“My game is coming back since returning from Scotland,” Top 50 staffer Dave Henson writes from Hilton Head, S.C. “Haven’t been in the 70s yet, but low to mid 80s. It seems I developed a strong left hand grip somewhere – probably from trying to drive the ball into 75 mph winds.”
My old friend refers to a rather gusty mid-summer round at Castle Stuart Golf Links, No. 9, during my Top 50 Audit of Highly-Ranked Links Courses. That round in the Scottish Highlands, I should point out, was the only one in which conditions were severe enough to actually wreck one’s swing. The winds at Royal Dornoch, Nairn and Askernish never exceeded 40 mph, and there were intervals of relative calm when we could talk in normal tones and Dave could light his pipe without burning his hand. But the most rewarding birdies and eagles, as I think even galeaphobic Dave will agree, are those produced in hurricane-force winds. (See photograph, left.)
Unfortunately, Dave had to return to the States after our three-day inspection of top-ranked Askernish Old, the Old Tom Morris-designed ghost course on the Hebridean isle of South Uist. Health was an issue for my right-hand man, who had to endure the indignities of free and attentive treatment from a nurse-practitioner at a village clinic, followed by the prompt filling of an outrageously cheap prescription for his bronchitis. “Socialized medicine at its worst,” Dave grumbled, pining for the ninety-dollar meds and hour-long waits of home.
Askernish, in contrast to Dave, was in great shape. Greenkeeper Alan MacDonald had the greens rolling at a bouncy 5 or 6, and the fescue roughs were hacked down to a height that would barely conceal a dozing poet. Three years of dedicated labor have pushed most of the rabbit warrens to the boundaries of the course, so it’s no longer a common occurrence to have a border collie chase a hare between your legs as you address the ball. “It’s really coming around,” said Ralph Thompson, the affable chairman of the Askernish Golf Club. “It wouldn’t hurt you to pay the green fee.”
Since Askernish is closer to a perfect 10 than any other course, you might expect an air of complacency. Instead, the locals have jumped on an offer from famed course designer Tom Doak to lend staff and material resources to their restoration effort. As the Hebridean winter closes in, Doak’s team will work with MacDonald and British architect Martin Ebert (who designed the six new holes that lead up to Old Tom’s sublime stretch of seaside holes) on a subtle tweaking of the ancient links. As I write this, it’s not clear whether the work will start before or after the local crofters drive their livestock onto the course for their winter keep.
No matter. Based upon its summer condition and Dave’s scribbled report, Askernish retains its number one ranking and improves on its previous record score, edging down .03 points to 10.15.
Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but every time I turned on a set last week it was tuned to [the] Golf Channel’s “Golf in America.” For some reason, an audio-visual team had followed SI senior writer Alan Shipnuck and a friend as they played all four courses at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort — including Tom Doak’s Pacific Dunes, No. 26 — in a single day.* (Spoiler Alert: It ends with Shipnuck walking into his motel room and falling face-first on the bed — a scene that would have been lost to posterity but for the fortuitous pre-placement of the video crew and their equipment.) If you missed this tribute to sore joints and sunburn, I invite you to read Shipnuck’s SI Golf Plus report on his long day, titled “14 Hours, 21.7 Miles, 2 Barking Dogs”, at Golf.com.
*Not to complain, but I’ve played several rounds with Shipnuck in recent months — most notably at Kingsbarns, No. 40, and Erin Hills, No. 23 — without drawing even a flicker of interest from [the] Golf Channel. Maybe their cameras would follow me around if I played all the crummy courses from my near-best-seller, America’s Worst Golf Courses, finishing up at the very worst, the Ft. Meade (Fla.) City Mobile Home Park Golf Course.**
**For TV, I would need an appropriate playing partner. Charles Barkley? Ray Romano? Tiger Woods? Send me your ideas.