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GW Course Report: Askernish Golf Club


We go behind the scenes at Askernish Golf Club in South Uist, Scotland, where an enormous amount of work has been undertaken to recover a historical golfing gem.

1800: South Uist (population 5,000) is controlled by the Gaelic-speaking, nongolfing MacDonalds of Clanranald.

1838: Colonel John Gordon of Cluny acquires South Uist and launches brutal land reforms that favor sheep over people. Depopulated, the island becomes a sporting estate for British aristocrats.

1878: Lady Emily Gordon inherits the island upon the death of her husband, John, the Colonel's son.

1880: Lady Gordon marries Sir Reginald Cathcart. As Lady Cathcart she rules her Hebridean properties from Aberdeen, visiting the islands only once in 52 years.

1891: Old Tom Morris, traveling with two-time British Amateur champion Horace Hutchinson, visits South Uist at the request of Lady Cathcart to find a suitable golf site on the machair lands. Over four days, the world's most famous golfer lays out 18 holes in the dunes at Askernish Farm.

1891-1921: The Askernish course is maintained by scythe-wielding farm workers, who double as caddies. Islanders don't play; house guests do.

1922: The Scottish Land Settlement Act guarantees grazing rights to 11 tenant farmers ("crofters"), but Lady Cathcart retains the right to play golf on the machair.

1932: Lady Cathcart dies. Ownership of South Uist Estate is assumed by a string of absentee landlords. The golf course vanishes in the mist, like Brigadoon.

1936: A stretch of the machair north of the ghost course becomes a commercial airstrip. Amateur Simon MacKenzie lays out a 12-hole course alongside the grass runway.

1956: Dr. Kenneth Robertson, a surgeon, moves to the island. An enthusiastic golfer, Robertson promotes the golf club, mends the portacabin clubhouse and encourages the island youth to play.

1970s: Robertson lays out a nine-hole course with 18 tees to replace the MacKenzie 12-holer.

1980s: The army base downsizes, and Robertson retires to Edinburgh. Golf participation plummets. Winter storms wreck the clubhouse and its contents. Rabbits reclaim the machair.

1990: SI senior writer John Garrity climbs the beachside dune south of the Robertson nine and beholds a heaving landscape reminiscent of Ireland's Ballybunion. Garrity plays six imaginary holes in the dunes, finishing on a grassy shelf dangling over the beach. He calls his improvised course Askernish Old.

1990s: The dozen or so remaining members vote to keep Askernish Golf Club alive, but a campaign to build a clubhouse falls short. The volunteer greenkeeper position can't be filled. Tee markers and flagsticks go missing. Diehard members propose selling Overseas Life Memberships to raise money.

2002: New resident Colin McGregor, a retired policeman, starts daily routine of grass cutting on the nine-hole course. Interest in golf is rekindled.

2005: Visiting greenkeeper Gordon Irvine, on a fishing trip to the Western Isles, climbs the gateway dune in a pelting rain. He looks south and immediately recognizes the banks as the site of the original Morris links. Awed by the sight, Irvine pledges to help the islanders restore their ghost course.

2006: Irvine returns with British course designer Martin Ebert. Working pro bono, the two men lay out seven new holes near the abandoned runway and then reimagine 11 of Old Tom's holes in the dunes. Lacking funds and equipment, club members simply mow out the greens, tees and fairways. They call the course Askernish Old.

2006: As part of Scotland's biggest community land buyout, South Uist residents assume ownership of their island—including the linksland at Askernish Farm.

2007: Englishman Malcolm Peakes, a proselytizer for sustainable golf practices, flies in a dozen or so friends for a tournament on 16 completed holes.

2008: Scottish soccer icon Kenny Dalglish smacks the first drive at the official opening of Askernish Old.

2009: Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser plays Askernish Old with course chairman Ralph Thompson, offers funds and expertise to help refine and maintain the course.

2009: The Scottish Land Court rules against Askernish crofters in a land-use lawsuit, confirming the community's right to operate a golf course on the machair.

2010: American course designer Tom Doak (Pacific Dunes, Cape Kidnappers) tours Askernish and recommends steps to improve playability while protecting the dunes.

2011: Doak design associate Eric Iverson hops onto an excavator and drops its shovel into marram grass behind the 8th tee of Askernish Old. So begins the current edition of This Old Course.