The key to a January golf trip in Scotland is flexibility. My original itinerary had me right off the plane at Glasgow and down the road to ancient Prestwick for a quick 18, followed on successive days by rounds at Askernish, Castle Stuart, Royal Dornoch, Nairn, Carnoustie, the Old Course at St. Andrews, Kingsbarns, Kinghorn, Crail, Musselburgh Links and Muirfield (same day), Turnberry, Western Gailes and Girvan — with 9 squeezed in at Maybole, if time allowed, on the way back to Glasgow. However, heavy snows across the country convinced me that I should alter my plans and spend the entire two weeks playing top-ranked Askernish Old.
“Is Askernish even playable?” an American friend asked in an e-mail. “I’ve heard that the Western Isles are brutalized by Atlantic gales this time of year. Plus, you’ve got what, four hours of daylight? And don’t they have cattle and sheep on the fairways?”
Re-reading his words after a fortnight of challenging but delectable golf, I have to laugh. First of all, I don’t think the wind ever got above 60 or 65 miles per hour while I played, and those were gusts, not sustained winds. Twenty or 25 mph was more the norm, and with the average midday temperature topping 40-degrees fahrenheit, four layers of clothing provided a nice balance between comfort and mobility. Squalls sweep in from the Atlantic with some frequency, but the local golfers have taught me how to squat with my back to the gale until the horizontal rain exhausts itself. That generally takes a few minutes, and it is common to see the sun pop out while you are collecting tee markers that have been uprooted and sent tumbling down a dune.
Neither is the Hebridean day as short as my friend suggests. The sun appears over the hills a little after 9 a.m. and takes a languorous turn across the southern sky, never rising more than thirty-degrees above the horizon, before plunging into the Atlantic a little before four p.m. A four-ball venturing out at noon finishes at twilight, making for an enjoyable 500-yard stroll in the moonlight to the two-room clubhouse.
Askernish does accommodate more livestock than you’ll find on a typical American course, but I’ve never heard a visiting golfer complain because he was able to find his ball in the well-grazed rough. The greens are protected with single-strand fences that give the cattle a tiny shock when the batteries are connected. “They’re not hooked up at the moment, but it doesn’t matter,” one of Askernish’s 18 resident members told me last week. “The cows think they are!”
Another friend asked me if winter rules were in effect. No, they are not. The fairways at Askernish, an authentic links course, are as sound in January as they are in July, so there is no need to improve one’s lie. The roughs are easier to play from, thinned out as they are by dormancy and grazing. The one local rule of any consequence, involving naturally-applied fertilizers, had an R&A committeeman scouring his decisions book last week, looking for references to “manure” or “cow poop.”
“The rule at Askernish is simple,” club captain Donald MacInnes told him with a smile. “Pick up your ball, lick it, and drop it.”
Tee times are not a problem this time of year. On a given winter’s day, you might see a lone golfer striding up the par-5 sixth, parallel to the beach, with a wool cap pulled over his ears and no shadow in tow. On a god-given winter’s day, such as Friday afternoon was, you’ll encounter a four-ball sunning in the bowl of the multi-tiered 16th green (“Old Tom’s Pulpit”) while a sixsome, accompanied by frolicking dogs and darting lapwings, takes turns firing at the flag from cliff’s edge on the dogleg ninth (“Brochan”).
Askernish is not for everyone, I suppose. Maybe just for golfers.
Anyway, I’m heading home. If you’d like some help planning your own low-season Scottish golf tour, send me your e-mails. I’ll forward them to the proper tourist agencies. And if you don’t get an immediate response, be understanding. Their staff is probably wintering on the Costa del Sol.