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Back-roads Scotland

Continued (page 2 of 5)

The village of Boat of Garten (population 700) was named for a nearby river ferry, long since put out of business by a bridge. The region is a major summertime destination for bird watchers, among others; Loch Garten, a nearby lake, is part of a nature reserve. The golf course -- known locally as "the Boat" -- was designed in the early 1900s by James Braid, who also designed the wonderful Kings and Queens courses at Gleneagles. There are four clocks on the wall above the counter in the golf shop; they give the time in Boat of Garten, Pebble Beach, Augusta and the United Arab Emirates. I paid £32 and, because no one else was around, teed off by myself.

The Boat's first hole, which runs past a station of the Strathspey Steam Railway, is a so-so par 3, but the second is a terrific par 4, and many more terrific holes follow. On the fourth, I caught up to Andy and Pat, a retired couple from Aberdeen, and played the rest of the way with them. Andy had lured Pat to the course by assuring her that it was flat, and he did penance for this significant untruth by helping to pull her trolley up the steeper hills, of which there were many. (He had already lightened his load by leaving about a third of his clubs at home.) We had to wait on the 11th tee for a slow group ahead of us, and as we did an old man on a tiny, one-person motorized golf cart came into view behind us. He was wearing a broad-brimmed hat, leather boots, a green jacket, brown plus fours and long, yellow socks. "That may be Willie Auchterlonie himself," Andy said, and when the old man caught up to us I asked him how long he'd been a member. "Fifteen years," he said -- a deeply disappointing answer, Andy and I agreed later.

Although spontaneity was an important theme of my trip, I did cheat a little. During a work-avoidance Google session at home, before I left, I came across the website of a remote Scottish golf club called Askernish, on the island of South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, a wind-swept and sparsely populated archipelago off the country's west coast, and decided that I ought to visit it. I learned from the website that Old Tom Morris had designed the original Askernish course, in 1891, but that the holes had later been abandoned. Locals still play golf on the site, a stretch of pristine linksland on the island's Atlantic coast, but no photograph or record of the old layout has survived. In fact, the connection with Morris had largely been forgotten until a few years ago, when the club's chairman, a storekeeper named Ralph Thompson, found a reference in an old golf publication. (The course is also mentioned in A School in South Uist, a good book by F.G. Rea, an English schoolmaster who taught there between 1890 and 1913.) Thompson is now leading an effort to restore the "ghost course," remnants of which have been discovered among the dunes.

I communicated with Thompson by e-mail before I left the United States, and the day after I played Boat of Garten (as well as a nearby course, called Grantown-on-Spey, which Andy and Pat had recommended), I took off for the Outer Hebrides from the little airport at Inverness, near the northern end of Loch Ness. The only other passengers were two bank couriers, who were accompanying a shipment of currency. The plane's remaining seats were occupied by storage compartments loaded with the islands' consignment of that morning's newspapers.

Thompson -- who is 52, and had accurately described himself to me as the largest man I was likely to encounter in the Outer Hebrides -- met me at the airport in Benbecula, the island just north of South Uist, to which it is connected by a causeway. We waited there for two other visitors: Martin Ebert, a golf architect from England, and Gordon Irvine, a course consultant and master greenkeeper, who grew up in Turnberry. Ebert and Irvine are in their early 40s and are links specialists, and the fact that their trip coincided with mine was a lucky accident. They had come to walk the course, which they had been working on for more than a year, and to take GPS readings of tee and green locations. "This project is the absolute chance of a lifetime," Irvine told me later. "The course has never been butchered, and it's an example of how golf really did start. It's the first exhibit in the golf museum, really." Everyone working on the Askernish restoration is a volunteer, except for Ebert, who, for symbolic reasons, is being paid the same fee Old Tom Morris received for designing the original course: £9.

I spent two nights on the island, and very happily played three rounds on Ebert and Irvine's proposed layout while carrying just four clubs. None of those clubs was a putter: The course didn't really have putting surfaces (or fairways) when I played it, and I had to hit around several dozen grazing cattle and sheep. Fifteen of the holes did have tee boxes and flags, though. All 18 holes had names, because Thompson and half a dozen other Askernish regulars had named them a few months earlier, during a beer-assisted meeting in the bar of the Borrodale Hotel, just down the road from the course. They had decided, for example, to call the seventh hole Cabinet Minister, the name of a wrecked ship in Whisky Galore!, a late-1940s British comic novel and movie. (In the United States, the movie was released as "Tight Little Island.") Whisky Galore! is based on the true story of a World War II supply ship (real name: S.S. Politician), which ran aground near South Uist while carrying a cargo that included more than 250,000 bottles of whisky. Islanders rowed to the wreck and salvaged the booze, then hid the bottles in chimneys and rabbit holes, and stayed drunk for months. I played one of my Askernish rounds with a local man who said that his father was 10 years old at the time of the wreck and was given a bottle of whisky by his (thoroughly inebriated) father, who told him, in effect, to bring himself up.

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