SANDWICH, ENGLAND — Poets have a thing for Nature. “A morning glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books,” wrote Walt Whitman. “A light wind swept over the corn, and all nature laughed in the sunshine,” wrote Anne Bronte. “Breathless, we flung us on a windy hill,” wrote Rupert Brooke, “laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass.”
None of them, it goes without saying, ever spent five minutes searching for a Maxfli Noodle on a hillside of marram grass, bluebells, buttercups, red clover, yellow rattle and kidney vetch. None of them ever had to wedge up to a tucked pin from a gully smothered in rye, knapweed, eyebrights, bird’s-foot trefoil, marsh orchids and ragged robin.
Having just spent a short week golfing in the Western Isles of Scotland, I’m inclined to approach nature with the jaundiced eye of Carl Reiner, who said, “A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.”
Granted, golf requires the cultivation of a half-inch or so of turfgrass. Grass provides the perch from which the ball is struck and the surface upon which it rolls to the hole. The argument can even be made that an additional inch of vegetation on the periphery adds zest to a round and keeps balls from rolling indefinitely.
But top-ranked Askernish Old, the rediscovered Old Tom Morris course on the isle of South Uist, has redefined “rough.” Miss a fairway at Carnoustie and you automatically reach for your wedge. Miss a shot at Askernish and you reach for a new ball.
“Two weeks ago, it wasn’t a problem finding your ball,” says Ralph Thompson, Askernish’s ebullient chairman. “But then the rains came, and the temperature came up. Now you hit one bad shot, it doesn’t cost you one — it costs you three!”
Nature dealt an even poorer hand to the seventh-ranked Castle Stuart Golf Links in its first year as venue for the Barclay’s Scottish Open. A violent thunderstorm dumped a month’s worth of rain on the course in an hour, flooding the practice range, collapsing an escarpment and blanketing the twelfth fairway with mud and uprooted gorse. The tournament, won by World Number One Luke Donald, had to be be shortened to three rounds.
No such option for the Sunday Medal at Askernish. A 12-man field needed well over four hours to complete their afternoon rounds, with Thompson’s threesome staggering home a good half hour behind the others. “From October to May you can hit the ball anywhere and you’ll find it,” the chairman said. “But July is a bloody nightmare. We need a much wider cut of semi-rough.”
Not everyone agrees. Eriskay postman Paddy Forbes, co-medalist with a net 69, said, “Ah, it’s not that bad. Keep it straight down the middle and it’s no problem.”
Forbes, who drives the ball about 190 yards under any conditions, is a consistent winner in July and August, when the rough is up.
Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but they’re playing the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s, No. 134. Asked where he would rank it among the Open courses, 1989 Open champ Mark Calcavecchia said, “Dead last.” … “What bugs those who don’t care for the course is the abundance of slopes and bumps that propel a seemingly good tee shot into a bad one,” writes ESPN’s Bob Harig. … Personally, I love courses that have an abundance of slopes and bumps — so long as I can see the bumps.