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In June 1891 "Old" Tom Morris accompanied by his companion Horace Hutchinson travelled to South Uist at the request of the landowners to inspect the machair lands with a view to laying out a new course. "Old" Tom eventually laid out eighteen holes on the rolling dunes of Askernish Farm, although he declared that the choice of links land available was "staggering." Horace mentioned the trip in a magazine called "Golf", the forerunner of "Golf Illustrated", for which he was to contribute regularily over the next thirty years.
The pair continued their journey, moving north to Stornoway to inspect a new course which had been completed the year before.
During its early years the course would have been used to entice visitors to the island, as a form of sport to be enjoyed along with the traditional persuits of fishing and shooting. We know from Frederick Rea's book "A School in South Uist" that some of the residents were regular players but these would have been mostly confined to the local clergy, doctors and teachers. It was maintained by local farm workers using scythes - they were also seconded as caddies for the visiting gentry.
Askernish farm was adopted into crofting tenure in 1922 and a lack of consistent maintenance led to the course's general decline until Scottish and Northern Airways started a regular air service from Renfrew to Askernish in 1936.
Simon MacKenzie of Lochboisdale Hotel was in charge of the aircraft bookings and he commissioned a resident of the hotel named Derek MacReadie to lay out a 12 hole course using the flatter area of the machair which incorporated the landing area for the aircraft - this area was maintained easily by the grasscutting machinery used to keep the runway in trim. Derek MacReadie was a notable amateur golfer and avid fisherman who made the annual pilgrimage to Lochboisdale Hotel for the excellent sport on offer.
The air service continued until 1938, by which time Benbecula had become the main airport for the islands - Askernish was used only "on demand" or for landings by the newly formed Air Ambulance service. Post World War Two the course was used regularily by visitors, although the condition declined due, once again, to lack of regular maintenance.
The next significant development was the arrival of Dr Kenneth Robertson to South Uist in 1956. He was an enthusiastic and excellent golfer who immediately saw the potential of the course and, ably assisted by his wife Asp, worked tirelessly in reviving the membership and encouraging the youth of the island to adopt the sport. A rocket range had recently opened in the northern part of the island and this brought an abundance of army personnel and construction workers who had a passion for golf. A portacabin was used for a clubhouse and a new layout was designed and adopted in 1970 which had nine holes and eighteen tees. The seventies were the glory years of the club with large numbers of players and fiercely fought competitions which revolved around an excellent social scene. Dr Robertson left the island in 1982 and with the decrease in construction work and the numbers of resident army personnel the course once again fell into decline.
The nineties were a decade of mixed fortunes for the club. The course only remained playable due to the determination and endeavour of a few locals until the idea of building a new clubhouse sparked some life into the club. The idea collapsed as no grant funding could be found: the club had no title deeds to the proposed site. The situation was so bad that at one point a vote was taken on whether or not to disband the club. Michael MacPhee, Donald MacInnes, Allan (A.C) MacDonald, Iain Francis MacPhee, Peter Steele and Neil Elliot are all to be commended for their efforts in keeping the club alive during this period.
In 2002 a retired policeman, Colin MacGregor, arrived in Uist. An enthusiastic golfer with plenty time on his hands, he started a daily routine of grasscutting and eventually managed to create an excellent playing surface throughout the nine holes. This generated enthusiasm, and a healthy nucleus of players were participating in competitions until an eventful phonecall in September 2005 brought about the "Restoration Project"
An estate office in Girvan, September 2005 - Gordon Irvine (Golf course consultant) was trying to organise a sporting trip for himself and friends. Discussing his plans with factor, Tim Atkinson, it was mentioned a golf course lies upon the South Uist estate - apparently designed by a very famous architect, and though much modified over the years, still with much potential. Having never heard of this course, or even of South Uist, Gordon was sceptical of the story. However, urged by the factor, Gordon phoned the chairman of the club, Ralph Thompson. When Ralph told him the club had been designed in 1891 by golfing legend "Old" Tom Morris, Gordon was unbelieving! But Ralph was insistent, and after providing proof of "Old" Tom's visit, persuaded Gordon to visit the island to survey the course at Askernish.
Gordon came to Uist on the 5th of December, and although the weather was atrociously wet, he couldn't believe the quality of the land and turf, exclaiming he had found "the holy grail". Ralph, Gordon, and greenkeeper Colin MacGregor investigated the area the original course was believed to have lain. Gordon declared that he had never seen better land for a links course and suggested that if a group of volunteers could be assembled the course could be restored back to its original state. The club enthusiastically accepted his idea and began discussing how to raise finance for the project.
The following March, Gordon returned to the island with Martin Ebert (Architect), Chris Haspell (Greenkeeper) and Adam Lawrence (Editor, Golf Course Architecture). Aided by a group of club members the team plotted their way through the machair area, using "Old" Tom's design principles to retrace what they believed to be the original eighteen holes. That evening Martin produced a plan on his laptop, and this provided the basis for restoration work to start! The day after the party left a group of members played the complete original course - with no fairways or greens cut - they did not have to use great imagination to realise what a fantastic course was possible. Martin's original plan has been slightly modified since, but the basic area and layout remains much the same as plotted out over eight hours that lovely March day.
Colin was at this point the club's only greenkeeper, and over the summer spent every spare moment developing the 'new' fairways and greens, while simultaneously maintaining the existing course. The members very quickly decided they preferred to play the restored layout, even with basic fairways and unputtable greens - so it was decided to abandon the modified layout (Drafted by club dignitary Dr Robertson) and concentrate entirely on "Old" Tom's original work.
By December 2007 the club had received planning permission for all works on the course, although not without some resistance from a few local crofters who believed the club were trying eliminate livestock from the machairland. This was entirely untrue, being as the club's aim is for the course to remain as authentic to its 1891 condition as possible. This includes allowing cattle and sheep to graze the land during the winter months. It also includes the prohibition of all artificial fertilisers or herbicides. This move received great plaudits from environmental bodies who have branded Askernish "the most natural golf course in the world".
Winter of 2007 saw eighteen holes and seventeen fairways in place, with work ready to start on the 12th a dramatic double fairway. The course was fully complete by the end of May the next year, and the official opening was scheduled for August 22nd 2008. This time allowed the new greens to properly mature, but visitors were encouraged to use the course during the summer anyway.
The Opening day saw over 100 competitors and dozens of press, media, locals and well-wishers flock to the club where, under blue skys, they were greeted by club Chairman Ralph Thompson, and Honorary President Kenny Dalglish. On the first tee dressed in a kilt, Club Captain Donald MacInnes hit the opening tee-shot of the restored Askernish course. A finely-struck hickory iron.
To fund the ongoing works, which at one point were employing as many as five men, the club enlisted the help of Malcolm Peake, a links golf enthusiast and friend of Gordon Irvine. With his contacts he managed to produce a leaflet which was distributed worldwide with the aim of selling life memberships to fund the ongoing work. Malcolm has worked tirelessly for Askernish, and his contribution shall always be remembered. He, Gordon Irvine and Martin Ebert were installed as the first ever Honorary Life Members of Askernish Golf Club, as a recognition of the great deal of voluntary work they have done. Angus Glen Golf Club in Toronto, Canada, and Ransomes Jacobsens Machinery have both provided sponsorship and the club thanks Gordon Stollery and David Withers for their support.
The ongoing development of the course at Askernish continued in 2009, with the continued support of our Architect Martin Ebert, and Course Consultant Gordon Irvine MG, along with fresh support from Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keizer and American Architect Tom Doak, the ‘fine-tuning’ of the restored course continued with the re-siting of our 6th and 17th greens.
The club remains indebted to all those who have supported the restoration project and the select group of individuals who have supported it through becoming a Life Member. If you are interested in becoming a life member, supporting the ongoing restoration of our unique golf course, and having a place in the remarkable history of Askernish Golf Club. Please visit our Membership page.
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