This Old Course, Part 2: Work begins on Askernish Old

This Old Course, Part 2: Work begins on Askernish Old

This is the second part of John Garrity’s series on Askernish.

“This is the natural environment for golf,” Martin Ebert says, watching a flock of seagulls glide and hover over piles of tangled kelp on the beach. “This is a living museum of how golf got started.”

It’s a dreary afternoon in January with nary a sunbeam squeezing through the stack of clouds hanging over the Atlantic. But to Ebert, who will never forget the first time he stood atop this pinnacle dune, the 7th tee at Askernish Old is golf’s equivalent of the glass-pyramid entrance to the Louvre. Looking down the shoreline to the south, he sees a canyon fairway snaking up through monster dunes to a distant green that plugs the end of the corridor.

If Ebert’s smile seems a little broader than that of your average tour guide, it’s because five years ago he stood on this very spot and saw the long, pinch-waisted fairway and the bowsprit green — before they existed.

That’s because this old course, which we ­habitually refer to as “an Old Tom Morris links, vintage 1891,” was not here in March 2006. This course was conceived, in a mere two days, by the Scottish links consultant Gordon Irvine, working with Ebert, who is a partner at Mackenzie & Ebert Ltd. of Chichester, England, the firm entrusted with the remodeling of Turnberry for the 2009 British Open. Gordon received a lifetime membership for his work on Askernish, while Ebert, after protracted negotiations with club chairman Ralph Thompson, agreed to be paid 10 shillings a hole, the same as Old Tom was paid. “It was very cheeky, but Martin agreed,” Thompson recalls, “and we had a large check made out to Mackenzie & Ebert for £9.”

Neither payment nor design credit are issues for Ebert because, as his “living museum” comment implies, Askernish is first-generation golfing ground. Thanks to its early abandonment, the new course more closely resembles a links of Morris’s time than does, say, present-day Muirfield, which the best players of the 1890s mocked as a “pitch and putt.” Askernish has never had a Donald Trump charge in with bulldozers, railroad ties and artificial rocks. Askernish has never had a pipe threaded through its flesh or had ball washers installed on its tees.

“You can’t get more sustainable than Askernish,” says Ebert, extolling its environmental virtues. “No irrigation. No pesticides. Natural application of fertilizer. Zero drainage. It couldn’t have been constructed for less or be less intrusive on the site.”

We should explain that Ebert is paying a quick visit to South Uist to collaborate on some design tweaks with Renaissance Golf’s Eric Iverson, who is somewhere out in the dunes at the controls of a small excavator. Ebert has been kind enough, during a stroll through the opening holes, to answer a few questions about the machair, the fabric from which his course has been woven. In the 3rd fairway, for example, he invited us to squat and examine the closely mowed turf. Doing so, we discovered that its vaguely green hue was actually a blend of colored stalks — a sort of botanical pointillism.

“There’s no pursuit of pure strains here,” Ebert said, drawing a contrast with modern courses that advertise zoysia fairways, bluegrass rough and bentgrass greens. A square meter of genuine linksland, it turns out, can yield up to 45 ­species — a riotous mix of fescue, red clover, daisies, buttercups, barley, eyebright, cotton grass, wild carrot, bird’s foot trefoil and orchids.

“You look at the colors on the greens, it’s just the same,” said chairman Thompson. “They’re simply nibbled closer.”

The 4th hole brought a further revelation. A solitary golfer, hitting from the fairway, launched a shoe-sized divot that tumbled through the air, landing soil side up. Noting the surprise on a visitor’s face, Ebert said, “It’s loamy.”

The soil, that is. It turns out that links ­courses, famous for their sandy underpinnings, do not all share precisely the same DNA. You have ­mineral-based sand on east coast links and shell-based sand on west coast links. The Old Course at St. Andrews can play as firm and fast as an artificial-turf infield, while Kingsbarns, six miles to the south, has a bit of spring to it.

Still awake? Sand grains from the Carne Banks in northwest Ireland, viewed through a microscope, are tiny round balls, which drain freely; a driver pounded on the turf produces a nice, resonant thump. A heathland course, on the other hand, might have a mix of round-grain sand and irregular, gap-filling sand; walk on that turf after a rain, and water will squirt from under your soles.

Askernish doesn’t have a microscope, but you don’t need one to figure out how this crazy-quilt machair got its blanket of rich topsoil. (Hint: Askernish was a farm.) Cattle and sheep have grazed upon these dunes for centuries, leaving manure as their gift to golf. The sea grasses and wildflowers, meanwhile, have flourished and wilted to rhythms of their own, bequeathing a nine-inch layer of decayed organic matter that retains enough moisture to sustain the plants during dry periods. Beneath this loamy layer is porous, high-shell-content sand, all the way down to bedrock.

If you didn’t grasp it before, you should get it now. The men of Askernish have been reluctant to dig up the machair because it is a perfect parfait, pun intended, of linksy minerals. They worry that Iverson, at the controls of his lurching excavator, will dig too deep, damaging the strata and changing the playing characteristics of the course.

“Whatever we do has to be sustainable,” says Thompson, watching Ebert wield an aerosol paint can on the 7th green. Instantly, a yellow dotted line indicates where the bowlike front of the green needs to be softened so that well-played run-up shots will no longer carom to the right. The dotted line resembles surgical site marks on a patient’s skin.

“With a budget of zero, we built a golf course,” Thompson says. “We built a clubhouse. We hired two staff members. And we’ve never borrowed a penny.”

He’s a garrulous man, but he falls silent now. The only sounds are the rumbling and the clanking of the excavator on the other side of the dunes.

The suspense is terrible,” said Oscar Wilde. “I hope it will last.”

It’s Day 3 of the Askernish renovation, a Wednesday. Overnight rains have left no puddles on the machair, but clouds come and go, and a cold wind darts about the dunes. The front half of the 7th green has been stripped of its sod by the turf-cutting team, and Iverson, in the cab of a five-ton excavator, is scraping up the topsoil and depositing it in three discreet piles. Judging from his intense expression, it is compelling work. But it is not compelling theater — not when it dawns on you that Iverson is moving dirt from one pile to the next so he can mine the topsoil under the first pile. He is, so to speak, sorting laundry.

“The excavator is basically a rake and a ­shovel,” Iverson says during a sandwich break. “It’s far less invasive than a rotavator or power tiller.” Still chewing, he climbs back into the cab.

On Thursday morning we start to see the artistry. Like a painter blending colors on a palette, Iverson has scraped up about three inches of sand and mixed it into the topsoil. “It’s like top-dressing,” he explains. “It helps with drainage.”

But he’s not a painter, he’s a sculptor. He drags his dirt this way and that, leveling here, digging there, manipulating his joysticks like a seasoned gamer. Over hours the prow of the green expands; it will henceforth be spacious enough for a front-left hole location. The bank in front, while still running diagonally away to the right, is perhaps a foot lower, the slope less severe. And somehow Iverson has tied the bank into the surrounding contours.

Come mid-afternoon, Iverson parks the excavator to the side and takes to the green with a wooden rake. He’s practically a cosmetician at this stage, erasing blemishes, restoring subtle contours, stepping back to see how things look from the fairway. He’s aided by a late-afternoon sun, which turns the flanking dune into a curtain of gold.

Finally, after minutes spent leaning on his rake, Iverson says, “I think we’re finished here.” Immediately greenkeeper Alan MacDonald and his crew begin the tedious process of resodding, kneeling on boards to press the grass slabs back into place, trimming with turf knives when necessary. They work through a sunset that turns the clouds pink, they work into the ice-blue gloaming under a crescent moon .&nbsp.&nbsp. and they finish in sunshine on Friday morning.

“It’s brilliant,” says club president Donald MacInnes, pulling off his grimy work gloves. “When the grass heals, nobody will know we touched this green. But it’s a better hole now. It’s an absolutely stunning par-4.”

Iverson has driven the excavator to the 11th green, so he doesn’t get to hear this. But the clubmen make up for it that evening when they gather for a few pints at the Borrodale Hotel. After a series of toasts — Well done, Eric! Cheers! — Alan MacDonald sits down to share something with Iverson. “I never thought using the excavator was a problem,” the Askernish greenkeeper says. “It was a question of finding the right operator. Because if you don’t have the experience.&nbsp.&nbsp.&nbsp.”

Iverson, understanding completely, flashes his best grin. “You simply didn’t want a cowboy out there.”

MacDonald nods sheepishly.

In the next installment of This Old Course we’ll examine the Irvine-Ebert routing to see how closely it conforms to Old Tom’s ghost course. And if we can hear him over the wind, we’ll catch Iverson opining that Askernish “doesn’t have to be the hardest course in Scotland.”