The Sublime Askernish

Deal W. Hudson

I had just finished my second experience of the three-day Askernish Open at the restored 1891 Old Tom Morris course in the Outer Hebrides on the island of South Uist.

As in the previous year, I was completely exhausted but completely exhilarated by my three days of walking, climbing, trudging the fairways, greens, rough, and dunes of that rugged course. I had played great golf courses before — many of the top 100, in fact — but I was struggling to figure out why this course seemed to be one of a kind, as it were. Why did Askernish stand out to me among courses like Pine Valley, Shinnecock Hills, Cypress Point, The Old Course, Royal County Down, Winged Foot, Seminole, Pebble Beach, Sand Hills, etc.

Bear in mind I’m not alone in wondering about the greatness of Askernish. It was the advocacy of noted sportswriter John Garrity that helped to draw me there in the first place by naming Askernish the #1 golf course in the world.

Then I recalled, having taught philosophy for many years, a essay written by Edmund Burke in 1757. Burke is best known for his defense of political liberty, but this essay is one of his most original because he distinguishes between the experience of the beautiful and what he calls “the sublime.” The beautiful, according to Burke, is simply what pleases our senses. But the sublime is something more: It has beauty, for sure, but also imparts an element of fear. The sublime is the beautiful that feels dangerous.

Thus in the experience of the sublime we are drawn by beauty to something that overawes us and reminds us of our fragility and even our mortality.

All golfers are familiar with fear — the fear of their own failure to make a good stroke, hole a putt, compete under pressure. They are also well aware of the fear facing them by an out of bounds, a lake, a creek alongside the fairway, a sand trap. But these fears are not drawn from an encounter with the sublime, such as the view from the 5th tee at Askernish. A 556 yard par 5 starts from an elevated tee overlooking the ocean to the right and looks down on a fairway that sweeps upward from left to right towards a green barely visible in the distance set between two dunes. The gradual, and deceptively steep, rise and the sensual bend of the fairway looks as if their lines were drawn by an artist’s hands. Its length intimidates, into the wind it can paralyze, and the golfer knows at that by going across any of its edges the ball will likely be lost or, if found, moved only by a savagely descending wedge.

Once on the fairway the green comes into view with a front edge as round and smooth as a bowling ball. It must be cleared but then the pin appears to be on ground sloping away: What to do? How to clear the edge but keep the ball on the green? Into the wind, the problem is clearing the edge; downwind the problem is stopping it, because the “deep stuff” lies just behind.

The 5th fairway is wide by any objective standard, but in the half dozen times I’ve played it, I’ve found myself to the left or the right many times, and I was not alone. The visual sublimity of the hole incites even the most grooved swing to go awry and the slightest miscalculation of a well-struck shot can catch the rough on the right or bound into the rough on the left where the fairway near and below the green slopes away along hard ground.

The 5th hole is typical of the Askernish layout, not because of its length but because of the challenges posed by what, a first glance, should be a fairly easy holes. At the 5th hole the fairway is wide and, except for the imperious green position, should be reachable in three shots by most golfers. The pitches, undulations and subtle humps of the fairway and greens can send the ball, well-struck or not, into harms way. Once past the first cut, balls are rarely found.

Add to these elements a factor that players of links golf don’t need to be reminded of — weather — the 6000 yard Askernish can leave you feeling as if you’ve played 7000 yards, or more. Weather on the links becomes as important to the striking of the ball as any other consideration, affecting everything from club selection and line to the intended ball flight. It wasn’t until I started playing the links of Scotland and Ireland, some fifteen years ago, that I found out what kind of golf game I really had, and what the game really was about.

But there is another factor, not just inherent to links golf, but to all golf that golfers may not take into account — the pressure the pressure they feel, or the anxiety, created by the sheer beauty of a golf hole. By this, I mean, at an unconscious level the golfer would no more want to ruin the beauty of a golf hole with the white tracings of a duck hook than he would ruthlessly drag a key across the side of a jet black BMW. Golfers may consciously become aware of this, however, when they carefully place their, often oversized, divots back into the mark they left on a pristinely green fairway. “I sinned against the beauty of this hole,” I will sometimes say to my fellow players after an errant tee shot. Some get it, some do not, at least consciously.

But the sublime golf hole imparts to the senses an even a greater challenge: The 5th at Askernish, like the labyrinthine par 5 12th, brings the danger of a sin against beauty explicitly into a golfer’s mind: He or she knows this hole is dangerous — possessing a seductive beauty yet potentially deadly. Perhaps what I have learned from playing Askernish this year, and winning there this, is a lesson in how to deal with that seductiveness, that fear of losing my confident stroke in the face of such attractive grandeur.

I will return to Askernish — what will draw me back will be the opportunity to stride again over those 18 holes, overcome by their awe but adding to their sublimity with shots that rise and fall through the sky finding their fairways and greens, as well as pitches and putts that trace a faithful line toward their proper end, the cup.

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