Naked Putting With Jennifer Lawrence! (I Mean, a Poet Laureate for Golf)

Billy Collins was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. He has taught at Lehman College, in the Bronx, since 1968, and he is a senior distinguished fellow of the Winter Park Institute, at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida. He’s also a golfer. This summer, he wrote to ask for advice about playing golf at Askernish, a restored Old Tom Morris course on the island of South Uist, off the northwestern coast of Scotland. I put him in touch with Ralph Thompson, the club’s chairman, and Collins visited with his fiancee, whose name is Suzannah.

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From Collins’s report:

Just back from the Western Isles to report a near transcendent golf experience at Askernish. When Ralph initially wrote back to me, he mentioned the upcoming Askernish Open, and after reading that sentence my heart sank with the assumption that I couldn’t play. But, as you might guess, his next sentence said he was entering me in the tournament.
Suzannah and I took the Oban car ferry (five-plus hours, two of gin rummy) and we drove to our hotel in the dark: the Orasay Inn, on the north end of the island. Next day was spent in churches and cemeteries doing some very unprofessional genealogical work (“Hey, here’s another MacIsaac!”) but not before a stop at the clubhouse, where Ralph said we could tee off straightaway, if we liked. But we had MacIsaacs to find. Next day, in the Open, I was paired with David Currie, a Toronto guy and an Askernish life member, who holds the golf club cack-handed — i.e., right one on top. Try that at the range.
All I can say about the course is that it is pure links, and therefore the purest golf experience I have ever had, never mind my 103, partially the fault of rented, steel-shafted clubs. Glorious weather. And between the eighth and sixteenth greens stood a truck, tailgate down, whose bed was filled with drinks (whisky) and little bite-size salmon things with tiny wedges of lemon on them. I wolfed down about six.

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Here’s one of my favorite of Collins’s poems. It’s the second best poem ever written about golf:

Night Golf
I remember the night I discovered,
lying in bed in the dark,
that a few imagined holes of golf
worked much better than a thousand sheep,
that the local links,
not the cloudy pasture with its easy fence,
was the greener path to sleep.
How soothing to stroll the shadowy fairways,
to skirt the moon-blanched bunkers
and hear the night owl in the woods.
Who cared about the score
when the club swung with the ease of air
and I glided from shot to shot
over the mown and rolling ground,
alone and drowsy with my weightless bag?
Eighteen small cups punched into the
bristling grass,
eighteen flags limp on their sticks
in the silent, windless dark,
but in the bedroom with its luminous clock
and propped-open windows,
I got only as far as the seventh hole
before I drifted easily away—
the difficult seventh, “The Tester” they called it,
where, just as on the earlier holes,
I tapped in, dreamily, for birdie.

The best poem ever written about golf was written by me. Well, I did have a co-author—Emily Dickinson—and on a percentage basis she wrote more of it than I did. But I did contribute the crucial word:

Golf is the thing with feathers—
That perches on the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.
Collins gave a terrific TED talk about poetry in 2012. You can watch it right here:

And you can read a poem he wrote about Askernish on the front page of the club’s website.

Reader’s Trip Report: Askernish Golf Club, South Uist, Scotland

Askernish satellite view

Askernish is on the island of South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, off the coast of northwestern Scotland. 

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I first visited in 2007, on assignment for Golf Digest, and I went back late the following year on assignment for The New Yorker. Getting to South Uist requires determination. In 2007, I flew from Inverness to Benbecula, which is one island to the north and is connected to South Uist by a half-mile-long causeway: 

causeway

In the air, I looked down, through breaks in the clouds, on the fjord-like creases that rumple Scotland’s west coast and on the waters of the Minch, the stormy channel that separates the Outer Hebrides from the Scottish mainland. The only other passengers were the day’s newspapers and two guys accompanying a load of cash for ATMs in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, where we stopped first. Here are the newspapers, in containers belted into the seats:

newspapers on plane

In 2008, I took a ferry from Oban, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Glasgow. The ferry sails three or four times a week and makes a brief stop at Barra, another island. I actually could have flown to Barra, although the flight schedule depends on the tides, because Barra’s runway is a beach:

Barra runway

The South Uist ferry trip takes about six and a half hours in good weather. We passed the islands of Mull, Coll, Muck, Eigg, Rum, Sanday, Sundray, Vatersay, Hellisay, Gighay, and Stack, among others. We also passed this lighthouse, on a tiny island called Eilean Musdile. It’s just off the shore of a larger island, called Lismore, which has a population of 146. The lighthouse was built in 1833:

lighthouse from ferry

Until 1974, cars on the South Uist ferry had to be loaded and unloaded with a crane, like freight; nowadays, you drive on and drive off. The ferry docks in Lochboisdale, a few miles from Askernish:

Lochboisdale harbor

The original course at Askernish was laid out in 1891 by Old Tom Morris. At some point, probably during the Second World War, most of Morris’s holes were abandoned, and until roughly a decade ago they were essentially forgotten. Since then, a plausible version of the old course has been restored, by a group that included Gordon Irvine, a Scottish golf-course consultant; Martin Ebert, an English golf architect and links-course specialist; Mike Keiser, the founder of Bandon Dunes; and Ralph Thompson, who used to be the manager of the island’s main agricultural supply store and now works full-time as the golf club’s chairman and principal promoter. Here are Irvine and Ebert, discussing the routing in 2008:

Irvine & Ebert

My New Yorker article about Askernish caught the attention David Currie, a reader and retired investment banker who lives on a small farm outside Toronto. (He’s front-row-center in the photo below.)  He first visited Askernish in 2010, and has since joined the club and returned two more times—most recently in June, for the first annual gathering of its “life members.” (I’m one, too, but couldn’t make it.)

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Currie also sent two photos of the course. Here’s the eighth hole:

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And here’s the sixteenth, Old Tom’s Pulpit, which is one of my favorite holes anywhere:]

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Currie writes:

I had always known that my roots were in the west coast of Scotland. Although my paternal grandparents came from the Glasgow area, I was aware that the Currie DNA was scattered along the coastal shores north of Glasgow. (Apparently, my ancestors slept around.) Other than that, I had little family history to go by. In 2011, Ralph Thompson mentioned that a Robert Currie had traveled to South Uist from New York to meet with the local council about erecting a memorial cairn acknowledging the contribution of Clan Currie to the cultural development of the island. I was present at the dedication of the cairn, in 2012:

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MacMhuirich was our original name centuries ago. And here’s a shot of my opportunistic wife, Liz, who never could resist a handsome man with his own whiskey bottle. Actually, the handsome man is Alasdair Macdonald, the owner of the croft where the cairn was erected:

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The Life Members Challenge was a Stableford. Currie came in second, one point behind Eric Iverson, an associate of the architect Tom Doak (who also played).

currie beer

Currie continues:
The initial six holes at Askernish can cause one to question what the fuss is all about. They are certainly quite nice, but nothing unusual or special. However, the WOW factor kicks in as you climb the dunes from sixth green to seventh tee and you stand there gazing out over the Atlantic Ocean. I thought I had died and gone to heaven, but I wasn’t about to allow that to happen, at least until I finished my round!

If you visit South Uist, drive carefully. Most of the roads are single-lane, and you have to share them.

sheep

Back-Roads Scotland: Askernish

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, May, 2007.

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, May, 2007.

In 1889, a twenty-one-year-old Englishman named Frederick Rea was offered a job running a small school on South Uist, an island in the Outer Hebrides, more than fifty miles off the west coast of Scotland. He didn’t recall having applied for the position, and when he accepted it his relatives thought he’d lost his mind. South Uist was windswept, treeless, and only intermittently accessible, and it was seldom visited by anyone from the mainland except a few wealthy sportsmen, who came to hunt and fish.

May, 2007.

South Uist, May, 2007.

Rea’s students were the children of crofters, or small tenant farmers, the island’s principal residents. The crofters subsisted mainly by growing potatoes and grain, raising starved-looking cattle and sheep, and gathering seaweed, which they used as fertilizer or sold. Most spoke only Gaelic. The children went barefoot year-round and often walked miles to school, even in snow, and on winter mornings each was expected to bring a chunk of peat for the schoolhouse hearth. The Scottish historian John Lorne Campbell wrote that South Uist in those days was so primitive that “the appearance of a pedal bicycle was sufficient to send the island’s horses and cattle careering in panic.” Yet Rea was captivated. He didn’t return to the mainland permanently until 1913, by which time his students had included two of his own children.

Rea's schoolhouse stood near this old house, South Uist, Scotland, December, 2008.

Rea’s schoolhouse stood near (and resembled) this old house. Garrynamonie, South Uist, December, 2008.

When Rea arrived, South Uist and several neighboring islands were owned by Lady Emily Eliza Steele Gordon Cathcart, a wealthy Scotswoman, who had inherited them from her first husband, who had inherited them from his father. She is said to have visited South Uist only once, but she made business investments, including the construction of hotels and commercial fishing piers. In 1891, probably hoping to make South Uist more attractive to wealthy tourists, she commissioned a golf course near a tiny farming settlement known as Askernish.

The view from my room at the Lochboisdale Hotel, which was commissioned by Lady Cathcart and opened in 1882.

The evening view from one of the guestrooms at the Lochboisdale Hotel, which was commissioned by Lady Cathcart and opened in 1882. Lochboisdale, South Uist, December, 2008.

Rea, the schoolmaster, played the golf course with a friend when it was new, and he described the experience in his memoir, A School in South Uist, which was published in 1927 and is still highly readable. Lady Cathcart’s factor, or estate agent, Rea wrote, “told me that a professional golfer from St. Andrews had been to the island and had specially laid out an eighteen-hole course along the machair near his house, expressing the opinion that this part was a natural golf-link course.” Machair is the Gaelic word for “linksland”; it’s the root of Machrihanish, and it’s pronounced mocker, more or less, but with the two central consonants represented by what sounds like a clearing of the throat.

The machair of Askernish, May, 2007.

The machair of Askernish, May, 2007.

The factor invited Rea and a friend to play the new golf course one Saturday, and they met at his house. “Here we found quite a small party assembled,” Rea wrote; “beside his wife and children were a young lady cousin from Inverness, two or three clergymen and two junior clerks. Introductions over, we selected balls and clubs.” Rea didn’t say so, but the St. Andrews professional who had created the course was the most famous golfer of his day, Tom Morris, Sr., better known as Old Tom Morris.

The house of Lady Cathcart's estate agent, mention by Frederick Rea in "A School in South Uist." Old tom Morris's golf course began not far from its door.

The house of Lady Cathcart’s factor, mentioned by Frederick Rea in “A School in South Uist.” Old Tom Morris’s golf course began not far from its door. Rea’s friend dismissed golf, initially, as “a silly, stupid game,” but both men quickly became hooked.  Askernish, May, 2007.

Lady Cathcart died in 1932. Her will included a provision for the perpetuation of the golf course. In 1936, a small airstrip was built near its northern end to accommodate wealthy tourists. (The passenger service was commercial but unscheduled; when a pickup was desired, the proprietor of a local hotel would send a homing pigeon to North Uist—the island still lacked telephones and, for that matter, electricity—and Scottish and Northern Airways would dispatch a plane.) Then the war came. The number of golfers dwindled. The course was reduced to twelve holes, then to nine, and the connection to Old Tom Morris devolved to legend. By 2000, what was left of the course was maintained by a small group of local diehards, who mowed the putting greens with a rusting gang mower, which they pulled behind a tractor.

Askernish Golf Course, South Uist, Scotland, May, 2007.

Askernish , May, 2007.

I first visited South Uist on assignment for Golf Digest during the spring of 2007, and I visited it again in December of the following year, on assignment for The New Yorker. My New Yorker article about Askernish, called “The Ghost Course,” was published in 2009. Below are some more photographs I took during those two trips.

Askernish, May, 2007.

South Uist doesn’t have an airport. On my first trip, I flew from Inverness to Benbecula, one island to the north. It’s connected to South Uist by a causeway, as is the island of Eriskay, at the southern end. The only other passengers on my flight were two bank couriers, who were accompanying a load of cash, for ATMs. All the other seats were filled with “Bennetts Seat Converters” containing the day’s newspapers:

South Uist doesn't have an airport. On my first trip, I flew from Inverness to Benbecula, one island to the north, and drove south, across a causeway. The only other passengers were two bank couriers, who were accompanying a load of cash for ATMs. All the other seats were filled with "Bennetts Seat Converters," containing the day's newspapers.

On my second visit, I took the car ferry from Oban. That trip took almost seven hours. We passed islands called Mull, Coll, Muck, Eig, Rum, Sanday, Sundray, Vatersay, Hellisay, Gighay, and Stack, among others. We also passed this lighthouse, on a tiny island called Eilean Musdile. It’s just off the shore of a larger island, called Lismore, which has a population of a hundred and forty-six. The lighthouse was built in 1833:

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Most of the roads on South Uist are a single lane, and you share them with sheep. There are frequent bump-outs for yielding to oncoming traffic. Resident drivers become adept at gauging each other’s speed, and often slip past each other without seeming to slow down:

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During my first visit to South Uist, I stayed at the Borrodale Hotel, about a mile and a half down the road from Askernish. The hotel’s laundry facility was just outside the door:

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My guide to Askernish was Ralph Thompson, who was born on the mainland in 1955 and spent summers on South Uist, where his grandparents lived. One reason he liked those visits, he told me, was that he was allowed to go for weeks without bathing, because his grandparents’ house, like almost all the houses on the island at that time, had no running water.

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His wife, Flora, was born on Barra, two islands to the south. Barra was even more isolated and primitive than South Uist, although today it has a small airport. Takeoffs and landings on Barra are scheduled to coincide with low tide, because the runway is a beach. Here’s one of the planes, which I photographed as it passed over Asknerish:

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At the time of my first visit, Ralph Thompson was working with two links-course experts—Gordon Irvine, who is a turf consultant and a former greenkeeper, and Martin Ebert, who is a golf architect—in an effort to restore Old Tom Morris’s course at Askernish. In the photo below, Irvine is on the left and Ebert is on the right, and the flag in the background marks what they had decided was probably one of the original green locations:

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I played all of the holes I could on that trip, and, with some of Ralph’s friends, helped test a few of the rediscovered ones:

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We often had to play around cows and sheep, which grazed on the same stretch of linksland:

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Even when there were no animals, the shot-making was challenging. This is a friend of Thompson’s:

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When I returned to Askernish in 2008, the golf course had begun to look and play much more like a real golf course. The green in the photo below was puttable, and it had a single-strand barbed-wire fence surrounding it, to keep cattle and sheep from trampling it:

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There isn’t much daylight in northern Scotland in December, but we had time for eighteen holes, and the weather was milder than the weather at home:

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Since then, the golf course has come a very long way—as you’ll see if you visit the Askernish website. Someday, I’ll go back.

My most recent round at Askernish, December, 2008.

My most recent round at Askernish, December, 2008.

Why a Golf Course is Not a “Links”

Rosapenna, Ireland, 2011.

Most people think of the word “links” as a synonym for golf course, but it’s actually a geological term. Linksland is a specific type of sandy, wind-sculpted coastal terrain—the word comes from the Old English hlinc, “rising ground”—and in its authentic form it exists in only a few places on earth, the most famous of which are in Great Britain and Ireland. Linksland arose at the end of the most recent ice age, when the retreat of the northern glacial sheet, accompanied by changes in sea level, exposed sand deposits and what had once been coastal shelves. Wind pushed the sand into dunes and rippling plains; ocean storms added more sand; and coarse grasses covered everything. Early Britons used linksland mainly for livestock grazing, since the ground closest to the sea was usually too starved and too exposed for growing crops. When significant numbers of Scotsmen became interested in smacking small balls with curved wooden sticks, as they first did in 1400 or so, the links was where they went (or were sent), perhaps because there they were in no one’s way. In some parts of Scotland, linksland is called machair, a Gaelic word. It’s pronounced “mocker,” more or less, but with the two central consonants represented by what sounds like a clearing of the throat. (Machair is the root of Machrihanish, a legendary links course on the Kintyre Peninsula, in western Scotland.)

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, 2007.

The major design elements of a modern golf course are the synthetic analogues of various existing features of those early Scottish playing fields, and the fact that golf arose so directly from a particular landscape helps explain why, more than any other mainstream sport, it remains a game with a Jerusalem: it was permanently shaped by the ground on which it was invented. Groomed fairways are the descendants of the well-grazed valleys between the old linksland dunes; bunkers began as sandy depressions worn through thin turf by livestock huddling against coastal gales; the first greens and teeing grounds were flattish, elevated areas whose relatively short grass—closely grazed by rabbits and other animals, and stunted by brutal weather—made them the logical places to begin and end holes. (“A rabbit’s jawbone allows it to graze grass lower than a sheep,” the Scottish links consultant Gordon Irvine told me, “and both those animals can graze grass lower than a cow.”)

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, 2007.

On the great old courses in the British Isles, the most celebrated holes often owe more to serendipity and to the vicissitudes of animal husbandry than they do to picks and shovels, since in the early years course design was more nearly an act of imagination and discovery than of physical construction. One of Old Tom Morris’s best-known holes, the fifth at Lahinch, in southwestern Ireland, is a short par 3 whose green is concealed behind a tall dune, so that the golfer’s target is invisible from the tee—a feature that almost any modern architect would have eliminated with a bulldozer. The greatest hole on the Old Course is often said to be the seventeenth, a long par 4 called the Road Hole, which violates a long list of modern design rules: the tee shot not only is blind but must be hit over the top of a tall wooden structure that reproduces the silhouette of a cluster of nineteenth-century coal sheds; the green repels approach shots from every direction and is fronted by a vortex-like circular bunker, from which the most prudent escape is often backward; a paved road runs directly alongside the green and is treated as a part of the course, meaning that golfers who play their way onto it must also play their way off.

The Road Hole, 2008.

Over the centuries, every idiosyncratic inch of the Old Course has acquired, for the faithful, an almost numinous aura. Alister MacKenzie once wrote, “I believe the real reason St. Andrews Old Course is infinitely superior to anything else is owing to the fact that it was constructed when no-one knew anything about the subject at all, and since then it has been considered too sacred to be touched.”

Royal Aberdeen, Scotland, 2008.