Old Tom Morris Course Unearthed on Tiny Island

“Old Tom” Morris is one of golf’s mythic characters. The man who served as one of golf’s major transition figures – taking a game played on rough-hewn pastures and putting it on “designed” courses with a finite number of holes – truly modernized the sport.

So it was with considerable amazement that a course designed by Old Tom Morris was recently discovered on the tiny Hebridean island of South Uist. Thanks to the research efforts of noted greenskeeper (as superintendents are called in the U.K.) Gordon Irvine, one of Morris’s 18-hole links layouts was found underneath the nine-hole Askernish Golf Club on this remote isle.

Like a fading artistic masterpiece, the ancient course will be painstakingly restored to its former glory. The hope is that golfers from around the world will travel to South Uist to play an original "Old Tom," while also helping to transform the island’s economy.

Irvine learned of the course while on a fishing trip to South Uist. One of only 41 people in the world with a Master Greenkeeper certificate, Irvine soon contacted some of the world's best-known golf course architects and greenkeepers to invite them to take part in the restoration efforts. One of those is Martin Ebert, a golf course architect who has designed 60 courses in 16 countries.

"It's like finding the Holy Grail," Irvine told reporter Calum MacDonald of The Herald. "I honestly didn't believe it was a Tom Morris course when I first heard about it, but I've since seen the newspaper cuttings of the time."

Old Tom Morris, so called because he had an equally famous son who bore the same name, was an accomplished golf champion, course designer and club-maker. He helped establish the Open and placed second in the inaugural competition in 1860. Morris played in every Open for the next 36 years, winning four times.

Besides being the Open’s oldest winner at 46, he is considered the father of modern greenkeeping and is responsible for standardizing the golf course length at 18 holes. He was also quite an architect, having designed 69 courses, 52 of which are in Scotland, including such shrines as Muirfield, Prestwick, Carnoustie and Royal Dornoch.

He designed Askernish in 1892, making it the oldest course in the Western Isles. But the course was neglected and a nine-hole course was eventually laid out over it. Irvine and a team of volunteers traveled to South Uist in early March 2006 and staked out the old Morris course in preparation for its restoration this May.

The team Irvine assembled is made up of volunteers who are waiving their usual fees for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to reveal a forgotten links course designed by an old master. Askernish Golf Club is currently approaching golf associations and the European Union for the funding needed for the restoration. It’s also awaiting approval from the Askernish Common Grazings Committee before proceeding with the work.

One of the volunteers is Chris Haspell, an Englishman who is considered the leading greenkeeper in Denmark. "This course has no less than 16 signature holes; most courses can only boast one,” said Haspell. "Having this resource should help the local juniors and could even spawn a new Tiger Woods on the islands."

If all goes well with the rejuvenation of Askernish, golfers from around the world may be looking at an atlas and talking with their travel agents about making a sojourn to South Uist in the Outer Hebrides.