The machair was now dotted with flags. The daisies had been cut, giving the place the appearance of a small-town municipal course in America.
Another surprise: a golfer, preparing to strike his ball from the 1st tee.
He introduced himself as Steve Peteranna, general manager of the Dark Island Hotel on the island of Benbecula, 17 miles to the north. Peteranna, in his 30's with dark, curly hair and a mustache, wore jeans and a handsome wool sweater. He was descended, he said, from an Italian carpenter who had been shipwrecked on the island in the 18th century.
We played together for an hour or so—indolent, meandering golf under a high blue sky. Peteranna knew his way around the course and helped make sense of my scrawled course map. There were only nine greens, he said, but alternate tees offered various angles of attack to make up 18 holes. "There used to be another green out there." He pointed to some dunes along the beach. "Rabbits ruined it."
I had heard about the rabbits. They had so overrun the course in the 1960s that the desperate crofters had infected them with a virus called myxomatosis. "That just about made them extinct," Peteranna said of the rabbit virus, which promoted runaway skin tumors on the animals. "The rabbits died a long, slow death."
The rabbits were on the rebound, thanks to a belated ban on germ warfare. On the 4th green, Peteranna addressed his putt, glanced at the hole and then backed away. There were two holes, inches apart—one man-made and one the apparent result of tunneling under the machair. From a few feet away they were indistinguishable.
When Peteranna left to go back to work at the hotel, I had the course to myself. I played several balls, stopping occasionally to look back toward the mountains. I strolled along the edge of the machair and enjoyed the sea air. Along the beach, the dunes fell off as if cut with a knife, leaving low cliffs. Birds swooped and pecked at seaweed. Waves lapped gently at the sand.
Was this the machair as Morris had found it in 1891? I continued to be puzzled by the relative lack of features, the land's docility. A modern architect, looking at Askernish, would order up a half dozen bulldozers to give it that "genuine Scottish links" look.
There was also the mystery of the soil itself. Linksland, we are told, is hard and bumpy. At St. Andrews, instead of divots I left mere bruises on the fairway; at round's end, my wrists and elbows were sore. But here at Askernish, the ground was green and yielding. My pitching wedge cut the machair as cleanly as a turf knife and threw up Augusta National-like slabs of grass.
But the biggest mystery, as I told Pat at dinner a few hours later, was the missing 14th tee. "It's not there," I said. "I looked."