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It is a matter of argument, among the few modern-day Hebrideans who give a damn, whether Old Tom Morris actually laid out the golf course at Askernish, on the island of South Uist, as has been claimed. Old Tom was 70 years old in 1891, when the course he designed at Muirfield, near Edinburgh, opened. A journey west to the Outer Hebrides from Morris's home in St. Andrews, on the eastern coast of Scotland, involved rail, donkey cart and ocean steamer and required three days in fair weather, considerably more in foul. As it took only a few hours in those days to design a golf course—it was mostly a matter of the expert pointing at this hummock or that swale and directing someone to drive stakes into the sandy soil where the holes should go—it strains credulity that a gray-beard golf professional would tax himself so for a nine-hole course on such a remote island.
"But if he were a fisherman," a craggy old Scot offers, "Old Tom could have come to the Outer Isles for the salmon and brown trout and delegated the golf course to a lad."
Right. A lad.
Standing on the 1st tee at Askernish in May of last year, with soft green grass curling over the kilties of my golf shoes, I saw no evidence that Old Tom—or anybody, for that matter—had laid out a golf course, in 1891 or since. There were no fairways, no greens, no discernible hazards—just a flat meadow covered with dandelions and tiny daisies. Ahead were some high dunes; beyond, presumably, was the beach. Behind me, on a wire fence, hung a score of dead crows, their black beaks open and gleaming in the late-morning sun. Bits of dirty fleece dotted the turf.
"Where are you aiming?" my wife, Pat, asked. She was studying a pencil-drawn course map that had come with the clubs we had borrowed at the estate office.
I wasn't aiming. My plan was to belt a drive in the general direction of North America, find the ball and then pick an attractive target for my second.
"Someone's coming," she said.
There was the sound of an engine from the rutted gravel road behind us. A small pickup bounced through the gate, passed in front of us and parked near a sheep pen. Two young men jumped out and began unloading material—golf flags, tee markers, a mower. One of the men, a slight fellow with short black hair, waved cheerily in our direction. We waved cheerily back.
Mentally, I was making notes for a tournament yearbook: "The first hole at Askernish is a par 4 of indeterminate length and inscrutable shape, with trouble behind in the form of the North Atlantic and Newfoundland. The prudent shot off the tee is a hole in one, since any ball landing either in fairway or rough is inevitably lost. The green, while not severely undulating, is invisible. This accounts for last year's average stroke total for the hole of 24.2...."
My drive split the middle of the meadow and disappeared in daisies. Pat elected not to hit at all until she was sure we were on a golf course, so we set out together, Pat dragging a pull cart, me with my light nylon bag slung over my shoulder. The men waved again, and we waved back. The mower sputtered and roared to life, spewing smoke.