would have wished 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 what we have here”.

The course has consistently topped his list of the world’s greatest golf courses and, as John confirmed at the Open prize-giving, while it may occasionally share the top spot with another challenger, Askernish will never be surpassed.

David Black took three putts on each of the last two greens to miss out on victory by one stroke.

A win would have meant a clean sweep of the championship events in the Western Isles this year but, instead, like many of the prizes at Askernish, the Open Championship title went overseas.

There were local winners: Jane Nicolson once again took home the Ladies Championship Trophy with a performance that had her head and shoulders above the competition and Danny Steele from South Uist won the Handicap Trophy.

Askernish is now synonymous with the name Ralph Thomson. His energy is key to the Askernish Open attracting golfers from the islands, the rest of the British Isles and a host of foreign countries from Finland to the USA.

That they all vow to return is partly due to the laid back, larger than life Ralph overseeing proceedings. And that neatly sums up the appeal of Askernish: laid back and larger than life.

One old trophy that resurfaced in Askernish over the weekend was the Inter-Club Shield formerly played for by Stornoway and Askernish Golf Clubs. This match has long since disappeared from the golfing calendar but moves are afoot to resurrect the fixture.

It seems churlish to expect a South Uist team to travel to Stornoway where they may be ensnared by the bright lights of the big city. Instead, Stornoway should treat it as a permanent away match. Played once every month sounds just about right.

The beautiful weather in Askernish was shared with Stornoway, where the weekend competition was a charity event in support of the Western Isles Kidney Patients Association (WIKPA).

There were some excellent scores returned, with no less than six participants carding nett 66. Scott Munro took third place, making another dent in his handicap for the second week in succession.

The best of the nett 66 scores posted was that of Al “Greens” Macleod, whose gross 72 was the lowest gross score of the day.

Peter Dickie won the WIKPA Trophy with a score of nett 65, continuing his recent run of good form. A birdie on the Manor was the high point of a round of remarkable consistency.

Adam Longdon won the Edwin Aldred Trophy, played over two rounds, with a second round nett 67 being just enough to pip Michael Jefferson by one stroke.