WILDERNESS GOLF, WESTERN ISLES, THE NEXT FRONTIER
The wilderness golf revolution might have already started. On balance we’d have to say the results have been stunning. Cabot Links in Newfoundland (a reclaimed mine works) Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania, and Bandon Dunes on the Oregon coast are all examples of golf pushing at this new frontier. Cape Kidnappers might be another. The movement seeks remote and unconventional locations, with the promise of building sympathetically to justify the incursion. It allows advocates to argue developments observe best available practice, albeit you might equally argue that adopting a higher level of conservational accountability in course design is little more than a pragmatic concession necessary to obtain a delicate planning approval, rather than any wholesale conversion on the part of architects and financiers.
A decade ago the conventional wisdom seemed to be that ‘eco’ golf courses would be the next design development paradigm. At Faraway Fairways we were never quite so convinced. Sure, environmental considerations might drive some dedicated ‘projects’, Scotland’s Machrihanish Dunes is a shining example. It’s probably fair to suggest as well that conservation issues would be woven into the web of design influences, but let’s be honest, green politics and golf aren’t natural bedfellows. In the name of pushing boundaries therefore we’ve come to the conclusion that the next frontier will be what we’ve termed wilderness golf
Machrihanish Dunes might have been unfairly assessed as an environmental project originally. It’s actually a very fine golf course in its own right, and is only now starting to get such recognition. Don’t overlook the fact it was designed by local architect David McLay Kidd as a labour of love. If you require some kind reassurance, then the knowledge that he also Bandon Dunes should suffice
– Image by Kevin Murray
On reflection, this geographic shift isn’t without precedent. The ancient golf courses needed to be built close to population centres. Personal mobility was a limiting factor. In effect, the course had to come to the people. It was only in the 1880’s with the opening of the railways that the number of Scotland’s links exploded. Troon, Turnberry and Prestwick resolve to this epoch. The next advance, motor cars, came later. This was critical to establishing the principle that the people could begin to come to the course. In doing so, it started to push back further the boundaries of the possible. New locations suddenly started to become feasible. It’s equally possible that expanding into wilderness areas will stimulate another spiritual release. The travel and the journey is perhaps starting to become part of the new age golf experience now?
Scotland is the only part of the UK that can lay claim to having wilderness areas, and hence capable of supporting a Wilderness golf offer. The western isles have remained relatively isolated and unspoiled for centuries.
A well-washed coastline, next to no pollution, and pristine white sands. The Caribbean? No, it’s the western isles of Scotland. (won’t make any claims for the water temperature though) –
Image under CC 2.0
The air is fresh and the bleakness only seems to add to the rugged beauty of the landscape. In fact Scotland has all the ingredients for wilderness golf courses, and sure enough, a brand new, world class links course is precisely what’s under construction at the moment on the Isle of Jura, population 180.
The reason we’re getting excited by the Jura development though, is that it’s offering us the beguiling possibility of an entirely new golf region in Scotland, that of the western isles. This involves linking together a string of pearls in remote breath-taking scenery using the network of ferries that serve the isles. From Askernish, 50 miles off the mainland on the island of South Uist in the north, all the way down the coast, in a beguiling Wilderness golf experience
Askernish – South Uist
Askernish is a remarkable story. In June 1891 “Old” Tom Morris travelled to South Uist at the request of the landowners to inspect the machair lands with a view to laying out a new course. Given his aversion to sea travel, this was mildly significant in itself. “Old” Tom eventually put down eighteen holes on the rolling dunes, declaring that the choice of links land available was “staggering.” Gradually however, the links fell into neglect. A nine hole layout was adopted.
In September 2005 a fateful telephone call was made by a one Gordon Irvine (Golf course consultant) who was trying to organise a fishing trip. Whilst discussing his plans it was mentioned a golf course lies upon the South Uist estate – apparently designed by a very famous architect. Gordon was sceptical of the story. However, he phoned the chairman of the club, Ralph Thompson. When Ralph told him the club had been designed in 1891 by “Old” Tom Morris, Gordon was unbelieving! But Ralph was insistent, and provided proof of “Old” Tom’s visit. Gordon came to Uist on the 5th of December, and couldn’t believe the quality of the land and turf, exclaiming he had found “the holy grail”. Ralph, Gordon, and greenkeeper Colin MacGregor investigated the area the original course was believed to have lain. Gordon declared that if a group of volunteers could be assembled the course could be restored back to its original state. The club enthusiastically accepted his proposal and the Askernish restoration project was born.
On the Atlantic island of South Uist, Askernish would have claims for being one of the bleakest landscapes in golf. This is serious wilderness
The club’s aim was for the course to remain as authentic to its 1891 condition as possible. This included allowing cattle and sheep to graze the land during the winter months and the prohibition of all artificial fertilisers or herbicides. This move received plaudits from environmental bodies who declared Askernish “the most natural golf course in the world”. The course was fully complete and opened on August 22nd 2008.
Worth giving on honourable mention to the nine holer at Traigh. The course can be played coming from Skye or South Uist as the ferry docks at near-by Mallaig
– Image courtesy “www.traigh.co.uk”
Machrie – Islay
The name of Islay normally brings a smile to the face of any whisky buff. Knowledgeable golfers find themselves purring with appreciation too. The Machrie is one of the few examples anywhere on the planet of a great traditional links course which has been preserved for 120 years in its purer form. Golfer’s have to improvise and really work hard at the ever changing nature of the challenge offered by this acclaimed layout. The links turf on which the course was built is among the finest in Scotland, and the setting in a magnificent Hebridean bay, on dramatic sand dunes makes for one of the most wildly beautiful, yet peaceful locations in world golf. Greatestgolfcourses.co.uk rank Machrie in their top-20 for Scotland.
Wild and windswept, yet tranquil and beguiling. Machrie is actually a top, top golf course, criminally overlooked because of its remoteness
Ardfin – Jura
The routing at Ardfin will be arranged in two loops along the edge of a series of elevated bluffs. There will be spectacular views across the ocean from every corner of the property. Designed to cause minimal disturbance to the coastal landscape, the holes will be ‘dropped’ onto existing fields, and constructed without substantially modifying the form of the land. The course will preserve all of the existing burns which cross the fields, and the large areas of particularly sensitive wilderness. Ancient stone walls on the site are being incorporated into the design, while new walls along with the stunning cliffs will dictate the strategy for many holes by asking players to choose a brave line if they hope to reach a short par 4 or gain a better angle of approach.
We have to be concerned however that Ardfin might become a very exclusive private club along the lines of Skibo Castle, Loch Lomond, or the Renaissance Club. Unlike some areas that can absorb the occasional ‘off-limits’ course, the Western Isles would struggle to do so. It could be the missing piece to a whole new world though, and that’s frustrating in the pursuit of a distinct Wilderness golf region for realistically, we can’t really consider that Ardfin is available to us
Machrihanish & ‘Mach Dunes’ – Kintyre Peninsula
The Machrihanish courses are located on mainland Scotland, albeit on a peninsula of land that behaves like and island. The Machriahanish golf club is a world top-100 ranked links, famed for it’s opening hole. It features a drive over the beach towards the sanctuary of the fairway beyond. Bite off too much of the angle though, and your second shot could easily find you on the beach.
Faraway Fairways regard the neighbouring Dunes course as a stroke of genius. We’re occasionally asked which links is most faithful to that which the pioneers of the game faced. We usually offer Mach Dunes, despite it’s recent vintage, as our answer. The routing, as well as the positioning of tees and greens, were dictated by the lay of the land – and the presence of several endangered species of flora and fauna. Because of the fragility of this pristine coastal environment the course was built and maintained with the lightest touch possible. Of the 259 acres on which it sits, only seven, were disturbed during the construction of the course. Only the tees and greens were shaped. The fairways upon which golfers tread are just as they were found, only mown shorter and assisted by the two flocks of sheep that have grazing rights. Get it? This is golf for the absolute purist.
Shiskine – Arran
Shiskine might be a mere 12 holes, but it would be a catastrophic error to downgrade it for this. The course overlooks the Kilbrannan Sound and the Mull of Kintyre. It has been described as ‘a topographical roller coaster’ as it is very testing and quirky with spectacular elevation changes. Blind shots and wickedly sloping greens are quite normal. Two burns cross the course and should the wind be blowing expect some serious combat from which you will do very well to emerge unscathed.
The third and fourth at Shiskine are spectacular. This course would be a staple of package tours were it on the mainland
– Image by Hamish Ballantyne, www.shiskinegolf.co.uk
Royal Troon – Mainland Scotland
The Kintyre Express has the capacity to ‘put in’ at Troon… well it would impolite not to. Alternatively the regular ferry sails between Brodrick and Ardrossan in less than an hour. Ardrossan is only 10 miles north of Troon. Royal Troon, Prestwick or Trump Turnberry are all feasible finales to a Wilderness golf trip though we’d have to accept that the integrity of the theme will have broken by the time you’re playing any of them. Think of it as a reward for completing
Faraway Fairways Plans
We would really like to ‘get this on’ as it could be a seriously special tour. In addition to the golf, other legitimate attractions fall into the Scottish jigsaw including Loch Lomond, Glencoe, Glenfinnan, and the Isle of Skye. With Islay, Jura, and Campbeltown all featuring, it hardly needs stating that there’s a whisky theme too, as well as a beautifully wild landscape.
We’d never previously considered the possibility of a Scottish ‘golf cruise’ amongst the Fjords and Islands of the Hebredies, but in honesty? this is feasible. Sure it will require a lot of organising and planning, but we like that! We also have enough knowledge of the area to appreciate it’ll be worth it too. To some extent, a lot will depend on just how the new Ardfin course on Jura evolves. This single investment possibly holds the key. All being well, wilderness golf comes to Scotland! and we’d love to bring it to you. We’re genuinely excited by this next frontier