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Survival Course
John Garrity
July 26, 1999
On Gigha, a tiny island in the birthplace of golf, the game appears headed for a bad end
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July 26, 1999

Survival Course

On Gigha, a tiny island in the birthplace of golf, the game appears headed for a bad end

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Upon hearing of the Gigha golf quandary, the visitor is inclined to raise a skeptical eyebrow. This is Scotland, after all. The mythology of the game has the first courses emerging with virtually no help from man. Wind and rain, we are told, designed the Old Course at St. Andrews. Grazing sheep provided the daily maintenance.

But on Gigha an odd combination of factors makes golf difficult. The island has no linksland, the sandy soil that supports wispy turf grasses, a few hardy shrubs and little else. Instead, Brown and Wight built their course on rich, black loam. "It's an old farm, and unfortunately the ground's very fertile," says Bannatyne.

Then there's the economics of the place. The Gigha Golf Club has only 16 resident members, mostly lobstermen, scallop fishermen and farmers. They pay annual dues of £60 ($94). Another dozen "country members," most of them from Glasgow and Edinburgh, pay £55 a year. The remaining revenue comes mostly from hotel guests and visiting yachtsmen like Miller, who anchor off Gigha. With an annual income of about £5,000, the club can meet its fixed expenses, but there is no money for the unforeseen. Last winter, a storm on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) felled 150 trees at the Gardens, blew the roofs off several houses and flattened the course's clubhouse, which was little more than a shed to begin with. Brown built a new shelter using scrap lumber, but it is essentially a crate with a window.

Fixing the hydraulic mower is a more daunting and expensive task. Last year it cost the club £600 just to have its blades sharpened. A complete overhaul will bust the budget, and Brown isn't sure it's a sound investment. "What we really need is a set of gang mowers," he says, referring to the nonhydraulic, independently suspended cylinder mowers that most courses use to cut fairways efficiently. Unfortunately, a new gang mower costs up to £10,000, a used one half that—"for some secondhand, cast-off rubbish that probably won't work anyway," says Brown.

Have the islanders considered cutting the grass the old-fashioned way, with sheep? Yes, they have. In the winter, when the weather is too unpleasant for golf, a mainland farmer brings his flock over to dine on Gigha's fairways. But if sheep were kept year-round, the club would, by law, lose its right to the land—never mind what sheep would do to the greens. Says Brown, "If we don't find an answer soon, there'll be sheep for certain. It'll be golfers off."

With prospects so bleak, you might expect the islanders to fold their hand. Instead, they treat the failing course as they would an invalid parent, praying for a miracle cure. Bannatyne, whose day job is skipper of the car ferry, spent £200 of his own money for two old hand mowers. Straight off the job at 6 p.m., he's on the course, either to play or to mow. Sandra Howden drives the tractor for hours on end, convinced that Gigha golf offers the kind of pastoral experience the founding shepherds envisioned. "Nobody here bothers you if you're not dressed right or you want to share a set of clubs," she says. "It's a great way to learn the game without feeling that you're being watched."

On a recent weekend the How-dens mowed for hours, and by Sunday evening the first three holes were practically deflowered. The fairways, although still bushy by golf standards, stretched out green and pure, enticing a lone tourist to play. Bannatyne and a friend were out mowing the greens after dinner, enjoying the translucent light of the Hebridean sunset, which in July lasts for three hours. The bleating of sheep carried from surrounding crofts, and a cool breeze made the red flags flutter atop the flagsticks.

"The daisies are gone," said the tourist.

"Aye, but they'll be back tomorrow," said a resigned Bannatyne.

Down at the hotel, Brown had parked his red Peugeot and was resting on a bench, enjoying the sun on the back of his neck. For a man with five jobs he seemed remarkably unhurried, but his labors tend to be episodic. "The day my daughter got married, I got an emergency call in the middle of the reception. No water! The main supply was off. So there I was, in full tartan regalia, off to man the pumps." He laughed at the memory, which testified to his ability to handle everyday crises.

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