The 4th hole brought a further revelation. A solitary golfer, hitting from the fairway, launched a shoe-sized divot that tumbled through the air, landing soil side up. Noting the surprise on a visitor's face, Ebert said, "It's loamy."
The soil, that is. It turns out that links courses, famous for their sandy underpinnings, do not all share precisely the same DNA. You have mineral-based sand on east coast links and shell-based sand on west coast links. The Old Course at St. Andrews can play as firm and fast as an artificial-turf infield, while Kingsbarns, six miles to the south, has a bit of spring to it.
Still awake? Sand grains from the Carne Banks in northwest Ireland, viewed through a microscope, are tiny round balls, which drain freely; a driver pounded on the turf produces a nice, resonant thump. A heathland course, on the other hand, might have a mix of round-grain sand and irregular, gap-filling sand; walk on that turf after a rain, and water will squirt from under your soles.
Askernish doesn't have a microscope, but you don't need one to figure out how this crazy-quilt machair got its blanket of rich topsoil. (Hint: Askernish was a farm.) Cattle and sheep have grazed upon these dunes for centuries, leaving manure as their gift to golf. The sea grasses and wildflowers, meanwhile, have flourished and wilted to rhythms of their own, bequeathing a nine-inch layer of decayed organic matter that retains enough moisture to sustain the plants during dry periods. Beneath this loamy layer is porous, high-shell-content sand, all the way down to bedrock.
If you didn't grasp it before, you should get it now. The men of Askernish have been reluctant to dig up the machair because it is a perfect parfait, pun intended, of linksy minerals. They worry that Iverson, at the controls of his lurching excavator, will dig too deep, damaging the strata and changing the playing characteristics of the course.
"Whatever we do has to be sustainable," says Thompson, watching Ebert wield an aerosol paint can on the 7th green. Instantly, a yellow dotted line indicates where the bowlike front of the green needs to be softened so that well-played run-up shots will no longer carom to the right. The dotted line resembles surgical site marks on a patient's skin.
"With a budget of zero, we built a golf course," Thompson says. "We built a clubhouse. We hired two staff members. And we've never borrowed a penny."
He's a garrulous man, but he falls silent now. The only sounds are the rumbling and the clanking of the excavator on the other side of the dunes.
The suspense is terrible," said Oscar Wilde. "I hope it will last."
It's Day 3 of the Askernish renovation, a Wednesday. Overnight rains have left no puddles on the machair, but clouds come and go, and a cold wind darts about the dunes. The front half of the 7th green has been stripped of its sod by the turf-cutting team, and Iverson, in the cab of a five-ton excavator, is scraping up the topsoil and depositing it in three discreet piles. Judging from his intense expression, it is compelling work. But it is not compelling theater—not when it dawns on you that Iverson is moving dirt from one pile to the next so he can mine the topsoil under the first pile. He is, so to speak, sorting laundry.