The 'Lord of the Isles' took a further five and a half hours before it eventually docked a little after seven that evening. We were tired and hungry, in need of food and sleep.
The decision was simple; eat at our place of residence for the night, the Polochar Inn (last food orders 8.30pm), or play golf until sunset and go to bed on empty stomachs.
Later that evening we were feasting upon a 3-course meal... it consisted of a packet of midget gems, an emergency tin of tuna (ring pull of course) and an over-ripe banana that was found at the bottom of one of our golf bags. Over ‘dinner’ we were recounting the greatest golfing experience we'd ever had. Welcome to Askernish.
It takes a strong will and a lot of determination, as well as plenty of planning, to reach Askernish Golf Club on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. It’s very much a journey into the unknown. But if you have the desire and a love for pure, undiluted links golf it’s a voyage you simply must make. I repeat, you simply must make.
For it is here you will find beautifully raw golf distilled to its origins; a mix of simplistic brilliance and crazy genius.
Other options for reaching Askernish include a flight to the Islands of Benbecula or Barra (the famous beach landing) but we decided to take the slow boat and let the anticipation build gradually.
Regardless of how you get there, one thing for sure is that doing so in the 21st Century is a lot easier than it was in 1891 when Old Tom Morris first visited and laid out the original golf course at Askernish. That course sadly became neglected and went into decline before it was effectively lost to the ages and Mother Nature. That was until just after the turn of the millennium when a group of volunteers, experts in their field, attempted to restore Old Tom’s masterpiece.
Have they succeeded? You bet they have!
A little bit like the journey itself Askernish starts at a relatively slow pace before gathering momentum and building to a climax that effectively takes place over the bulk of the course; a run of holes from the 7th to the 16th that we simply dubbed ‘The Stretch’.
The opening hole exhibits the simple brilliance of Askernish; a shallow dog-legging par five that has acres of fairway to the left but requires a drive tight to the right in order to shorten the route to a raised green that sits proudly on the skyline and slopes from left-to-right. Similar style holes are to follow at the fifth and sixth; uncomplicated sagacity.
The second and third holes will be remembered for their incredible green complexes – a trait throughout at Askernish - whilst the fourth is arguably the pick of the holes on the initial third of the course. Along with the other opening holes it is amidst the flatter part of the course, however, some inland sandhills allow for an exposed hole along a dune ridge to a pulpit green. A glimpse of things to come.
After completing the first six holes you scale a dune towards an elevated tee close to the shore from where you can literally smell and taste the ocean as it pounds on the rocks below. The hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. The transformation in landscape is profound. You are now stood on the precipice of rolling duneland that stretches for an eternity before you. Another leap into the unknown beckons.
The seventh hole is a thing of true beauty. From the exposed tee you can see the full length of the hole running through a valley flanked by dunes and a fairway that narrows and falls dramatically at around the 200 yard mark giving those who find this slope an additional 30 yards on their drive. And it is likely you will need this extra distance in order to reach a devilish raised green, agonisingly narrow at the front and only accepting of the truest approach.
At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that the seventh could be the crescendo of the round. However, as it ultimately transpires this mesmeric par four is merely the prelude for a run of high octane holes that border on eccentric wizardry and provide pulsating golf that you are unlikely to have experienced anywhere else… or will again.
The more exposed eighth keeps the momentum going with a short par four that has another mercurial green complex as well as the first bunkers you encounter on your round. A deep and deadly ravine must be carried or skirted on the tee shot as you continue to follow the coastline. The form of the game you are playing, strokeplay or matchplay, may dictate your strategy on this potentially driveable hole that is fraught with danger.
Then Wham! For me the ninth hole at Askernish is its crowning moment. The point of understanding. A marker post at the end of a billowing fairway is your only guide from the tee on a hole that boasts a backdrop of glistening ocean for the drive. It then blindly dog-legs sharply to the left as you play across and over a huge hollow to an angled, almost island-like, green that is wider on the left, appears to favour a running approach from the right but teasingly falls away from you, deterring a lofted means of attack. Longer hitters on the tee-shot may risk cutting the corner to find the large but unseen depression, cut at fairway length, for a much shorter and visible second shot to the raised green but in reality this pitch is just as taxing. The hole delivers so many options from tee, fairway and green. The hole delivers on so many different levels.
At this point you have descended into a truly unworldly experience. A true golfing nirvana. Yet deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole you go.
The 10th is another fine driving hole with a green site that helps rather than hinders your approach whilst the brilliant par-three 11th requires a long carry to a green that touches the water’s edge. Having completed this hole you make a magical walk along the top of the dunes towards the 12th tee perched above a deserted beach. A moment here allows you to reflect and savour the experience you are currently enjoying. My advice; give yourself some time at this point to drink it all in.
The 12th itself is perhaps the one hole visitors will remember the most, another epic hole. It’s a par five that has dual fairways. Take the easy option from the tee down the generous right fairway and the hole immediately becomes a three-shotter, your second shot likely to be blind over a large dune, or risk driving to the left fairway, a carry of over 200 yards to a narrow cascading strip of land that gives a better view of the green and the shortest route to the flag. A huge gaping bunker, the third of just four I counted in total, protects the green and must be negotiated whichever way you decide to go.
Hole 13 returns to the more straightforward element of Askernish as it skirts the inland side of the course before gradually rising to another sloping green. It’s a breather hole for sure but a welcome one because the respite doesn’t last for long.
The 14th is another supreme par three that falls away at both sides as well as the front; a hole that got better and better each time we played it. The 15th and 16th both have tough tee-shots to humpbacked fairways which you must find if you are to have a shot at the bamboozling green complexes that work so well in the grand scheme of things and use the natural contours of the land perfectly. The punchbowl nature of the former favours a hard-fading approach whilst the latter is simply surreal and must be seen to be believed; named Old Tom’s Pulpit the green now actually sits behind the tiny pulpit approach but is significantly raised itself at the front with two dells towards the rear. It portrays the notion that the man himself may be up there overseeing the present-day course. I think he would approve.
You have now completed the finest run of holes I genuinely think you will play anywhere. The ‘Stretch’ doesn’t really have a signature hole; there is an autograph book full of them. At times it leaves you speechless.
The real beauty on this sequence of holes is that Askernish gives you all the pieces of the puzzle but allows you to solve it in your own imaginative way. The options are endless.
The 17th and 18th holes gradually retreat from the duneland and ease you home in the form of a par three and a boomerang-shaped par five that completes an anti-clockwise loop of the course. Despite the final two holes allowing time to come down from the inevitable high you still walk off the final green in a daze and wonder if it was all real.
On reflection there are two different courses being played at Askernish. The plainer and more transparent holes like the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th, 13th, 17th and 18th; subtle yet alluring. And the deeply complex holes found between seven and 16. Admittedly you don’t have to go to Askernish to play holes like the former batch; there are enough top links courses in the UK where you will find plenty of these type of stellar holes. But you do need to go to Askernish to experience the latter.
As you would expect, the ground game is very much alive at Askernish. The buffeting wind dictates that a low ball is usually required from the tee and a running approach is nearly always favoured into the greens, however, one thing you realise fairly quickly is that this isn’t an overly fast-running course. The grass - the ‘machair’ - is stickier in texture, more receptive, and doesn’t quite have the run-out that is synonymous with traditional links courses in the British Isles.
It makes the course play longer than its 6,259 yardage but also means that the rough at Askernish is very dense and leaves little chance of recovery. I personally like rough that allows you to find the ball but gives you that element of uncertainty on how it will come out. At Askernish you could literally hear a wayward shot being chewed up by the rough, never to be seen again. The juicy nature of the grass meant that finding a ball, even just off the admittedly wide fairways, was extremely difficult and if found extraction was your primary concern. I understand that the rough thins out during the winter months and becomes more playable but on our visit in August it was brutal.
That said, I loved the minimalistic nature of Askernish which is undoubtedly the most authentic golf course I have ever played and where you are literally at the mercy of the elements. The untouched nature of the course is so refreshing. It’s probably the only place where you walk down a fairway littered with huge rabbit holes and you don’t even blink an eye. We played Machrihanish Dunes, dubbed as the most natural course in the world, later the same week and that felt positively manicured in comparison.
We didn’t have a scorecard for our first two rounds (of three in total), nor are there any yardage indicators on the course, and we refused to use our distance measuring devices; we simply relied on our own judgement. How refreshing that was.
Please don’t go to Askernish expecting quick-paced greens that putt like billiard cloths either. The amazing and perpetually undulating contours of the greens wouldn’t allow that anyway. The surfaces are rudimentary at best; slow and a little rough but surprisingly they actually roll relatively true and there is still an undeniable art and skill involved in getting the ball down the hole. Did it detract from the experience? Not one iota. Personally, I wouldn’t have had them any other way and Askernish is a great reminder that golf doesn't have to be perfect, to be perfect.
The story behind the re-birth of Askernish is almost as fascinating as the golf it produces. It’s seriously worth taking the time to Google and read about it from people who can tell the story much better than I ever could. Keywords for your search include; Gordon Irvine, Martin Ebert, Ralph Thompson, Adam Lawrence, Chris Haspell, David Owen and John Garrity.
A question I know that I will get asked is; ‘Does the remoteness and journey to get to Askernish influence your opinion of the actual golf course?’
This isn’t actually a difficult question to answer because, although there’s no denying that the adventurous expedition and outpost location are part of the entire experience, the golf course itself more than stands up to the highest scrutiny and deserves to be seated at the top table. It's the most underrated golf course I know.
Askernish is a golf course like no other. A place your life will be better for having visited. Beyond words. Beyond brilliance.
PS: And if you don't believe the story about the tin of tuna... here’s the proof.
The above review was originally written in 2014, however, I returned to Askernish in August 2021 to compete in their very popular Open Weekend.
They say that great courses get better with repeated plays and following a further three rounds I can say that Askernish has only gone up in my estimation! The depth and complexity of holes such as the 7th, 9th, 11th, 12th and 16th are simply unsurpassed whilst some of the quieter holes (2nd, 3rd, 6th & 18th) are even better than I remember.
The condition of the greens has improved too and were at a point where the roll and trueness was better than other courses I've played this year and the slowish nature only emphasises the amazing green contours. I stand by the claim that this is a truly great golf course, arguably the best in the British Isles (seriously!).
Some magazines have now started to include Askernish in their rankings but they are still pitifully low. I'm certain the day will come when it is placed amongst the upper echelons.
It's a long time since I've walked off a golf course and been as impressed and surprised, compared to what I was expecting, than at Newbiggin.
A family holiday brought me to Whitby Golf Club. After stuffing myself with fish & chips, losing most of my money on the penny slots and catching umpteen crabs in the harbour it was time for a round of golf!
Planning a round of golf in late October can be a dicey affair, especially in my home county of Yorkshire where the vast majority of courses are built on heavy soil or clay, so it was very refreshing to discover when venturing down south how well East Berkshire played at this time of year.