Tag Archives: South Uist

Hudson Tops International Field at Askernish Open

It is a sign of the times that neither Golf World, Golfweek nor Golf Channel covered last week’s Askernish Open. I, of course, covered it for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, having left the Solheim Cup in Colorado as soon as the European ladies’ victory there was certain.* I even took the extraordinary step of imbedding myself in Saturday’s stroke-play competition at top-ranked Askernish Old, a tactic which gained me a top-100 finish and an automatic exemption for 2014. Unfortunately, I forgot to tell my editors that I was going to Scotland, so there was no room in the magazine or on the Web for my game story, which was, in any case, accidentally deleted when I mistook my iPhone for the Bomar Brain.

Deal Hudson

Hudson was the “real Deal” at Askernish, right down to his hickory-shafted putter. (John Garrity)

*For me, that moment came on Saturday afternoon when America’s Michelle Wie celebrated like it was VJ day upon making a putt and then ran uphill to the next tee before Sweden’s Caroline Hedwall could answer with a putt of her own to halve the hole. 

Fortunately, Europe’s golf writers know how to find the Western Isles. Here’s a taste of John Gillies’s coverage from the August 29 Stornoway Gazette:

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.

Golfers on Askernish No. 16

Splendid weather turned the 16th, “Old Tom’s Pulpit,” into a tanning station. (John Garrity)

Gillies graciously hinted at the Top 50’s involvement with Old Tom Morris’s renowned “ghost course.” I was, in fact, made “captain for a day” and tasked with opening the Open by striking the ceremonial first shot with a hickory-shafted cleek. This antique club, I hasten to point out, was about as long as a conductor’s baton and had a rusted head no bigger than a commemorative stamp. Ralph Thompson, recently retired as Askernish’s chairman, tried to ice me by saying that “no captain so far has actually botched the shot,” but I took no more than sixty seconds to experiment with various stances and tee heights before smacking a ball that whistled off the elevated first tee and reached a height of ten or twelve feet before landing with a satisfying thud in the first cut of rough, a foot short of the fairway.

Gillies’ description of my cleek shot was apparently cut by his editors, but he appropriately recognised some of the better Hebridean golfers:

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.

Iron shot at Askernish Open

Beer-fueled golfers were happy to water the roughs at Askernish Old. (John Garrity)

To sum up, the 2013 Askernish Open champion, with a score of 79, was pipe-smoking life member Deal W. Hudson of Fairfax, Va., who played in a dress shirt, tie and plus-fours. Second place, as reported above, went to Stornoway’s David Black, who shot 80. In third, also at 80, was Askernish co-designer Martin Ebert, whose second club is the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. Fourth prize went to U.S. Army Reserve Major General Wayne Brock, who carded an 81.

Askernish Open scores, by the way, are not the equivalent of conventional scores turned in for handicap purposes. The summer rough at Askernish is so deep and pervasive that virtually any ball hit off the fairway is lost. To keep play moving, a local rule allows golfers to take a penalty stroke and drop a replacement ball in the fairway. This inflates scores, but it boosts the sale of 18-ball zip bags of “American Lake Balls” sold in the Askernish golf shop.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs open with the Deutsche Bank Championship at 128th-ranked TPC of Boston in Norton, Mass. Phil Mickelson opened with a first-round 63, which is equivalent to an Askernish summer score of 69.

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Pining for a Tight Lie at Askernish

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.”

Ball search at Askernish

A ball search at the twelfth hole proved successful. (John Garrity)

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.

Ball search at Askernish

The machair is beautiful in July, when flowers bloom and golf balls go to ground. (John Garrity)

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.

 

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Askernish Retains Hold on Top Spot

“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.”

Dave Henson at Askernish

Top 50's Henson celebrates at Rainbow's End. (John Garrity)

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.”

J Garrity putting at Askernish Old

Garrity on Old Tom's Pulpit: "Do you see a break?" (Dave Henson)

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.

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